Review: Toxic Charity

Charity and missions are apples and oranges, in my mind. Missions is about the great commission, planting churches, and making disciples. Offering a meal to the poor, in contrast, is an act of mercy. I can argue the point that missions is the more important of the two, but this is not the place to do so. The two can work together (as in the case of a rescue mission) but they are typically distinct.

When it comes to helping the poor, is it better to do nothing, or is it better to do something (perhaps a lot) — making you feel like you are helping others — when, in fact, you are harming them? That is the ultimate question.

Most of us desire to be compassionate people, characterized by good works. But the key to loving one’s neighbor is not doing what makes us feel better, or even what pleases them in the short term, but rather looking out for their long-term best interest.

Toxic Charity’s author Robert Lupton is not as conservative as most of us are, but he is in the evangelical camp and one of the most respected authorities in this field. He has worked in inner city Atlanta for nearly 40 years. He has observed what works and what doesn’t — and his findings are startling.

When you read chapter one, you know where the book is headed. Here are a few quotations.

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 have failed to adequately calculate the effects of our service on the lives of those reduced to objects of our pity and patronage.

Lupton talks about Africa, and the fact that after $1 trillion in benevolent aid over the last fifty years, Africans are worse off than they were fifty years ago, living (on average) on about $1 per day.

Locally, Lupton argues, “For all our efforts to eliminate poverty — our entitlements, our programs, our charities — we have succeeded only in creating a permanent underclass, dismantling their family structures, and eroding their ethic of work.”

Later in the book, Lupton talks about the fallacy of the mission trip. Although not all mission trips are equal, it is a big business enterprise for those who promote them. Missionaries would often prefer a gift of money to hire competent locals to do the work (properly) for just a fraction of the cost expended for mission trips. If missionaries do not come up with mission projects for eager supporting churches, they risk having their support dropped (yes, it does happen).

Sometimes work projects have to be torn down after the mission group leaves, or you have “the church in Mexico that was painted six times during one summer by six different missions groups. Or the church in Ecuador built by volunteers that was never used as a church because the community had no need for it.”

A little money with local workers and volunteers can accomplish much, and give the local people a sense of ownership and dignity. Going on a trip and doing work makes us feel like we are making a difference; sending a check to a missionary far away cannot replicate that same feeling. So do we seek the good the kingdom, or a sense of self-satisfaction?

Mission trips are useful for those considering a career in missions, and some people are permanently impacted. And, frankly, some mission trips do what people cannot do for themselves (medical clinics, veterinary training, or trips that train locals to be self-sufficient). But, in the long run, it is better to teach people to fish rather than just give them fish. And, by the way, do you remember when missions meant, “sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and discipling converts?” That’s why supporting a permanent missionary is so much better than a mission trip.

Closer to home, panhandlers and those who have learned dependence often become good at manipulating the system.

Why the guilt when John refuses to support the questionable plea of a stranger when he would refuse that same kind of unchecked giving to his own son? … Then John and I broke into laughter, recalling the antics of homeless guys who sometimes wait in front of our church on Sunday mornings and put the touch on exiting worshippers. Refuse their appeals, and their meek can-you-help-me expressions immediately change into and-you-call-yourself-a-Christian barbs. They know their market. We couldn’t decide which emotion was stronger — guilt from refusing to help or anger from being manipulated.

This book is filled with thoughtful content, as well as a plan for churches seeking to redirect their efforts (and is thus particularly useful to those in urban ministry). Those of us in smaller ministries can accomplish good results simply by not evading those with lesser means, including them into our lives and not underestimating their giftedness and talents.

So to whom should we give? Helping someone in a crisis (or people located in area experiencing disaster) is a great way to direct charity. That’s one reason I love “Samaritan’s Purse.” Helping people we know — or helping organizations that adequately screen out addicts and demand accountability (like the Rescue Mission) — is a much better investment of kingdom money. Ministries that seek to train people or that offer well-supervised micro-loans are other good ways to help empower the poor to train them to fend for themselves.

Our attempt to help others should not just be about making us feel like we are making a difference; they should actually contribute toward a long-term difference.

This book is a must-read for church leaders and any Christian who does not want to be naïve about where his or her kingdom dollars go.

Ed Vasicek Bio


Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute. He has served as pastor of Highland Park Church since 1983. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has written many weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers at his church website. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul’s Teachings.

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There are 19 Comments

G. N. Barkman's picture

Excellent review.  Thanks, Ed, for sharing this.

G. N. Barkman

Bert Perry's picture

....would love to hear from Joel, of course.  :^) 

One thing that comes to mind as well is that I often find great opportunities to help the less prosperous when I listen to verses in AWANA.  I've taught little ones to read (it's obvious in that setting when school hasn't kicked in for the kid), listened to them talk about family issues, and more.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Thanks for the review, Ed. Appreciate it very much.

