Toxic Charity | Notes & Review

Robert Lupton. Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help. HarperOne, 2011. (191 pages)

toxic charity

Chapter One: The Scandal

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. (2-3)

…it may be hurting more than helping. How? Dependency. Destroying personal initiative. When we do for those in need what they have the capacity to do for themselves, we disempower them. (3)

Many people legitimately fault the government for decades of failed social programs, and yet frequently we embrace similar forms of disempowering charity through our kindhearted giving. And religiously motivate charity is often the most irresponsible. (4)

Giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people. (4)

Why do we miss this 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. (5)

To be sure, not all charitable response is toxic. The immediate outpouring of aid in times of catastrophe is inspiring and lifesaving. (6)

But our compassion instinct has a serious shortcoming. Our memory is short when recovery is long. We respond with immediacy to desperate circumstances but often are unable to shift from crisis relief to the more complex work of long-term development. Consequently, aid agencies tend to prolong the “emergency” status of a crisis when a rebuilding strategy should be well under way. (6)

When relief does not transition to development in a timely way, compassion becomes toxic. (7)

Perhaps, like the medical profession’s Hippocratic Oath, the charity profession will adopt an “Oath for Compassionate Service” to guide us toward providing responsible and effective aid. (8)

My hope is that the following chapters will point the way toward more careful and effective directives for our compassion, to the end that the interactions between the rich and pour may be redemptive — never toxic — for either group. (9)

Chapter Two: The Problem with Good Intentions

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. (11)

Often, though, we miss the big picture because we view aid through the narrow lens of the needs of our organization or church  — focusing on what will benefit our team the most — and neglecting the best interests of those we would serve. | Even when we believe that serving others will at the very least change us, early research by Kurt Ver Beek of Calvin College and Robert Priest of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School suggests that service projects and mission trips do not effect lasting change. Within six to eight weeks after a mission trip, most short-term mission-trippers return to the same assumptions and behaviors they had prior to the trip. (15)

Contrary to popular belief, most mission trips and service projects do not:

  • empower those being served
  • engender healthy cross-cultural relationships
  • improve local quality of life
  • relieve poverty
  • change the lives of participants
  • increase support for long-term mission work

Contrary to poplar belief, most mission trips and service projects do:

  • weaken those being served
  • foster dishonest relationships
  • erode recipients’ work ethic
  • deepen dependency

Some Christians argue that short-term service trips whet the appetite for long-term mission involvement. Research, however, does not support this claim. (16)

Anyone with a business background (or even street smarts) would agree that the amount spent on service trips is extravagant when compared to the monetary value of the actual work done. But when people with business backgrounds enter service work, they repeatedly fail to bring with them their common sense and business acumen, defaulting to traditional charity models. (17)

…if the money spent on travel, lodging, food, and staff time were directly invested in the people being served, far more could be accomplished with greater effectiveness. (18)

Unselfish self-investment may be freely offered with no expectation of repayment. It may not seek credit. It may even be anonymous. But unselfish investment should:

  • never be mindless
  • never be irresponsible
  • always calculate the cost
  • always consider the outcome
  • always be a partnership

Again and again we are finding that when it comes to global needs in organizational development and human development, the granting of money creates dependence and conflict, not independence and respect. By changing the equation to other means of exchange, we find that we are empowering people based on shared responsibility, mutual support, and accountability. – Ron Nikkel, president of Prison Fellowship International

Chapter Three: The Anatomy of Giving

Giving is no simple matter, not if giving is to be ultimately redemptive. (31)

In moments of silent introspection, I observed my part in the anatomy of giving: I expected gratitude in exchange for my free gifts. I actually enjoyed occupying the superior position of giver (though I covered it carefully with a facade of humility). (34)

This thorough look at the anatomy of my charity eventually exposed an unhealthy culture of dependency. (35)

Now, everyone is getting in on the charity train, from rock groups to youth groups, from TV celebrities to elementary-school children, from Fortune 500 corporations to campus fraternities. And across the board the benevolence business is almost entirely unexamined. | Doing for rather than doing with those in need is the norm. Add to  it the combination of patronizing pity and unintended superiority, and charity becomes toxic. (35)

Decades of free aid from well-meaning benefactors has produced an entitlement mentality and eroded a spirit of entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency. The outpouring of more aid, though necessary to preserve life in a time of disaster, is ultimately worsening the underlying problem. (36)

The reality is aid has helped make the poor poorer and growth slower. Aid has been, and continues to be, an unmitigated political, economic and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world. – Dambisa Moyo, Dead Aid

When Justice and Mercy Meet. Mercy is a force that compels us to acts of compassion. But in time mercy will collide with an ominous, opposing force. Injustice. (40)

Act justly. Justice is “fairness or reasonableness, especially in the way people are treated or decisions are made.”

