Hey Change-Maker! You’ve come to this page because you love your neighbor and you want to make an impact. We want to affirm that. And we know that you want to avoid causing harm to your neighbors and your neighborhoods. That means avoiding Toxic Charity.
If you’ve been around us much, you know we talk a lot about programs when Toxic Charity comes up. Programs are one massive place where Toxic Charity rears its head. At the same time, Toxic Charity can be harder to spot in other facets of your organization or your ministry work. Let’s break down 3 of the more subtle areas where Toxic Charity shows up. If you’re not sure what Toxic Charity is – be sure to click here for a short overview!
#1 Relationships with Neighbors
First off, it’s good to notice whether or not relationships with neighbors are even present at all. If you don’t have a connection with the people your organization engages, there’s a good chance you’re falling into the patterns of toxic charity.
At the same time, knowing people’s names and saying hello isn’t necessarily the same as a healthy relationship. Often, Toxic Charity creates transactional relationships that run on suspicion, even if it’s hidden.
For example, if you are running a clothing closet that gives free clothes, you may get to a point where you are worried people are taking advantage. As a result, you may implement policies to have people prove that they really need the clothes. Staff may begin monitoring what people choose and how much they take. This type of relationship, even if there’s familiarity, is ultimately an antagonistic one.
If you feel the need to monitor the neighbors you’re in relationship with or feel worried about being harmed or taken advantage of, there’s a good chance that the dynamic is toxic.
But we know not all charitable transitions carry feelings of ill-will. There are plenty of examples of transactional charity filled with all the grace and generosity one could imagine. However, it’s still transactional and will never get us to a place of lasting impact. That requires reciprocity.
#2 Organizational Strategy
Toxic Charity usually results in poor strategy because it’s often reactive. We see a need and we respond to it. Then, since the need has a systemic cause, we react again when the need comes up again. A different need comes up and we react to that. This cycle is exhausting for everyone, and it’s difficult to create a strategy when you’re used to constantly reacting.
Let’s be clear: the compassion that motivates these reactions is good. We see painful effects of injustice and we want to rectify them. This impulse is beautiful.
But compassion for the effects of a problem does not mean we have the ability to solve the underlying causes. Charity is too often content alleviating the symptoms of material poverty without working to disrupt what causes them.
If you are looking to kick the habits of ineffective charity, work to understand what is causing the symptoms and leverage the right skills and expertise to deal with it.
#3 Your Own Mindset
We are willing to admit our programs may have toxic elements, but we are less apt to consider that toxicity may be residing in us.
One client who was working with us stopped and shared out loud, “I have biases. I realize that I have a knee-jerk reaction when I think about affordable housing and housing quality. There’s a part of me that wonders, ‘why should everyone have the same quality house if they don’t pay as much for it.’ That’s a bias I’m going to work on.”
That client took a risk and made a huge step in acknowledging their own toxicity. Biases lead to a lot of the pitfalls of Toxic Charity. We may not realize that we secretly harbor beliefs that low-income people are lazy or more prone to violence. We may think we did earn everything we have through moral superiority and hard work, rather than hard work plus systemic injustice.
Everyone has biases. Everyone has toxicity. We are all working to learn and unlearn together. Spotting your own is critical to becoming a trustworthy partner in the neighborhood.
What Comes After Toxic Charity
Ideally, we all grow into a model of what we call Holistic Neighborhood Development or HND. HND focuses on mutuality and partnership. It shares power by radically centering neighborhood voices and leadership. HND measures success by impact, not activity. It pursues long-term flourishing of entire neighborhoods. It builds relationships and ultimately transforms every person involved. We all change and make change together.
Click here to learn more about Holistic Neighborhood Development.