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Jim's picture

  • Encourage to build an emergency fund
  • Encourage to stay employed (I can't tell you the number of people I've know who will quit  a job without having a new one lined up - a recipe for disaster)
  • Encourage to eat a home - not eat out (largely a waste of $$) / and pack a lunch for work
  • Encourage to stay married (divorce is a giant killer of wealth
  • Be willing to help someone budget 
  • Encourage to pay off CC debt monthly (and reduce # of CC's) (by the way ... I record every CC purchase on a spreadsheet and keep a running tab of how much I owe ... so there is no surprise at  the end of the billing cycle
  • Used clothes are a good deal (Goodwill) 
  • Encourage to eschew buying new cars (as an aside ... I only buy new ... but I keep for 9-10 years)
  • Vacations ... camping is fun and not that expensive ... and a real get-away from rush of life
Jim's picture

This past weekend a young woman who was in my college and career group 35 years ago:

  • She's now about 55
  • We are FB friends
  • Created a fundraiser on FB to raise $ 15,000
  • I ignored it until someone from my past (the same church) asked if i was going to give to it.
  • Details of the fundraiser:
    • The woman cares for her 91 yr old mother who has Alzheimer's
    • She (the daughter) needs $ 15,000 to get away (needs a break)
  • I didn't give ... to many questions ...  

 

Bert Perry's picture

On the light side, as the owner of a nearly 21 year old pickup,I've got to pick on Jim for not keeping cars very long.  9-10 years?  Seriously, brother?  :^)

Seriously, some things to add to his list:

  • don't just cook at home; learn to cook from scratch.  If you don't know how, Better Homes and Gardens has a great cookbook, as does The Joy of Cooking.  Get one of these, or the Kitchen Companion (Polly Clingerman), from a thrift store or garage sale

    • Corollary: think plant foods.  Any bean/legume plus any grain makes a complete protein. You don't need that much meat & dairy.  (I love both, but facts are facts, and it's good for your health)
  • learn to fix your own clothes. I routinely double the life of my clothes by replacing buttons, fixing small tears, etc..  
    • Corollary: unless you're a New York Lawyer, you can probably wear clothes that show wear or a bit of fraying.
  • Get the old cell phone fixed instead of replacing it.
  • Don't drive everywhere if you can reasonably walk or ride a bike.  
  • Cheap does not mean thrifty.  A well-made item that meets your needs is almost always less expensive in the long run than something bought merely on the basis of price.

....and now, off my soapbox to get back to work.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Jim wrote:

  • Encourage to build an emergency fund
  • Encourage to stay employed (I can't tell you the number of people I've know who will quit  a job without having a new one lined up - a recipe for disaster)
  • Encourage to eat a home - not eat out (largely a waste of $$) / and pack a lunch for work
  • Encourage to stay married (divorce is a giant killer of wealth
  • Be willing to help someone budget 
  • Encourage to pay off CC debt monthly (and reduce # of CC's) (by the way ... I record every CC purchase on a spreadsheet and keep a running tab of how much I owe ... so there is no surprise at  the end of the billing cycle
  • Used clothes are a good deal (Goodwill) 
  • Encourage to eschew buying new cars (as an aside ... I only buy new ... but I keep for 9-10 years)
  • Vacations ... camping is fun and not that expensive ... and a real get-away from rush of life

Excellent advice!  Now to get people to take it!

"The Midrash Detective"

Joel Shaffer's picture

Lupton's books on charity and giving are must-reads for Christians and churches that desire to really help the poor without creating dependency.   I have Lupton's "Oath for Compassionate Helpers" on my wall in my office as a reminder: 

I will NEVER DO for others what they have the capacity to do for themselves.

I will LIMIT one-way giving to crises and seek always to find ways for legitimate exchange.

I will seek ways to EMPOWER by hiring, lending, and investing and offer gifts as incentives to celebrate achievements.

I will put the interests of those experiencing poverty ABOVE MY OWN even when it means setting aside my own agenda or the agenda of my organization.

I will LISTEN CAREFULLY, even to not what is being said knowing that unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to healthy engagement.

And, above all, to the best of my ability, I WILL DO NO HARM. 

https://static1.squarespace.com/static/57cf2ac9f5e2315de2e10971/t/57eaac...

Aaron Blumer's picture

From Ed's quotes, I get the impression that Lupton blames the situation in Africa on charity. I don't doubt that many well-intentioned groups and individuals have done ultimately unhelpful things in Africa, but it's not correct to attribute it's overall condition to interventions from the West. This is true for at least two reasons: a) We don't know what the situation there today would be if all the money, etc. had not flowed into Africa, so we have no real baseline. b) There are many other contributing factors that have little to do with how much is given away from foreign sources: one of the biggest being political -- where you have powerful warloards, lots of well-armed sects with gangs of thugs, and weak or poorly defended property rights, you're going to see persistent poverty with or without zillions of dollars from foreign donors.