Love mercy. Mercy is “compassion, kindness, or forgiveness shown especially to someone over whom a person has power.”

Twinned together, these commands lead us to holistic involvement. Divorced, they become deformed. Mercy without justice degenerates into dependency and entitlement, preserving the power of the giver over the recipient. Justice without mercy is cold and impersonal, more concerned about rights than relationships The addict needs both food and treatment. The young woman needs both a safe place to sleep and a way out of her entrapping lifestyle. Street kids need both friendship and jobs. (41)

Mercy combined with justice creates:

  • immediate care with a future plan
  • emergency relief and responsible development
  • short-term intervention and long-term involvement
  • heart responses and engaged minds

There is no simple or immediate way to discern the right response without a relationship. (48)

And if you don’t have time to invest in forging a trusting relationship, give your money to a ministry that does. (49)

Chapter Four: Needs vs. Relationships

Cure without care is like a gift given from a cold heart. Charity that does not enhance trusting relationships may not be charity at all. (51)

…sometimes when we work so hard to develop efficient systems of charity, with clearly posted rules, we overlook the costs in human dignity. In doing so, we develop toxic relationships. Even when the toxic nature of the relationship is brought to light, those invested in traditional models of giving resist the call to change. (54)

Food in our society is a chronic poverty need, not a life-threatening one. And when we respond to a chronic need as though it were a crisis, we can predict toxic results: dependency, deception, disempowerment. (56)

“Why do we persist in giving away food when we know it fosters dependency?”

Because it’s easier! It costs much less in time and money to run a food pantry, and that’s what the churches want! Churches want their members to feel good bout serving the poor, but no one really wants to become involved in messy relationships.

For some reason healthy people with hearts full of compassion forget fundamentals when it comes to building relationships with those they attempt to serve. Forging ahead to meet a need, we often ignore the basics: mutuality, reciprocity, accountability. In doing so, relationships turn toxic. (57)

Relationships built on need are seldom healthy. There is an implicit expectation (at least a hope) that the recipient of charity will use that assistance to better himself. The immediate predicament may pluck at one’s heartstrings, but if it persists, the tune in time goes sour. No one wants to support irresponsibility. Or create dependency. Or feel used. Unless the victim of misfortune exerts honest effort to regain self-reliance, the relationship between helper and helpee will tend to deteriorate. At some point accountability is required. The lack of full disclosure opens the door to suspicion and mistrust. Communication becomes strained. The recipient feels controlled by the strings attached by the giver, and the giver feels deceived by the recipient’s lack of candor. The relationship eventually dissolves. | Relationships built on need tend to be short-lived. (60)

Relationships build on need do not reduce need. Rather, they require more and more need to continue. (61)

Trust is the foundation of all human relationships. (61)

What if we asked ourselves “What outcomes would we actually like to see from our charity?” and then began to restructure our giving to produce those very results. … But the will to change our traditional charity systems — now that is the real challenge. (63)

Chapter Five: Beyond Us-Based Giving

This chapter offers a deeper look at the compassion business, exploring who benefits from the industry and how self-interest influences even decisions made by worthy institutions. (65)

But there is one area that seems to have eluded the ethical scrutiny of the church — perhaps because the practice is so pervasive or because the claims seem so spiritual. Look at most any promotional package for a mission trip and you will get the distinct impression that lost, starving, forsaken people have their last hope riding on the willingness of U.S. church groups to come and rescue them. (68-69)

Our “you can save them” rhetoric may be effective spin. … But the overwhelming majority of our mission trips are to places where the needs are for development rather than emergency assistance. And development is about enabling indigenous people to help themselves. This requires a longer-term commitment, not the sort of involvement that lends itself to short-term mission trips. (69)

