Toxic Charity – revisiting an important book

About eight years ago, I wrote this post based on my reading of “Toxic Charity,” conversations with the author and my volunteer work to help working homeless families. The book remains relevant today.

I have made reference on several occasions to a must read book written by Robert (Bob) Lupton called “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt those They Help and How to Reverse it.” I had the good fortune to hear Lupton speak about his experiences and how he came to this view on toxic charity. To those who do not know his story, he felt called to move into the impoverished areas of Atlanta to live near and like the people he was trying to help. From this vantage point, he witnessed and gleaned a far better and more impactful way of helping people in need. His premise based on this first hand anecdotal evidence is well intended volunteers and donors often do more harm than good in their outreach.

In essence, they do for people what the people can do for themselves, both here and abroad. His mantra is we should help people climb a ladder, but do it in a way they can maintain their self-esteem and their efforts can be sustained. He notes that true charity should be reserved for emergency situations like Hurricane Sandy. A few examples may help.

– From the feedback from those being helped and his observations, it is far better to provide a discount store of donated goods which caters to those in need as customers. When clothes are just given away it creates an entitlement society and the relationship can be adversarial which is counterproductive to all parties. He told the story that everyone likes to find a bargain. So, why should we deny that opportunity to those in poverty. This will help people in need with budgeting and the pride in saving up money to purchase a good deal on something they need.

– Rather than giving food away, he has witnessed it is far better to have food cooperatives. They would have each family pay a weekly stipend such as $3 to join a food co-op. These funds would be used to buy discounted food to pool with the donated food. The co-op begins an association with others that usually proves fruitful with recipe sharing, neighborhood dinners, restaurant development, etc. It also allows the deployment of better food for the recipients.

– Rather than have parishioners donate time and energy on projects that are mis-prioritized, mismanaged and misimplemented, use the volunteers for more employment and entrepreneurial activities such as helping people set up a small business, learn a trade, understand a business plan or network to find a job. This will use the skills of the volunteers in a more impactful way. He also notes we should let the community leaders decide on what is most needed (community initiated), actually lead the efforts (community led) and allow time for mutual information sharing (how their faith is important to both giver and recipient).

– Find ways to invest in the community to improve on assets in existence. This Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) is critical to leveraging what is there (such as a school, playground, golf course, clinic, etc.) and works well with the community. Schools for example, are critical not only to the education of the kids, but after school programs for kids and adults, and a place where communities can gather. He noted an example where a developer in Atlanta bought a golf course and improved the neighborhood around it using a 50/50 mixture of market based and affordable housing. The golf course provided jobs and recreation to these mixed income families and gentrified a run down neighborhood.

The charity I am involved with for homeless families follows his empowerment model. We try not to do for the families what they can do for themselves. The families receive rent subsidized housing based on their ability to pay, meaning they must pay a portion of the rent. They must also save money for their eventual exit from the program. We help them buy a car on more favorable terms than 23% interest, yet they have to pay for car, insurance and upkeep. They must work with our social workers to make better decisions, improve their education, attend career development and budget more wisely. We are helping them climb the ladder, but they have to do it. We cannot and will not push them up the ladder.

Lupton speaks of “The Oath for Compassionate Service” which builds off the Hippocratic Oath for Doctors and is as follows:

– 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.

One of the things I have observed about people in need is their network of people with connections or skills they need is very narrow or non-existent. In fact, homeless families or individuals may have exhausted their only network of friends and family. I often help friends or relatives of friends and family network to find a job or resource. Others would do this for my friends and relatives in need. Yet, who can someone in poverty reach out to except people who are also in poverty? So, church goers who sit in the pews every Sunday have an abundance of knowledge and connections that is better suited to help those in need. Following Lupton’s example, if we can provide more intersections of those in need and those who can connect the dots for them, more success would be witnessed. There would be more ladders out of poverty.

Lupton made a telling observation in his speech. We are a very generous nation of people. We donate billions of money and time to help, but what do we have to show for it? Poverty has increased. The key is to help people find the opportunities, the ladders out of poverty. We can look for ways to help them climb the ladders, but they have to do it to make it sustainable.

Dems need to support their candidate regardless (otherwise you are assuring a Trump win)

I wrote the following comment on a progressive blog I follow. The comment speaks for itself.

I do enjoy reading your blog. As an independent voter who is fiscally conservative and socially progressive, it is good to get a lay of the land. As I share with my conservative friends, I don’t care if people are more conservative than me on issues or more progressive, let’s try to deal with facts to solve problems. Many moons ago, people ran on rhetoric, then set that aside and governed more off facts. Now, with 24×7 news and eternal campaigning, we are governing off rhetoric. That is sad and not good for our country.

