Toxic Charity

toxic charity

Thanks to the Kairos Project, I have been profoundly challenged in my views of giving and charity. One of the assignments is to read certain books about the effects of charities on different people groups. The book I am currently reading is – Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help.

To summarize this book, Robert Lupton makes a compelling case that most of our giving to those less fortunate than us is actually hurting them. Instead of seeking time-consuming, holistic transformation of communities from the ground up, we throw a few dollar bills in the direction of those hurting and hope it will provide them with temporary relief.

According to Lupton, this uninformed generosity is far more dangerous than we realize.

I am not saying I am completely on board with Lupton (yet) as I still need to wrestle with the Scriptures in this area. With that being said, Lupton offers an incredibly helpful “Oath for Compassionate Service” inspired by the Hippocratic Oath that doctors affirm. I will try my best to explain each one of the points in a few sentences but I highly recommend reading the entire book.

1. Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.
If you do everything for the person you are helping, you are destroying their humanity. This will foster dangerous levels of dependence which will ultimately harm the recipient of your aid. As Lupton says, “The effective helper can be an encourager, a coach, a partner, but never a caretaker.”

2. Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.
In times of disaster, it is necessary to come alongside the poor to offer monetary assistance. Instead of continuing to give in disaster mode, we should begin to empower the poor to change their mindset and circumstances on their own. Offering millions of dollars of aid with no holistic treatment for body, soul, and spirit will result in toxic charity and crush the community we are seeking to help.

3. Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
When you enable the recipient to pay off the aid they have received, it allows them to regain their sense of honor. Lupton makes a powerful case for the use of micro-lending in order to encourage entrepreneurship. This enables those in the community to see past their present poverty into a future full of possibilities.

4. Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.
Lupton treats many short-term mission trips rather harshly. He refers to it as religious tourism – in essence, Christians in the west spend thousands of dollars to go on one-week mission trips in order to serve poverty stricken institutions such as orphanages, churches, and schools. Instead of these mission trips, this money could be funneled back into the economy to hire local painters, carpenters, movers, etc. to provide the service the organization needs at a fraction of a cost of a mission trip. This will provide employment and help stimulate the local economy.

On a side note, Lupton is not entirely against the concept of short term mission trips. He states, “Isn’t it time we admit to ourselves that mission trips are essentially for our benefit? Religious tourism would have much more integrity if we simply admitted that we’re off to explore God’s amazing work in the world.”

5. Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said – unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.
Many people seeking aid will not want to share their whole story. This is usually not due to them being deceitful, instead they are often ashamed that they need to seek help. To effectively provide aid, you MUST be listening to the Holy Spirit and studying the unspoken sadness and brokenness of the person’s life. The unspoken feelings may provide substantial clues on how you can truly help them succeed.

6. Above all, do no harm.
Lupton describes this far better than I can – “Before we embark on a new service venture, we should conduct an ‘impact study’ to consider how our good deeds might have unintended consequences. Are we luring indigenous ministers away from their pastoral duties to become schedule coordinators for our mission trips? Are we creating dependencies that may ultimately erode self-sufficiency? As Hippocrates admonished: above all, do no harm.”


I do not fully agree with all of Lupton’s conclusions but I do find his arguments surprisingly strong. Ultimately, we need to hold all teaching in light of Scripture. As I continue to wrestle with this issue, I would highly recommend that you purchase Toxic Charity and read it in its entirety, ESPECIALLY if you are involved in any form of charity.

6 comments

  1. Hi Tyler,

    This is a good post, and I am with you in that I do not fully agree with Lupton’s conclusions, but they are very good points. The way I see it is this: Jesus said that when we give to the needy, we mustn’t let our right hand know what our left hand is doing. To me, that seems like an instinctive, compassion, humble action, that doesn’t require a lot of head knowledge to accomplish. Sometimes, when we overthink it, we can justify why we shouldn’t give to almost anybody!!! Given the chance, our greed would rather we don’t share with others but save for ourselves. So I find that it’s more about listening to the spirit and giving to everyone as though you’re giving to God, and trust Him to bless that gift in that person’s life.

    Of course, we can be strategic about giving too. Not all giving is spontaneous, some are planned, and priorities must be set for projects. As I run a charity, I know quite a bit about strategic charity. However, I am still compelled to listen to God’s voice and give alms in secret, knowing that only God can reward such actions.

    Cheers again and God bless you!

    1. Thanks for sharing, Ufuoma! Have you read his book Toxic Charity? If so, how do you see some of these principles flesh themselves out in your charity?

      Out of curiosity as well, what type of charity do you run? I am encouraged by your heart to love God and love people in practical ways!

      1. Hi Tyler, I haven’t read his book… just your post. My charity is called Fair Life Africa Foundation. http://www.fairlifeafrica.org. We work through social initiatives, and currently, we are providing scholarships to disadvantaged but gifted children though the Disadvantage to Advantage Initiative. Our first initiative focused on street children.

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