Toxic Charity, and the Challenge of Serving the Poor – My Takeaways from the book

Extremely harsh, malicious, harmful…


There is nothing better than the desire to help others, especially when the motives are pure and noble and selfless.   But, pure and noble motives do not guarantee the needed and best outcome.

Toxic CharityThat is the premise behind the full-fledged warning in the book Toxic Charity: How the Church Hurts Those They Help and How to Reverse It by Robert D. Lupton.

I have just prepared a synopsis of this book for a nonprofit/philanthropic organization in Indiana.  It was a good book to read, and it raises one important question very effectively – “what is the best way to invest our time and resources in our efforts to help others?”

Robert Lupton has spent 40 years in ministry, (the book is written from a Christian perspective), and he has grown frustrated – even distraught – at so much “wasted effort.”

The book includes lines like these:

The compassion industry is almost universally accepted as a virtuous and constructive enterprise. But what is so surprising is that its outcomes are almost entirely unexamined.

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.

WHO WOULD FAULT THE MOTIVATION of compassionate people to help those in need? Certainly not I. It is not motivation, however, that we are questioning but rather the unintended consequences of rightly motivated efforts. Negative outcomes seldom make it into the inspiring reports of service projects and mission trips.

Here are some excepts from my synopsis handout from the book:

• Reflections prompted by the book:

#1 – Charity creates dependency.  Thus, charity disempowers its recipients, and does not lead to lasting improvement.
#2 – “Distribution” of charity “emasculates,” disempowering fathers especially…  and, ultimately creates resentment among the recipients.
#3 – Empowerment, and development, need to replace charity.
• Let the “recipients” be the leaders, deciding what needs to be done.
• Let the “recipients” be owners (e.g., food co-ops, with “small” dues, are better for the folks “served” than food pantries just giving away food).
#4 – Noble motives do not always translate into effective outcomes…
#5 – There is only so much to go around (so much money; so much time).  Put any and all money and time available to the very best use possible – do not waste money or time on that which does not make the right kind of lasting impact.

• Mr. Lupton strongly endorses this 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.

• Here is The Continuum of “Help” in the midst of emergency:

• The first stop, relief.
• Second stop, rehabilitation.
• Third stop, development.
• Development work is long term. It seeks to improve the standard of living for a population over many years or decades.
• Community development is a methodology designed to transform the poor, their families and their communities in sustainable and holistic ways.

• And, here are my takeaways:

1.  Short term “help” is not enough – especially, over the long-haul.
2.  Once the “emergency” is past, actions like what is practiced/provided in cases of “short-term help” can be counterproductive – it can even do more harm than good…
3. “Betterment’ needs to be replaced by “development.”
4. (R.M.’s metaphor) – Development requires something akin to coaching.  The people being developed need to play the game themselves.
5. Those who serve must do so for “the good of the others” sake, not for their own sake…
6. Those who serve need, especially in the development phase, to be present — a while – a long while – before they “solve.”  First they listen, then they “facilitate” far more than they “dictate…”
7. In other words, the goal is something akin to self-sufficiency for those in the community, not dependency on others.  Especially dependence on those providing “charity.”  For this to happen, the people have to lead, work, discover, be (become) responsible for themselves

There are so many good books to read about the challenge of good, effective, serving, selfless work for and among the poor.  I strongly recommend The Working Poor by David Shipler (here’s one of many blog posts I’ve written, prompted by this exceptional book), and The Wealth of the Poor by Larry James (here’s my review).  Toxic Charity is one to add to this important ongoing conversation…


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