Toxic Charity BOOK COVER

Toxic Charity:
How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It)

by Robert D. Lupton

(Harper Collins, 2011)


Reducing Toxic Effects of Giving

by H. F. “Pat” Coyle, Jr.

Robert Lupton in his 2011 book, Toxic Charity, challenges readers to recognize how churches and social agencies often do more harm than good when dispensing charity. As a charity worker with 40 years experience, Lupton is well qualified to offer his critique of how aid is dispensed by religious organizations and non-profit agencies. While the book’s title may appear overly critical, to Lupton’s credit, he goes beyond criticizing churches and nonprofits. He cites many examples, both negative and positive, based on his research and personal experience. But first let me highlight his main criticisms.

He makes two charges. First to help a person in need, we should work with them not for them. This is a familiar criticism that we often hear from those who are opposed to providing any aid to the needy as it undermines their initiative for helping themselves. Lupton isn’t against helping the poor, but argues that to be effective, we need to build relationships with those we seek to help. Again, the challenge is how best we can engage people to help themselves rather than doing the work for them. Lasting change is only accomplished when the person in need is meaningfully involved in solving their own problems.

Secondly, too much of our charity is for the giver’s benefit rather than for the benefit of the person in need. On this account Lupton is especially critical of what he terms “religious tourism.” By this, he refers to mission trips made by high school and college students to poverty stricken areas primarily in Central and South America and Africa. The annual costs of such trips run in the billions of dollars and provide only marginal assistance to people in the communities they are intended to serve. While Lupton admits there is some educational benefit for the students, this is small compared to the considerable costs for transportation, lodging, meals, etc. He cites studies that show it would be far more effective if the targeted communities received the funds directly rather than host student groups.

So what is Lupton’s recipe for effective charity? It involves working with people to rebuild and reclaim their neighborhoods. It is not more social programs, but building the capacity of people to strengthen their neighborhoods. It’s community development.

This is not a quick fix and requires a long-term commitment that may be beyond the capabilities and resources of many churches and social agencies. However, Lupton cites several examples where community development has been successful, and out of these experiences he derives tested strategies. First of all, people need steady employment as work instills dignity and feelings of self worth. Creating such employment can be a tall order, recognizing that 85% of all new U.S. businesses fail within the first two years. Small businesses generated the majority of new employment, and inner city neighborhoods are a difficult environment for small businesses to thrive. Microlending built upon the principal of “trust groups” has been a successful strategy and also promotes collaboration among individuals in neighborhoods.

Another strategy with a positive track record is asset-based community development (ABCD), as developed and advocated by John McKnight, author, researcher, and professor emeritus at Northwestern University. This approach recognizes that every community or neighborhood, no matter how poor, has assets—small businesses and shops, gas stations, small offices, a library branch, social agencies, along with residents with skills that largely go unrecognized. In the ABCD model, the plan is to identify and strengthen the assets rather than focus on problems and deficiencies. In other words, as McKnight explains, you need to see the glass as half full, rather than half empty On a visit to Cincinnati in the 1990s, I recall John McKnight saying there aren’t enough resources available to address any one area’s problems, so strengthening assets is the logical way to strengthen local communities.

So, as individuals concerned about the welfare of others, what are we to do? Do we limit our giving to capacity building and other long-term efforts and back away from supporting program-specific services? First, I would say that we must recognize that giving in response to natural disasters for life sustaining services must always be a priority. With that as a given, my belief is we need to support both program-specific and community building charities. However, too much of our giving is tied to specific programs. We need more support for community-focused projects such as a Family Scholar House, a residential program for single parents and their young children that requires both parent and child to be enrolled in educational programs. (Editor’s note: Christ Church Cathedral is committed to building a Scholar House in Cincinnati.)

Overall, as a community and society we need to do a better job of involving the people we’re trying to help in solving their problems. Lupton’s book, Toxic Charity, argues that quick fixes through a social program approach may be harmful in that it doesn’t build community. It does for people not with them. As contributors, our role should be to insist that services we support meaningfully involve the people seeking help. We need to reduce the toxic effects of much of our program-based giving in favor of the healthy giving of community building initiatives.


Pat Coyle is the retired vice president of community building of the United Way of Greater Cincinnati.





Servanthood BOOK COVER

Servanthood: Leadership for the Third Millennium

by Bennett J. Sims

(Wipf & Stock, 2005)





Considering Servant Ministry

by Beverly Jones

“Won’t you let me be your servant?
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I may have the grace
To let you be my servant too.”

The sentiment of this simple hymn by Richard Gillard (“The Servants Song,” 1977) goes directly to the heart of servant ministry and its implications for leadership. “Servant” implies service to some higher authority—slave to master, subject to king, or even butler to lord, as the servant-master relationship is portrayed in the PBS series Downton Abbey.

Just as Jesus was God’s servant, the point of servant ministry is that we, in following Jesus, are meant to be servants to each other, regardless of our status. As with Jesus’ ministry, we are to care for the sick, the prisoner, the widow and the orphan, just as we are cared for by God.

Bennett J. Sims and Robert Greenleaf are two who have extended this idea into all relationships—teacher to student, priest to lay person, parent to child, boss to worker.

In his book, Servanthood: Leadership for the Third Millennium, Sims illustrates how leadership can offer support, guidance, and collaboration rather than conventional authoritarian edicts. This is a paradigm of “we” rather than “us and them.” Sims uses common examples of servanthood at work in Episcopal parishes. One story finds the vestry voting for a sanctuary redesign project on the basis of what the congregation wanted, even through this was not what a majority of vestry members had wanted. That vestry acted as servants, not as conventional top-down leaders.

Robert Greenleaf, who helped to create the concept of servant leadership and founded the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, explains:

“While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the ‘top of the pyramid,’ servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, (putting) the needs of others first, and (helping) people develop and perform as highly as possible.” 

A ministry of servanthood starts with the desire to serve—“leadership with” rather than “leadership over,” which is a desire to control or attain a position of power. Servant leaders can be found in all areas of our society, from Waldorf Schools to Patagonia, an outdoor clothing business, and more.

Organizational leaders Stephen Covey, Peter Senge, M. Scott Peck, and Margaret Wheatley are examples of writers who emerged from the servanthood and horizontal model of leadership.

We are all in relationships, so we all have the potential to become servant leaders— putting ourselves and our personal needs alongside the needs of those we serve.

“I will hold the Christ light for you
In the nighttime of your fear,
I will hold my hand out to you
Speak the peace you long to hear.”



Beverly Jones is a retired speech-language pathologist and author of Where’s Hannah and Visual Behavior.