Charity Detox

toxic charityI just finished reading Robert Lupton‘s book, Toxic Charity. He is the founder of FCS Urban Ministries, and has 40 years of experience in urban ministries and community development.

In the book he directly challenges the “white missionary colonialist saviour” approach to charity. If you’re not religious, don’t think that you’re immune. This dogma and approach is status quo all through our culture and institutions.

I wholeheartedly believe in Robert’s approach. I have implemented the same approach at Liberty and face opposition every week from well-intentioned people, just the same as Robert has in Atlanta, Georgia.

We all want our efforts, and our dollars, to achieve the
effect we intend. Robert’s book is written in a way to help us think more clearly about this challenge.

As much as anything, this book reminds us that the people “we serve,” are not to be viewed as “the people we serve” — but as partners, collaborators, leaders in their own communities. In other words, “they” have to be the solution. We are just helping in some way to help them be/become their own solution.

Regarding the Christian emphasis in this book. Robert Lupton approaches this challenge as a Christian. He refers to his work as “ministry,” and he seeks to address the spiritual needs of the people he serves from a Christian perspective. But, many of his findings are valuable and useful for anyone
seeking to serve human need, whether they come at it from a Christian perspective, or any other community worker perspective.

I’ll try and give a brief summary of the book quoting some of my favourite excerpts.

How can helping be toxic? In one word: Dependency. Destroying personal initiative. When we do for those in need what they have the capacity to do for themselves, we disempower them and take away their dignity. Giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people.

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.

The money spent by one church 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.

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.

Princeton University conducted a study that found 1.6 million American church members took mission trips abroad in 2005 — an average of eight days long — at a cost of $2.4 billion. “Religious tourism,” as some call it, has become a growth industry. The Bahamas, it is estimated, annually receives one short-term missionary for every fifteen residents.

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 popular 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.

Again and again we are finding that when it comes to global needs in organisational 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.

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. 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.

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.

We know that trust grows with accountability over time. We know that mutual exchange and legitimate negotiating is energising (people of every culture love to bargain!). And we know that employment starts people on the path to self-reliance. We know these things. And we have the capacity to accomplish them. But the will to change our traditional charity systems — now that is the real challenge.

Look at most any promotional package for a mission trip and you will get a 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. 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.

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”. If we are serious about significant impact, the missions we invest in must produce measurable results.

A simultaneous advance on all facets of community life — safety, education, housing, youth, seniors, church, block-by-block organising, business — produces measurable results. The effort must be sustained over time to produce deep and permanent change. And this is costly. However, as neighborhood health improves, as economic forces take hold, as the fabric of the community is strengthened, the need for outside resources will diminish. This may take up to a decade.

Institutional self-interest is not confined to the church. All institutions — religious or secular, for-profit or nonprofit, public or private — feed it.

Get off aid. Promote entrepreneurship. Promote free trade. Invest in infrastructure. Secure reasonable loans, not grants. Encourage stable homeownership. Don’t subsidise poverty. Reinforce productive work. Create producers, not beggars. Invest in self-sufficiency.

The hard part, however, does not lie in the creation of new models — food-buying co-ops, food for community service, wholesale outlets. The hard part is rethinking the entrenched giveaway mentality and restructuring an established one-way charity system. A hunger-free zone may be possible, but developing the dependency-free zone is the real challenge.

Due diligence is the cornerstone of wise giving.

A good community developer is both curious and entrepreneurial. Personal responsibility is essential for social, emotional, and spiritual well-being. To do for others what they have the capacity to do for themselves is to disempower them.

The struggle for self-sufficiency is, like the butterfly struggling to emerge from its cocoon, an essential strength-building process that should not be short-circuited by “compassionate” intervention. The effective helper can be an encourager, a coach, a partner, but never a caretaker.

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.

We all live in communities. Healthy communities produce healthy offspring; dysfunctional communities perpetuate pathology.

Legitimate employment gives meaning to life; community gives a sense of belonging — all three enhance human dignity.

Authentic relationships with those in need have a way of correcting the we-will-rescue-you mind-set and replacing it with mutual admiration and respect — like the change that took place in the relationships between the suburban church volunteers who prepared Wednesday noon meals for the poor in our community and the ladies who were originally the objects of their charity.

As “the poor” in the food line became people with names and familiar faces, as personal stories were exchanged, friendships began to develop. The served were eventually invited to help serve food and even assist with food preparation. Mutuality grew. New recipe ideas were explored. Culinary skills were exchanged. While sweating together in the kitchen, the lifelong dream of four of the “recipient” women eventually surfaced — to have their own restaurant. The servers are now being served by those they once pitied.

The poor, no matter how destitute, have enormous untapped capacity: find it, be inspired by it, and build upon it.

The Continuum of “Help” in the midst of emergency:

  • The first stop, relief
  • Second stop, rehabilitation
  • Third stop, development

Creating dependency can be the result of “toxic charity”.

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.

charity helpers oath

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Originally published at Adam James.
Photo by Katt Yukawa on Unsplash.

By |2021-06-09T12:46:19+10:00June 15th, 2021|Faith, Good Books, Indigenous|0 Comments

About the Author:

Adam is a barista, social entrepreneur, musician, hiker, man of faith and public speaker. He was the founder of a social enterprise cafe called Cup From Above which was based in Fortitude Valley, Brisbane. While running the cafe, Adam also launched Liberty Enterprises, a charity that helped the most disadvantaged and vulnerable members of Brisbane.

Adam has also founded a property maintenance enterprise called Liberty Services to create employment opportunities for individuals who are chronically unemployed. For over a decade, Adam has worked in the community sector with people with complex barriers including violent criminals, people with disabilities, behavioural problems, poor mental health and trauma survivors. He is passionate about helping struggling individuals achieve sustainable success.

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