Mission trips have value. They open up new worlds, new perspectives, new insights. They expose us to fascinating cultures, connect us with new friends, allow us to experience God at work in surprising ways, inspire us, break our hearts, build camaraderie among traveling companions. Any one of these benefits might well justify the time and expense. But isn’t it time we admit to ourselves that mission trips are essentially for our benefit? Would it not be more forthright to call our junkets “insight trips” or “exchange programs”? Religious tourism would have much more integrity if we simply admitted that we’re off to explore God’s amazing work in the world. (69)

A Balanced Portfolio. If we are serious about significant impact, the missions we invest in must produce measurable results. And to achieve measurable change in the lives of the poor and the communities they inhabit, focused, not diversified, investment is required. (76)

When the vision is right, people rise to a worthy challenge. When the leadership is committed to outcomes rather than activity, to measurable results rather than budget size or number of engaged members, changes in mission focus can be navigated with an acceptable level of disruption. (78)

Everything depends upon the lens through which we view reality. An institutional lens focuses on efficiency, accessibility, client-hours, cash flow, market share (i.e., a thriving business). A community lens visions curb appeal, mothers pushing strollers, appreciating property values, safe parks, good schools, local businesses (i.e., a thriving community). Both views of reality are legitimate though seldom compatible. Each flourishes in different space. But because institutions (business, government, social, or religious) are often powered by big dollars, more often than not the community is backed into a defensive posture. (83)

Chapter Six: No Quick Fixes

Top-down charity seldom works. Governments can give millions, rock bands can do benefit concerts, ex-presidents can champion causes, and churches can mobilize their volunteers. But in the end what takes place in the community, on the street, in the home, is what will ultimately determine the sustainability of any development. (85)

Aid has been, and continues to be, an unmitigated political, economic, and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world. – Dambisa Moyo

Moyo…urges aid recipients to do the following:

  • Get off aid.
  • Promote entrepreneurship.
  • Promote free trade.
  • Invest in infrastructure.
  • Secure reasonable loans, not grants.
  • Encourage stable homeownership

…her message is unmistakably clear…

  • Don’t subsidize poverty.
  • Reinforce productive work.
  • Create producers, not beggars.
  • Invest in self-sufficiency.

Hurry Is the Enemy of Effectiveness.

For disadvantaged people to flourish into their full, God-given potential, they must leave behind dependencies that impede their growth. Initiatives that thwart their development, though rightly motivated, must be restructured to reinforce self-sufficiency if they are to become agents of lasting and positive change. (102)

Chapter Seven: Wise Giving

Buffett was joined by Bill and Melinda Gates on the CNN show, where they offered their personal philosophies on responsible giving:

  • R&D is vital.
  • Invest in success: sound business principles also are good principles for responsible charitable investing.
  • Focus on your passions.
  • Investigate the best practices of those in the field to determine what works.
  • Create a prototype to test new approaches.
  • Record the process.
  • Document the findings.
  • Tweak the methods.
  • Replicate successes.

Like these billionaires, we also can conduct a detailed assessment of our current benevolence portfolio:

  • Is it yielding good returns?
  • Is it consistent with our passions?
  • Does it reflect our values about relief vs. development?
  • Is it invested on the cutting edge?

Due diligence is the cornerstone of wise giving. (106)

Controlling the Lake. Feed a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime. It’s conventional wisdom. | But what happens when the fish disappear from the lake due to pollution or overfishing? | Then it’s time for a change of strategy. Someone has to figure out how to get control of the lake: stop the pollutants, issue fishing licenses, put wildlife-management policies in place. Teaching a man to fish is an individual matter; but gaining control of the lake is a community issue. (108)

A good community developer is both curious and entrepreneurial. (110)

Chapter Eight: Take the Oath

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.

The effective helper can be an encourager, a coach, a partner, but never a caretaker. (129)

  • give once and you elicit appreciation
  • give twice and you create anticipation
  • give three times and you create expectation
  • give four times and it becomes entitlement
  • give five times and you establish dependency.

