Warning: “Toxic Charity” In Your Community

What Americans avoid facing is that while we are very generous in charitable giving, much of that money is either wasted or actually harms the people it is targeted to help.

Giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people. We mean well, our motives are good, but we have neglected to conduct care-full due diligence to determine emotional, economic, and cultural outcomes on the receiving end of charity. Why do we miss the crucial aspect in evaluating our charitable work? Because, as compassionate people, we have been evaluating our charity by the rewards we receive through service, rather than the benefits received by the served. We have failed to adequately calculate the effects of our service on the lives of those reduced to objects of our pity and patronage.

This is the premise that underlies  Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help by Robert D. Lupton, community strategies expert and founder/president of Focused Community Strategies (FCS) Urban Ministries based in Atlanta.  With numerous first-hand accounts as well as solid facts and figures about the unintended affects charity has on the poor or system of poverty, Lupton champions a better and more faithful way to care for “the least of these” (Matthew 25:31). It’s a revolutionary book that shifts the paradigm on how many of us have viewed our relationship with the poor and the vision of our call to serve those in need.

Through the lens of the church where I serve as associate pastor for Mission & Outreach (and Youth Ministry) I was pleased to discover that there were many things we are doing that are healthy. But I also encountered passages that were convicting of some of the toxic charity we do practice, albeit unintentional of course. That’s the point of the book. We, especially those in the Church, don’t realize how much harm our good intentions cause.  Even when we’ve served in good faith and with a solid scriptural and theological understanding of Jesus’ command to care for the poor, we still can and do make huge mistakes!  A synopsis of the book on the FCS website puts it this way:

The poor end up feeling judged, looked down upon, only worthy of charity and handouts that end up making them more dependent instead of learning skills to help themselves…a better system would be to treat the poor as business partners, empowering them to start businesses, build houses, plan communities, etc. He offers specific organizations as examples of this healthier model of charity and gives practical ideas for how to get involved in service projects that truly help.

I won’t go into the examples Lupton shares to support his point but once you read them, it’s hard to ignore that Lupton is on to something here about the toxicity of our mission work and givingBut more revealing is the idea that we can turn our toxic charity into transformative charity, according to Lupton.  There is, the author says, hope for doing mission work in such a way that the poor are truly empowered to rise above their poverty and contribute their own gifts to the betterment of the world and God’s kingdom. Lupton suggests that true change begins by adopting what he calls “The Oath For Compassionate Service”:

* Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.

* Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.

* Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.

*Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.

* Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said–unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.

* Above all, do no harm.

In addition to explaining each of these points in detail, Lupton also proposes that we also need to evaluate our mission ministries and ways of giving (to determine their toxicity) by asking the following questions:

* Does the proposed activity strengthen the capacity of neighborhood residents to prioritize and address their own issues?

* Will the proposed activity be wealth-generating or at least self-sustaining for the community?

* Do the moneys generated for and/or by local residents remain at work in the community?

* Does the proposed activity have a timetable for training and transferring ownership to indigenous leadership?

If the answer to some or most of these is “no,” then there is a lot of work to be done. The solutions Lupton offers are definitely daunting and challenging but also practical and doable.  This is a book that is worth picking up for yourself if you are a church leader and recommending to your church’s staff and mission committee or members actively involved in mission work in the community.  I recently grabbed a few copies for our church’s staff, the three elders on the Mission & Outreach Committee and a long-time member who helps coordinate the church’s Adult International Mission Trip.

Already we’re finding God changing our hearts and minds through Lupton’s wisdom and experience and are beginning to enter into some thoughtful and caring conversations. I look forward to sharing more of what we end up doing different in our mission work as a church. So what about you, dear reader…

If you or members of your church or non-profit have read Toxic Charity, how has your perspective on “giving” changed?

In what ways have you unintentionally contributed to “toxic charity” as an individual or as a church or non-profit?