Toxic Charity

A few years ago, my good friend and colleague Kathleen Masters gave me a book, Toxic Charity, by Robert Lupton. It’s a book written about the good desires of churches and missions trying to help, but creating unintended consequences of more hurt for those they are trying to help. It doesn’t just apply to churches.

In revisiting this book lately, I remembered the clear example of toxicity shared by the author. It was of a U.S. mission team rushing to Honduras to rebuild homes destroyed by a hurricane. The cost was $30,000 per home. The cost for locals to do it would have been $3,000 per home.

Or this example, a mission trip to repaint an orphanage equal in total cost to what would be needed to hire two local painters and two new full-time teachers, and purchase new uniforms for every student in the school.

Yikes, right.

Now let’s be clear. Mission trips aren’t just about a financial transaction. There are many unseen qualities that can’t be priced. Relationships that change who we are. Stories that we carry for forty years into the future. Being cracked open to sorrow and joy in others and in ourselves. All of that matters. A lot.

And, there is something to be said for reevaluating the values of our giving so as to create more sustainability. Yes, there is the old story of teaching a person to fish rather than giving the person a fish each day.

Lupton offers a compelling “Oath for Compassionate Service” that feels well worth remembering.

  • 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 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.

What I appreciate most in Lupton’s words are that he is helping to evolve an orientation. From the well-intended “give, give, give” to a message of “empower.” It’s an evolution from “doing to” to “doing with.” Even good things can turn out to be toxic — thanks Robert Lupton for helping shed some light on this evolution of charity.

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