What I am confused about on some of the comments is how in the world Joe Biden is remotely equated with the most corrupt and deceitful president in my lifetime. Biden is far from perfect, but to be brutally honest with you so is Bernie. And, so am I. But, they both are good and decent people, which is a far cry from a president who thinks first of himself and his brand. Everything goes back to his fragile ego. Biden is not that, nor is Sanders.

I will vote for Bernie if he is the nominee, but that is looking as more of a long shot. I do prefer Biden, though, as it appears many of the Democrat voters do. I do wish Bernie would lay off the rigged against him stuff. The brutal truth is his votes are fewer than in 2016 and he is not garnering enough from all parts of the Democrat party. I recognize fully, this paragraph in particular, will cause consternation, but the facts are speaking for themselves.

I do like that Bernie is pushing for Biden to consider more of his perspective. I am all for the detailed exploration of ideas that Bernie and folks like Andrew Yang, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg have. I like the thought process.

As someone who has been involved in helping homeless working families climb ladders back to self-sustainable housing, we must push forward with at least living wages (although I really like Yang’s idea), we must have investment in communities that are disenfranchised, we must have access to healthcare (and yes we should explore Medicare for All in detail while we shore up the ACA in the interim), and we must encourage family planning, including access to birth control and education. There is a high correlation to poverty and larger family sizes. Most of our homeless clients are working mothers, the fastest growing segment of homeless people in the country.*

I am sorry to ramble. But, let me throw something out at you. If Biden is the nominee and you do not support him, four more years of Trump will lead to a 7-2 conservative supermajority on SCOTUS and more environmental degradation and climate change concerns. We will miss a huge window that AOC and Greta Thunberg (my hero) are rightfully concerned about.

To be brutally frank, equating Biden with Trump is not even close to being accurate. I am sorry you and others may not feel this way. I wish this old fart could convince you.

* Note: This footnote was not part of the comment. As someone who has been around charitable organizations, it is vital that we ask them to measure outcomes and report on their success to funders. To be frank, there are too many benevolent band-aids that do not solve the problems they are fighting. They put a band-aid on to provide temporary easing. The same holds true for some governmental programs. That is not altogether bad, but we need to address the needs.

While too many conservatives try to paint people being helped with a very minuscule few malingerers, we still need to try to use money wisely and get people back to self-sustainability. Help them climb a ladder, but they need to climb it. Now, there are some who will need more care than others. As I used to tell church and business groups, when you have met one homeless person, you have met one homeless person. There are many types of homeless people.

There is an excellent book by Bob Lupton called “Toxic Charity.” Lupton used to help Vietnam vets, but eventually moved in to live among people he was helping. His premise is charity should be reserved for emergencies. We should help people climb the ladder back to self-sufficiency. He is very big on food co-ops and consignment stores in neighborhoods with need versus giving out free things. This allows people to maintain their dignity as they get help. The books is worth the read.

The Anti-Charity Charity

In his book “Toxic Charity,” Bob Lupton writes from experience that charity should be reserved for true emergencies*.  When a person loses his home (or is about to) due to sudden natural or economic causes, then people stepping in to help is definitely in order. Yet, after the emergency subsides, the more efficacious way to help people should change. We definitely should help people, but do our best not to do for them what they can do themselves.

I am involved as a volunteer with an agency that helps homeless families. We believe in empowering our homeless families—working in partnership with them to secure safe and stable housing and to create lasting change. These are things we know are necessary to break the cycle of generational poverty and become self-sufficient. When families have permanent housing, strong personal relationships and motivation to change, families will have the best chance to move out of a life of poverty and into a life of self-sufficiency.

Our families are working families—people you meet when you go to your doctor’s office or your child’s school, etc. Many have lost their homes due to a reduction in work hours, a medical crisis, domestic violence or some other financial or social setback. Our families were living paycheck to paycheck and with one small change, their world was turned upside down.

To access the full support of our agency, our families have to do their part. Families attend classes to learn better budgeting and financial skills, and they meet weekly with a social worker who challenges and encourages them to make better decisions. Also, after saving for a down payment, they work with a housing specialist to obtain affordable permanent housing. Families also receive supportive services from volunteer mentoring teams, which we call “Hope Teams.” Our model is simple—to help homeless families help themselves.

To be the best stewards of our families, funders and volunteers, we constantly evaluate our model to ensure that we are creating lasting and permanent change in the lives of the families we serve. In our last fiscal year, 91% of our families were self-sufficient after completing the housing part of our program. And, we just completed an exhaustive measurement exercise to learn that 88% of the families that exited our program into housing have sustained their housing on their own after three, six, twelve and twenty-four months milestones.

Our staff and Board of Directors know this model serves our clients in a respectful and effective manner—and we have the outcomes to prove it. The key takeaways are to help people climb the ladder, but not climb it for them. And, entrust the people closest to the client figure out the how to tweak or improve the model. Finally, measure outcomes. It is important to use your funders’ dollars judiciously and your volunteers’ time and efforts wisely. This stewardship is essential to success for our families.