10 Lessons We’ve Learned in 10 Years of Toxic Charity

Here are our top 10 insights in how to avoid Toxic Charity. We’ve learned these lessons in the 10 years since Toxic Charity first came out! FCS Founder Bob Lupton shined a light on the ways that traditional philanthropic models were failing to have a lasting impact. His insights helped to birth the Training and Consulting […]

Here are our top 10 insights in how to avoid Toxic Charity. We’ve learned these lessons in the 10 years since Toxic Charity first came out!

FCS Founder Bob Lupton shined a light on the ways that traditional philanthropic models were failing to have a lasting impact. His insights helped to birth the Training and Consulting division of FCS, now known as The Lupton Center. We have been journeying with other Change-Makers ever since. 

The core messages of Toxic Charity ring as true as ever! At the same time, we have learned a lot over the years – especially from listening to our neighbors. As we mark 10 years since the publication of Toxic Charity, here’s 10 things we’ve learned. 

#1 We must go beyond re-designing programs

Toxic Charity rightfully pointed out that one-way giving often ends up dehumanizing both the giver and the recipient. It creates an interaction that’s all about transferring material resources. Even worse, it adds the discomfort of an obvious power imbalance.

Many people (including our own organization), respond by changing give-away programs. Usually they get shifted into something a little more mutual. Instead of handing out items for free, families may pay a small fee or participate in a co-op. Our own program, Pride for Parents, is a great example of how a program can be updated to be more dignifying! 

Over time, we’ve realized that while re-designing programs is great, we must go further if we want to make lasting change. Even the best-designed program can’t reshape systems to be more equitable. We must take a holistic approach and see how our programs fit in with an approach that aims to transform places, not just reform programs!

#2 Charity isn’t automatically toxic

A surface real of  Toxic Charity has left some thinking that charity is always being toxic. It’s not! Charity is the right move sometimes. In times of crisis – charity and relief work are the best move. We saw this first-hand when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out. Lots of Change-Makers had to figure out how to support the immediate needs brought on by a seismic event. 

In the same way, showing hospitality isn’t toxic, either. In fact, hospitality is essential to building mutual relationships! Hospitality has no expectation except welcome and relationship. It’s often one-way and shares resources in a way that builds everyone’s comfort and dignity. This is really important for holistic neighborhood development. 

#3 Development isn’t automatically non-toxic 

This one might surprise a few folks. Over the years, we’ve learned that focusing on systems in a neighborhood isn’t necessarily a panacea. Community Development that happens without relationships, without neighbors’ input, and without close coalition-building, can do more harm than good. We have learned that our approach to community development has to prioritize partnership with the residents. In order to do that, we have to be constantly learning and listening. Programs must change in response to neighborhood feedback and results. Development approaches must, too. If they want to be healthy, of course. Even the best development strategies when do TO a community or FOR a community instead of WITH a community can be toxic.

#4 Focusing on Place Matters Most

The neighborhood is the unit of change. If we want to transform systems and people’s lives, we need to start by embedding in a specific place. Research shows that people are most affected by the realities within a half-mile radius. That’s where transformation occurs. 

Focusing on place allows us to see more of the nuances and intricacies that affect life there. A program or development approach that works in one neighborhood may not work in another. Getting to know a place allows us to see what could bring flourishing there. 

Toxic  Charity left too many of us thinking about programs rather than places. We must learn the history of the place and the background of why things are the way they are. This place-specific awareness grows our respect for the neighborhood and neighbors. It paves the way for meaningful partnership and meaningful solutions. It is in this place-based context that our programs can begin to contribute to lasting change.

#5 Proximity is Essential 

This is one of the biggest Toxic Charity lessons we’ve learned: focusing on a place isn’t enough! We have to get close. Ideally, that means having Change-Makers integrate into the neighborhood. It means living there, being a neighbor. It means cultivating meaningful relationships with long-term residents. Part of why this work is so important is because it challenges our assumptions. We learn about challenges we didn’t see. We hear why our first ideas of how to make change might not work. For some Change-Makers, we come into contact with people vastly different than ourselves. For others, we come back into contact with systems we worked hard to escape. 

At the core, proximity in a place challenges us to grow. It grows our mindset and ability to hold complexity. In this way, proximity helps us build capacity to listen and go slowly. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard!

#6 It Takes Work to Share Power with the Right Stakeholders

One of the biggest pivots we’ve seen is in turning over power to neighbors and local stakeholders. Even if we focus on place, revamp our programming, and build relationships – we may still not be sharing power. 

Learning how to become accountable to neighbors, and results that neighbors care about, is a long journey. Often, nonprofit or ministry models are structured to prioritize people who already have power. Donors, volunteers, board members – these are often the folks who we listen to first. We are taught they have the most obvious influence the fate of the organization. 

Since Toxic Charity came out, we’ve learned new ways to make sure our organization is accountable to the neighborhood. It means structuring the organization itself to make sure that the neighborhood can determine its course. 

#7 Neighbors Contributing is different than Neighbors Leading

A corollary to #6 – we’ve learned that just because neighbors are participating in your work doesn’t mean you’re letting them lead. Over our years working with Change-Makers, we have seen that it’s much easier to include residents in what the organization already wants to do. But in order to make lasting change, we need to make sure people experiencing the effects of systemic injustice get to lead. Their ideas must be at the forefront. Their leadership styles or approaches must be respected and given space. 

Unless we’re careful, participation can masquerade as power-sharing. We must be sure that we’re identifying local leaders and following them, too. 

#8 We Can Be A Big Source of Toxicity

When Toxic Charity first came out, one of its great strengths was Bob’s honesty in sharing about his own biases. He unfolded toxic charity lessons that he learned about his own prejudice or preconceived notions. He talked about how he had to work through a lot of his own toxicity in order to get rid of toxic charity.

He was right! Healthy work is virtually impossible without healthy people and healthy organizations. This means addressing everything from work cultures to funding models. It includes dealing with our own personal baggage and stigmas. Taking a holistic approach to people within the organization and helping them grow is vital to making a lasting, healthy impact. 

#9 Knowing Our Biases Doesn’t Automatically Change Them

Knowledge is power! Unfortunately, we’ve learned it’s often not sufficient on its own to activate change. We have been so heartened to see more and more Change-Makers engage with material around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. People are learning about systemic bias and identifying it within themselves. This is a phenomenal development.

At the same time, we’ve noticed that people who have learned to recognize their biases don’t automatically have the tools to change them. It’s even harder to erase those biases from an organization. It’s not enough to recognize that we’re treating someone unjustly. We must take steps to share power and make the situation more equitable so we don’t have as many chances to perpetuate that injustice. It takes work! Even for us at FCS, it’s a toxic charity lesson that we are constantly learning to implement.

#10 We must always keep learning new lessons

In case you didn’t notice, we’ve learned a lot of toxic charity lessons over the past 10 years! The last thing we’ve learned since Toxic Charity came out is that we’ll probably never stop learning. Our neighborhoods change. The fabric of our society changes. We change, too. That means that we must constantly adapt to change. We stay humble and keep learning together. Who knows what other toxic charity lessons we will glean in the next 10 years!

What are some key takeaways that you’ve learned from your Change-Making work? Share them with us! We’d love to hear from you.