Joel Shaffer's picture

Lupton is smart enough to know that there are many factors that lead to poverty in Africa. Is he supposed to share all the different contributors to African Poverty or stay on point?   For his book, his audience (American churches)   have often been guilty of devastating the local economies with our giveaway programs.  Here is another quote:  

“Not only does aid foment political instability and corruption, it discourages free enterprise—like the African mosquito-netting manufacturer who was put out of business by well-meaning charities that handed out millions of free nets.” (95)

To go along with what Lupton is saying, here is a story from the documentary, "PovertyINC" that tells of a local egg business that was put out of business in Rwanda when a church decided to send millions of eggs right after the genocide took place in Rwanda. https://vimeo.com/154617188

And another story where a business woman from Kenya shares how 2nd hand clothing (charity from the west) caused cotton farms and businesses all over Kenya to shut down in the 1980's and 1990's.   https://vimeo.com/154615586

Unfortunately, this is more the norm than the exception.  Its sad that the church's well-meaning compassion has contributed to killing free enterprise in Africa.    

 

Andrew K's picture

Joel Shaffer wrote:

Lupton is smart enough to know that there are many factors that lead to poverty in Africa. Is he supposed to share all the different contributors to African Poverty or stay on point?   For his book, his audience (American churches)   have often been guilty of devastating the local economies with our giveaway programs.  Here is another quote:  

“Not only does aid foment political instability and corruption, it discourages free enterprise—like the African mosquito-netting manufacturer who was put out of business by well-meaning charities that handed out millions of free nets.” (95)

To go along with what Lupton is saying, here is a story from the documentary, "PovertyINC" that tells of a local egg business that was put out of business in Rwanda when a church decided to send millions of eggs right after the genocide took place in Rwanda. https://vimeo.com/154617188

And another story where a business woman from Kenya shares how 2nd hand clothing (charity from the west) caused cotton farms and businesses all over Kenya to shut down in the 1980's and 1990's.   https://vimeo.com/154615586

Unfortunately, this is more the norm than the exception.  Its sad that the church's well-meaning compassion has contributed to killing free enterprise in Africa.    

 

Not limited to church charity and Africa either.

Look at what freebies and special privileges have done to our Native American communities. Coastal Papuans in eastern Indonesia have also had their way of life devastated by Indonesian govt. "benevolence." And that's just a few examples of which I'm aware.

Bert Perry's picture

One thing I've heard from my wife's sewing circles is that when we send bales (no kidding, go to your local recycling center and see them) of used clothes to Africa, a lot of them are thrown away there because they are completely unsuitable for their use--too exposing, not good for the climate, etc..  Yes you read correctly; we're spending millions (billions?) to fill landfills in Africa.

And it strikes me as significant that our mass market "fast fashion" clothes are so bad, starving people in Africa won't even use them.  Contemplate that one for a moment.  :^)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

G. N. Barkman's picture

I see a lot of American T-shirts in Africa, with product logos and various slogans.  These shirts seem to be abundant and available.

G. N. Barkman

Steve Davis's picture

What's interesting to me is how many championship shirts I see in Africa from teams that did not win a championship in the year on the shirt. I'm going to Cameroon next week. I expect to see NFL shirts with the Patriots or Vikings as Super Bowl or division champs. I guess that's how it works when you print shirts not knowing who is going to win and need to have them ready immediately after the game. I don't expect to see many Eagles' shirts, not this year anyway.

T Howard's picture

Another good resource on this topic is When Helping hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor ... and Yourself, written by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Three or four years ago, this was our study book for elders and deacons.  An excellent resource.

G. N. Barkman

Aaron Blumer's picture

The local mosquito net vendor put out of business is an interesting case. Which is better, to keep one guy in business or to protect millions from malaria? The answer might seem obvious, but it isn't. Those gifted nets are going to wear out. Then what? So if the goal is malaria prevention (or some other bug-borne illness), maybe the best use of funds is large quantities of DDT. But good luck selling that project! With that off the table, maybe a rule of thumb is "is there a local industry that can be assisted in a way that will produce a long-term solution"? Sounds like training, facilities, etc. But NGO competition for donor dollars is tough, and "with your gift, we can send 5 mosquito nets to the suffering children of Africa" sells much better than "with your gift, we can help Masamba's Mosquito Nets build and staff a new factory."  ... not impossible though.

But I get why "really helping" is difficult. 

Bert Perry's picture

Get the book!  It details a lot of things that really can't be summarized here, from the likelihood that aid will be siphoned off by corrupt leaders to the need to make sure (especially in the U.S.) that you're not destroying a man's self-respect as head of his family or destroying peoples' work ethics.  

And a whole bunch of things as well that I don't have space here to detail, like how you can waste millions on an initiative with nothing to show for it, how you can tick people off without ever knowing you did it, and more.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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