Recommended books & reviews, Social action

Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help

The scale and profile of church-based social action projects has grown significantly over the last 20 years.

There has been a particular rise in projects which distribute practical resources, with food banks being the most high profile example.

Critical reflection

The growth of such activity raises questions which need to be reflected on. Is this work having the desired impact? Is it empowering authentic change?

Robert Lupton has 4 decades of experiences in urban community activism. He thinks there is nowhere near enough critical thinking about the end results of such social action:

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

Blunt message

Toxic Charity is a short book with a blunt message. Although published in America ten years ago, it is very relevant to the UK context today. We need to engage with the ‘unsettling reality of charity work’.

According to Lupton, what makes a charity’s work toxic is when it disempowers those in need and removes their sense of agency:

‘Dependency. Destroying personal initiative. When we do for those in need what they have the capacity to do for themselves, we disempower them.’

Damaging dynamic

Lupton gives many examples.  One of the most powerful was when he was staying with an impoverished inner city family over Christmas Eve when a wealthy church visited to drop off Christmas presents for the children. Close up, he saw the damaging dynamic of rich saviours giving handouts and the sense of shame and disempowerment it caused.

Similarly to the influential book Dead Aid, he also critiques the effectiveness of much overseas aid. Juan Ulloa runs micro-enterprise in Nicaragua and says that the ill-informed generosity of US churches causes great harm:

‘People say ‘why should we borrow money when the churches give it to us?’…They destroy the initiative of my people…they are turning my people into beggars’

Hard truths

Lupton’s book will make people nervous but I believe he speaks many hard truths that need to be grappled with. It is like a blunter, grittier and more concise version of When Helping Hurts. His chapters The Problem with Good intentions and The Anatomy of Giving are particularly insightful:

‘I observed how quickly recipients’ response to charity devolved from gratitude, to expectation, to entitlement…where there was a sustained one-way giving, unwholesome dynamics and pathologies festered under the cover of kind-heartedness’

Mercy and justice

His exegesis of the famous injunction from Micah 6:8 to ‘love mercy, act justly and walk humbly with your God’ is the best I have read:

‘Justice and mercy 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 with rights than relationship.’

‘Poverty tourism’

Lupton is especially critical of the US multi-million dollar industry of short term mission trips which take young people out to developing countries.  He says this is ‘poverty tourism’ does little to help anyone and wastes resources on an industrial scale:

‘The money spent by one campus ministry to cover the costs of their Central American mission trip to repaint an orphanage would have been sufficient to hire two local painters and two new full-time teachers and purchase new uniforms for every student in the school.’

Whilst reading this book, I met with my cousin who told me of her experiences with a Christian NGO when a teenager. She cringed as she recalled her ineffectual efforts to help with a building project whilst lots of skilled adult men sat around unemployed.

‘Oath for Compassionate Service’

The strength of Toxic Charity is its sharp critique. But Lupton also gives clear direction and examples of more positive forms of social engagement.

He also helpfully condenses his core thinking into 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.

I would recommend that any team engaged in social action discusses these 6 points as a way of reviewing how they could make their work more empowering.

Organisational humility

As Jesus warns in Luke 22:25, we should be wary of the alluring sense of superiority created by seeing ourselves as a benefactor. Rather, we need a personal and organisational humility about the genuine impact and effectiveness of our work.

More than ever, I believe the best social engagement has a mutuality which empowers people and increases their agency. It is their faith that will heal them, not ours. And as Lao Tzu said

When the best leaders work is done, the people say ‘we have done it ourselves’.

I would strongly recommend Toxic Charity. It made me reflect: Christian social activism may have grown, but perhaps it needs to mature?


Buy Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help by Robert D. Lupton

15 thoughts on “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help”

