Chapter One: The Scandal


(Note: Spoiler Alert. This post is writing commentary on the book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). This book is being discussed on April 11 by the Avondale United Methodist Book Club. Those who want to read the book before forming opinions are advised to read this column after reading the book. For the rest of you, consider this a long-winded review and commentary on the book, and please comment your thoughts.)

In the United States, there’s a growing scandal that we both refuse to see and actively perpetuate. 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.

— Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity

With the above sentence Lupton begins his critique of charitable giving in the United States. A 40-year veteran of urban activism, Lupton will go on to describe general trends, illustrated with specific examples from his own experiences, and those of others. But in this first chapter he lays out the basic facts he has uncovered.

Long before President John F. Kennedy urged us to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” compassion and service have been a universally accepted part of the American vision. Serving others is high on the list of American virtues. But we seldom take a long-term look at the outcomes of the service. Many on the receiving end indicate it may hurt more than help, by creating dependency and destroying individual initiative. “When we do for those in need what they have the capacity to do for themselves, we disempower them,” Lupton says.

For examples Lupton brings up the $1 trillion in aid sent to Africa in the past 50 years. The result: a continent worse off than it was before. In the United States we have our war on poverty: entitlements, programs, charities. The result: a permanent under-class, dismantled family structures and eroding work ethic.

Government programs get slammed for their waste and side effects, but Lupton says religious programs are often worse. Free food and clothing encourages growing handout lines, diminishing the dignity and increasing dependency. We descend on neighborhoods to do clean-up work they could do themselves, and fly thousands of miles to poor villages with oodles of loot that turns the residents into veritable beggars.

I think of my own self. We don’t need assistance, but every year the schools foist the form for reduced price school lunches on us, and when our salary was low enough, we did subscribe for a couple of years. There were several years, in fact, when my raises were just enough to put me above the line, so it cost more to pay for our own because I earned too much. It was a real incentive to NOT get a raise at work.

“Giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people.” – I think this quote is a good comment on parenting skills as well. Not that we should see our charity as parenting (though too often it ends up being a sort of indulgent paternalism too).

So how do all our good works turn into bad results?  Because we judge the results based on the rewards we get through serving, not on the benefits received by those we serve.

Those benefits often never reach the true recipients – as in the graft of aid going to Africa – and when they do, the return is small. The amount of money spent on a mission trip to Central America to build a home could have been used by the locals to build 10 times the number of structures, for example. The benefit is to the giver more than the receiver.

Religious mission trips/junkets, have become a billion-dollar tourism industry that yield negligible benefit to the daily lives of the people being served.

America is very good in crisis mode. We deliver lifesaving aid in time of calamity, but we have trouble sticking with it into the long recovery mode. Knowing this, agencies continue to couch things in the language of crisis long after we should be in the long-term development mode. Ergo New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, where six years after churches were still sending free food and clothing to “victims”.

As Lupton notes, “When relief does not transition to development in a timely way, compassion becomes toxic.”

But he is quick to point out that not all charity today is toxic, but we can do better. We need to take action to change the “compassion industry” before it becomes discredited. Lupton has been a part of that change in his 40 years working with charity and development.

One of his suggestions is to take a page from the Hippocratic Oath that doctors take, and create an “Oath for Compassionate Service”. He suggests the following:

  • 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.

Over several upcoming posts I will explore the remaining 9 chapters of Lupton’s book, and see what find out about practicing kindness without harm, so it is not toxic for giver or receiver.


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