Toxic Charity — What does it mean for us?

Posted on July 29, 2014 by Ashley Debilzen
Megan Flowers, summer intern

​Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help.  New York: HarperOne, 2012. ​

Toxic Charity for web

The ELCA World Hunger/ELCA Malaria Campaign intern cohort was asked by the team to lead a book discussion over Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help. The book focuses on the concept that much of today’s charity is wasted or harmful to the audience it is intended to help. Lupton uses his 40 years of urban ministry experience to describe how he has seen communities troubled by the well-meaning groups that come to give charity and service. He promotes eliminating dependency through ideas like food cooperatives rather than pantries, insight trips rather than mission trips and a movement away from one-way giving. Many of Lupton’s ideas around effectively transforming a community include moving into that particular neighborhood to do ministry.

Lupton explores the idea of giving and community development through an anecdotal means. Most of his stories come from Focused Community Strategies Urban Ministries, where he is the founder and president, or other organizations in which he is connected. While he provides many stories from his work and these organizations, Lupton references very little research. Some of his stories are touching and impactful, while the message of others tends to be a bit frustrating.

A theme of “mutual admiration and respect” (190) is prevalent throughout the book. Lupton places a large emphasis on building relationships, listening to the needs of people in the community and serving in a way that is meaningful. In one story, he suggests a Miami couple to move into an inner-city neighborhood, but not to initiate any development work for at least six months. He encourages the couple to immerse themselves in the community, ask questions, visit schools, attend public hearings and build relationships with their neighbors (160). These are all ideas that lead up to taking pity out of a situation, allowing people to walk together in a way such as the ELCA’s model of accompaniment.

Although I appreciated Lupton’s language around mutuality, its power is negated when he uses a language that diminishes the efforts of those in a situation of poverty. He speaks of giving the gift of dignity, but then describes Americans in poverty as a dependent population with a “severely eroded work ethic” (121). While good-intentioned, much of Lupton’s language is counter to the processes and development to which he suggests. It could also be said that Lupton overgeneralizes the simplicity of situations as well as populations of people.

It was through both our support and critiques of Lupton’s ideas that we began to ask ourselves and the world the following questions:

  • Do we know our neighbors?
  • Do we listen in our own community?
  • Do we lift communities up or do we provide the resources for communities to empower themselves?
  • Do we acknowledge both positive and negative impacts of our involvement?
  • Do we think theologically about our work?
  • Do we keep the development of sustainable livelihoods in mind?

And if not, how do we go about changing it?

The ELCA Malaria Campaign constantly evaluates how we are doing work in the world, as well as how it is portrayed. This can be seen especially through the framework of the Malaria Campaign where your gifts support 13 countries in their independently run malaria programs. Each country’s program is unique in its own way to fit the resources and needs of the community. The Lutheran malaria programs are implemented by local churches and church bodies with funding from the ELCA Malaria Campaign. The malaria programs provide education and training, enabling communities to empower themselves.

Toxic Charity is a book with a lot to offer. Lupton illustrates the importance behind paying close attention to the impacts we all have on each other, but does so in a voice that is far from empowering. It is a good book to read with a critical eye, evaluating the way we do work in our own lives and looking honestly at how it impacts others.