    1. John Kuhrt, Thank you for this valorizing humane statement, which reflects what all humanity’s indigenous ancestors have been saying for the past 7000 years of violent colonization & all humanity knew as a fact for many 10s of 1000s if not 100s of 1000s of year before. During our ‘exogenous’ (Latin ‘other-stolen-appropriated’) colonial period of extractive exploitive empires, false ‘religion’ (L ‘religio’ = ‘to-relate’ not to indoctrinate’) has turned the world intentionally for their oligarch masters into a charity basket-case.
      Worldwide, all humanity’s indigenous ancestors subscribed to human relationship truths of Mutual-Aid, through what was referred to as GREAT-GOOD-WAY-OF-KINDNESS.
      The N American north-eastern Haudenosaunee (Iroquois ‘People-of-the-extended-rafters’ aka ‘welcome’) Confederacy of nations, called this ‘Kaianerekowa’ aka ‘Great-Law-of-Peace, aka positive, proactive ‘Constitution’. Central America’s Mayan nations as ‘In-Lakesh’ = ‘I am another you. You are another me’. South America Aymara, Jamamadi & Apurina nations as ‘Maloka’ = ‘Longhouse’. European Celtic & Slavic indigenous nations as the ‘System-of-100s’, Greek ‘Mnemosis’ = ‘memory’, etymologically, the root of ‘money’. Unfortunately our oligarch bastardized system of amnesia today is also referred to as ‘money’. Southern African Nguni nations as ‘Ubuntu’ = ‘Human-Kindness’. India Hindi ‘Swadeshi’ = ‘indigenous’ aka ‘self-sufficiency’ refers to this same system championed as the economic-engine for ‘Swaraj’ (H ‘Self-rule’) for India’s independence, Chinese graphic-character ‘Bei’ referring to the indigenous period of the Cowrie string-shell value system, referring to ‘money’ & so forth worldwide. The ancient String-shell of the world, integrate: a) ‘Capital’ (L ‘cap’ = ‘head’ = ‘collective-intelligence’), b) ‘Currency’ = ‘flow’ aka ‘money’, c) ‘Condolence’ = ‘social-security’), d) Collegial mentored-apprentice-educational-Credit, e) time-math Communication, f) professional Costume identification. https://sites.google.com/site/indigenecommunity/structure/3-economic-memory
      Yes, Circular ‘economy’ (Greek ‘oikos’ = ‘home’ + ‘namein’ = ‘care-&-nurture’) of giving & receiving. Everyone in true ‘community’ (Latin ‘com’ = ‘together’ + ‘munus’ = ‘gift-or-service’) has something, innate in their character & talents, to contribute.
      Before genocidal colonization against all humanity’s ‘indigenous’ (L ‘self-generating’) ancestors by empire colonists fleeing from despotic centralized oligarch-induced economic & ecological failure, all our ancestors thrived through what was a worldwide Economic Democracy.
      INDIGENOUS ECONOMIC DEMOCRACY’S MAIN TENETS
      1) ~100 person Multihome-Dwelling-Complexes (eg. Longhouse-apartment, Pueblo-townhouse & Kanata-village) provided intimate, intergenerational, female-male, interdisciplinary, critical-mass economies-of-scale distributed economic empowerment. Unknown to most, 70% of people today live in Multihomes but have our memories institutionally erased about how to collaborate in the most-important domestic-economy. 20% of Multihome-Dwellers today live in intentional extended-family proximity for social & economic mutual-aid. The ~100 person self-governing Multihome is a scale of ‘institution’, where everybody has agency as well as belongs to an inherent multi-million dollar annual earning & spending ‘company’ (L ‘com’ + ‘pan’ = ‘bread’) per year. In North-America Multihome extended-families contribute 1 trillion dollars/year to our essential goods & services economy, as one of our largest mainstream ‘economies’, albeit loving & caring. Complementary collaborative interactions among sexes & generations with both privacy & proximity help develop maturity or peace & relational healing of many mainstream illnesses & addictions, for all involved. TRUE MEASURES MAKE US RICH https://sites.google.com/site/indigenecommunity/relational-economy/extending-our-welcome-participatory-multi-home-cohousing
      2) Time-based equivalency accounting on the worldwide String-shell Value systems (eg. Wampum on Turtle-Island/N America), Quipu in S America, Cowrie in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia & all islands. Given every person has time, talent, goods, resources & dreams, then everyone is an Asset to be welcomed & included, in Relational Economy. https://sites.google.com/site/indigenecommunity/relational-economy
      All humanity’s indigenous ancestors enabled specialized labours of women & men organized in the universal progressive-ownership of the Production-Society-Guild. Political Democracy needs a universal foundation of Economic-Democracy. https://sites.google.com/site/indigenecommunity/relational-economy/8-economic-democracy
      DO-WE-KNOW-WHO-WE-ARE-?’ Local web-Catalogued talents, goods, services, resources & dreams. Bottom-up change open to people everywhere within our existing Multihomes & workplaces. Its within our multihomes that we are able to create Circular loving, sharing & caring Economies, where all can be included & welcomed. Humanity’s worldwide indigenous modelled, web-based Community Economy is transformed into a web software program so average residents & neighbours can easily: 1) CATALOGUE who we are individually & collectively as complementary-talents, 2) MAP collaborative relationships, 3) ACCOUNT for transactions & contributions, 4) COMMUNICATE locally /c record keeping, agreement/contract development, bridge building & conflict resolution among family, friends & neighbours. https://sites.google.com/site/indigenecommunity/structure/9-do-we-know-who-we-are

