No Toxic Fish

Giving shouldn’t just feel good; it should do good. Dr. Robert Lupton, author of Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help and How to Reverse It explains the difference in the Episcopal Booksellers Association Authors Series on Thursday, August 12 at 6:00 p.m. Central.

We’ve all heard the adage “Buy a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach him to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” It’s good common sense: give skills rather than gifts. But until Bob Lupton published his book Toxic Charity in 2011, the good works and generosity of churches, schools, and charities often didn’t connect with this concept. How many of us have been involved in Christmas Drives that gathered bicycles and new dolls for underprivileged children, or bought presents off a list for everyone in a family? How many parties have we been to where the price of admission was a toy for a needy child? And what makes us feel better than a day spent working with colleagues at a food bank, processing meals for hungry families? It feels good to care for others; it feels good to be generous. How could that be toxic?

When I first heard the title of this book, I found myself getting irritated: What’s the problem with being generous? People can make an issue out of anything these days. But after that initial knee-jerk, I read further. And I realized the connection between the old fish-saying and Lupton’s message. Toxic Charity isn’t about suppressing the urge to help those in need in our communities, it is about how to actually help them.

He begins by describing what he calls “The Scandal,” which is the situation where charitable giving is being wasted or is harming the people it is intended to help. At the time of writing this book, Lupton had worked over forty years in inner-city Atlanta and around the world trying to create models of urban renewal that actually served the poor. He worked with every type of helping organization that exists—churches, corporate volunteers, entrepreneurs, government agencies and individuals. There is no shortage of people desiring to help: according to Lupton, almost 90% of American adults are involved either personally or financially in the charity industry.  The upside of helping is well-established.

But the outcomes are unexamined. “The food we ship to Haiti, the well we dig in Sudan, the clothes we distribute in inner-city Detroit—all seem like such worthy efforts. Yet those closest to the ground—on the receiving end of this outpouring of generosity—quietly admit that it may be hurting more than helping.” While that seems surprising, Lupton goes on to explain that the heart of the scandal is that this type of giving creates dependency. It destroys personal initiative. And he gives many examples of charity that has caused communities to stagnate or even regress. The aid received becomes “the disease of which it pretends to be the cure.”

On the surface, it’s a very sad thought. But the strength of Lupton’s message is that it takes us beneath the surface. He details the difference between the type of aid a community needs when it is in crisis—after a storm, an earthquake, or another tragedy—versus the type of support it needs to face chronic problems. He explains how human nature affects both ends of the charitable spectrum. It is easier to collect old clothes and drop them off than it is to work with people to create a thrift store that they can run and that allows them to regain their dignity. It is easier to give people food than it is to work with them to create a food co-op where they have responsibility and ownership for the care of their own community. Aid agencies often aren’t able to shift their actions from “crisis relief to the more complex work of long-term development.” And when that transition is not made in a timely way, “compassion becomes toxic.”

In his experience, Lupton has seen example after example of charitable relationships that soured because the basic formula of giving and taking creates imbalance. His book provides a mission statement for healthy compassionate service, in the form of an oath, and he explores the principles outlined to create redemptive rather than toxic interactions between those with resources and those who need them. His examples are sometimes shocking—mission churches that have been painted ten times in one summer; demanding “vacationaries” who pay exorbitant sums to “help” by doing work that has to be undone once they leave; churches that spend tens of thousands of dollars on mission trips for their members to lay tile that will need to be ripped out when the community they mean to serve has real needs the money could address; and many, many more examples of both groups and individuals who suffer from the outcomes of toxic charity. But as he explains the power dynamics of the giver and the receiver, and reiterates the difference between crisis and development, it is clear how situations like these would evolve time and again if we don’t change the model.

Once we recognize what healthy helping can look like, we need to recognize that it can be challenging to move beyond what he calls “us-based giving.” People on both ends of the formula will push back. It’s harder to get someone to come and work than it is to get them to come in and get a handout. It is harder to form relationships with people whose situations are different than ours than it is to write a check. We need to focus our efforts and move from betterment to development. It is obvious that it is harder to teach someone to fish than it is to go to the store and buy a box of fish sticks, but the book goes into the nuances of very specific types of charitable giving and service, outlining both pitfalls and solutions.  

Lupton paints a clear picture of what will happen if we don’t realign our charitable impulses with actual outcomes.  When I finished, I realized that my initial irritation was defensive: It’s scary to enter into relationships with people who are needy, but it is what we are called to do. If our intention is to truly help people, we need to do it in a way that helps them, rather than provides a quick fix for them and a helping-high for us. To modify another old expression, the road to hell is badly paved by well-intended, unskilled volunteers who didn’t take the time to understand or work with the people they were trying to help. Lupton reminds us that our intentions can be used for good. There will always be need, and we are always called to help. But we need to be honest about the situation and about ourselves before we decide how to proceed. Although it’s not a new book, it has new relevance now as we reconsider many of the relationships and attitudes in our communities. Reading Toxic Charity would be time well-spent before beginning or continuing any outreach program. Everyone deserves the opportunity to catch their own fish.

Dr. Lupton will be in conversation with the Rev. Dr. David Barr, Associate Rector at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, TN, as part of the Episcopal Booksellers Association Authors Series on Thursday, August 12 at 6:00 p.m. Central time on Zoom.

For the link to the conversation, click here.

To purchase the book from The Cathedral Bookstore, click here.

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds you plant.
~Robert Louis Stevenson

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