Such charity subtly implies that the recipient has nothing of value the giver desires in return. (130)

Community Development Fundamentals. Community development is a discipline, a school of thought, a unique approach to transforming underresourced neighborhoods or villages. (137)

Community development is a methodology designed to transform the poor, their families and their communities in sustainable and holistic ways. The following are some of the principles that guide this effort:

  1. Focus on community
  2. Focus on assets
  3. Focus on “front-burner” issues
  4. Focus on investing
  5. Focus on leadership development
  6. Focus on pace — don’t get ahead of the people

A popular misconception is that collaboration is the key to community development. Essential as collaboration may be, it is simply not sufficient to effect community transformation. (142)

I’ve been around neighborhoods, neighborhood organizations, and communities in big cities for thirty-six years. I have never seen service systems that brought people to well-being, delivered them to citizenship, or made them free. – John McKnight, founder of Asset-Based Community Development

Community development’s aim is to strengthen capacity rather than focus on providing services. (145)

Chapter Nine: Service with Dignity

Made in the image of God, we are created with intrinsic worth. And anything that erodes a rightful sense of pride and self-respect diminishes that image. (147)

Do you know what it’s like to have people look down on you like you’re poor, like you need help? I know they’re just trying to be nice but, damn, they insult you and don’t even know it! Like one lady mentioned to me and Tamara how clean our house was. I guess she thought it was a compliment. What she was really saying was ‘I’m surprised to see your house isn’t infested with roaches and filled with trash like most black families.’ A couple people told me how smart and well-behaved my kids were, surprised that they weren’t dumb and rowdy like most inner-city black kids. I see through their words. I hear what they really think.

When residents have the opportunity to tell their stories, share how their faith has sustained them during difficult times, and pray for their visiting friends, the volunteers’ “pity factor” diminishes, replaced by respect and emerging understanding. (151)

Good Work. Little affirms human dignity more than honest work. One of the surest ways to destroy self-worth is subsidizing the idleness of able-bodied people. Work is a gift, a calling, a human responsibility. (152)

Work, all work, is an invitation from God for us to take an active role as coparticipants in an ever-unfolding creation. (154)

Chapter Ten: Getting Started

Yet, as important as these services may be (essential, some would say), serving people is distinctly different from developing people.

  • Betterment does for others. Development maintains the long view and looks to enable others to do for themselves.
  • Betterment improves conditions. Development strengthens capacity.
  • Betterment gives a man a fish. Development teaches a man how to fish.

To be strategic is to prepare and execute an effective plan of action. The best way to assure effectiveness is to spend enough time as a learner, ask enough questions, and seek wisdom from indigenous leaders to gain an accurate picture of both existing realities and future aspirations of the community. Then, having made a realistic assessment of the time and asset commitment you (or your organization or church) can invest, offer low-visibility support to community-led activities. A patient, sensitive entry into grass-roots involvement can open future opportunities to assume a larger strategic role in transforming a neighborhood. (175)

Knowing Your ABCD’s.Our perceptions about a community influence our expectations. What we believe about a neighborhood will in large measure determine what we find when we arrive. (177)

…when we mainly look on the negative aspects of a community, we overlook the capable leaders, the dedicated teachers, the legitimate business entrepreneurs, the good parents, the wise grandmothers. When we focus on what is wrong, we miss what is right. And our strategies for helping are driven by combating problems rather than strengthening potential. (179)

Service seeks a need, a problem to fix, an object to pity. But pity diminishes and respect emerges when servers find surprising strengths among the served, strengths not initially apparent when the served are seen as the nameless, needy poor. (190)

If there is one take-away message that this book can offer to those in service work or supporting it, it is this: the poor, no matter how destitute, have enormous untapped capacity; find it, be inspired by it, and build upon it. (191)

— VIA —

I am thrilled at the fact that this book exists. I lament (as I do many things) that not more will read, understand, and embrace the ideas, research, and reports found within its pages. And, like so many great books, this one doesn’t just offer a solution. Toxic Charity open wide the conversation. Reading this book is like doing the hard work of setting the foundation upon which any structure can then be built.

Required reading, for everyone.

About VIA


  1. dustinxpatrick

    Great review! I loved this book and recently started a blog that focuses exclusively on the issues mentioned here. I’d love your input:

  2. You review and summary are well done. Thanks for taking the time to make this available.

  3. BLD

    Great review. Very inspiring. Time to implement these ideas.

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