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  1. Thanks for the article and have watched the video too.
    Ann Morisy warned against middle class people “swarming” towards poorer people, wanting to be benefactors….
    In the Feb 19th Times Magazine, Katharine Birbalsingh, a head teacher in Wembley, headlined as “Britain’s Strictest Teacher” warns, “Black people underachieve because of what the well-meaning liberal does to them”…
    We – I – need to see ourselves as others see us. It is not just what we say but what others hear…

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    1. Thanks Howard. Yes, I re-read Ann Morisy’s ‘Journeying Out’ recently and was struck by her critique of ‘needs meeting’. At the time I did not really grasp what she meant but I think her view was prophetic.

      We – I – need to listen to critiques of ‘well-meaning liberalism’, especially when it comes from people with such relevant experience. Perhaps these tendencies will be the ones that future generations most criticise us for?

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  2. This is hard to take on! – when little else has produced the outcomes expected and ‘our’ food bank seems so necessary and engages such good volunteer input …

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    1. Hi Steve – it is hard and I don’t want to give any impression that this is easy. I think a key thing to remember is how relatively new food banks are – really we are in the infancy of learning how they can work best. When I think back to homeless services I worked in in the 1990s I can see how far the sector has come in being less institutional and more empowering and strength-based. I think that rather than feel ‘beat-up’ by the critique, I would encourage people to raise this issues and discuss them within management teams. I know key staff at the Trussell Trust who are thinking through these issues and I think this is vital.

      Your point about ‘such good volunteer input’ is one of the challenges I think. The enthusiasm of volunteers, similarly to the desires of donors, is something that needs careful management and channelling. Thanks for reading and commenting – and all the best with your important work.

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  3. I’ve been on the receiving end of this giving without thinking. I had a car which broke down and had to be towed home. i was a single mum at the time. The pastor asked how much it had cost me to be towed home so I told him. What he didn’t ask and what I had not thought to say was that the insurance paid for it. So the church gave me the money – which I was then stunned to know what to do with as I thought it would be rude and might embarrass them if I gave it back.
    Also whilst still a single mum I used to get the Christmas hamper which was full of very sugary things which I did not let my children eat as I was trying to give them a healthy diet. This time I had to throw things away. I always wished they had asked me what I did want.
    In fact I was a very savvy budgetter and even now my kids say they never felt like they went without. But the church never asked me!!!

    Thankfully I’m now working with a group called Youthshedz and the whole ethos of that group is to empower the young people to not see themselves as “disadvantage” but as having gone through some really rubbish situations but that they, by helping each other, can raise themselves from this.

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    1. Thanks Diane for sharing your personal experience – such stories are vital. Its a good example of good intentions not quite translating into effective action, I think voices such as yours as very important.

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  4. Another excellent piece, Jon. Charity as a concept is something that has always bothered me, not least because it becomes an excuse for the relevant government/s to abstain from responsibility. We saw this in stark relief at at the start of the covid crisis in 2020 when the people of the UK were tricked into thinking that ‘our wonderful NHS’ was a charity, and thus easily rallied into parting with their money to support it.” The NHS is (should be) paid for by taxpayer money, but by tugging the charity strings of the already emotionally aroused, the government was able to levy this extra tax.

    I’m also bothered though by all the aspects covered here, and in depth in Dead Aid, about the destruction that selfish giving creates. People usually feel good about themselves when they give money to the needy, but seldom consider (beyond clichéd assumption) how the receiver might feel. I very much liked the Oath for Compassionate Service as a foundation for any financial (and maybe other) help being considered, both by groups and the individual. I’ll certainly use it.

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  5. Forgive me for being anonymous, but I work in the charitable sector. I have long felt that many charities exist primarily for the benefit of the people who work for them, not for the beneficiaries. What may have began with honorable motives quickly mutates into a self-serving machine, a frankenstein’s monster that must be fed at all costs. There is no desire for self-examination, to stop and consider if the charity is really achieving anything, because all involved are dependent on it for their pay packets (in the case of workers) or their status and power (in the case of trustees). Hence the subconscious focus of many charities is inwards – keeping the organisation afloat, and growing it where possible, rather than outwards – coming up with effective ways to support beneficiaries that reduce their long-term dependence on charity. I’m sorry to sound so jaded but I’ve seen it from the inside.

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