In October 2011, a transformative book hit the scene. Bob Lupton had penned Toxic Charity: How the Churches and Charities Hurts Those They Help and How to Reverse It. The book shined a light on the ways traditional charity models typically failed to alleviate poverty, and how they often harmed people in the name of service. The book sent shockwaves through many church communities and nonprofits who realized that they were using the harmful models described and wanted to do better. That desire to change and to become more effective is part of why FCS launched a training and consulting division known as the Lupton Center.
It’s been nearly 10 years since Toxic Charity first came out. Its core messages ring as true as ever. Today, we want to share some of the key insights from Toxic Charity and the ways we have continued to grow from its roots.
What was Toxic Charity the Book
Toxic Charity was a book that Bob Lupton published in 2011. At the time of its publication, Bob Lupton and his wife Peggy had lived and worked in Atlanta for nearly 40 years. The organization Bob founded, which was initially called Family Consultation Services, was working to revitalize neighborhoods in Atlanta that had been deeply affected by systemic injustice.
Living alongside neighbors in Atlanta, Bob started to notice the ways many charity programs were unhelpful at best and at worst downright degrading. At the same time, he knew that everyone coming to his neighborhood to do charity had their hearts in the right place. Many of them truly wanted to help. They simply had no idea what they were doing was harmful.
Bob wrote Toxic Charity to illustrate the reality of what was going on for his mostly white, mostly middle and upper class, mostly educated, and overwhelmingly Christian peers. He wanted them to see the true effects of their charity and offer them a new model.
What is Toxic Charity
At its core, Toxic Charity is trying to address chronic ongoing poverty through one-way crisis relief. Common charity models like toy giveaways, school supply handouts, food pantries, and the like are examples of short-term fixes focused on transferring resources. The issues they address tend to be much broader, larger, and more systemic. As a result, one-way charity rarely solves the underlying issue, but results in a cycle of continual one-way giving and receiving.
Unfortunately, Toxic charity can end up reinforcing assumptions about givers and receivers, namely the idea that receivers core issue is that they “lack” items or resources and “need” someone to provide them. This paradigm can bolster deeper biases, like the idea that low-income people don’t know how to manage money or don’t work hard enough.
Toxic Charity can get even more dangerous when a “giver” or program has little geographic or relational tie to the people they’re giving to. Commuting into a neighborhood to give hand-outs can make it more difficult to form relationships based on dignity and trust.
Why Toxic Charity was such an important book
Bob was living in the same community where he was working when Toxic Charity came out. He wrote about the importance of mutual relationships and geographic connection. For many readers, this was an unusual set-up. Bob also challenged a lot of the approaches that many charities and faith-based programs were using to make change. It named some weaknesses and opportunities for growth in a new way!
The idea that transferring resources will fix systemic injustice is still a pervasive misconception. Toxic Charity pointed out that this approach will never solve poverty or other systemic injustices. It’s a lesson that remains relevant today, especially for people of faith we encounter. We meet change-makers all the time who have never heard of a different paradigm than one-way giving. For folks like these, Toxic Charity continues to be a key revelation.
Common Toxic Charity Mistakes
We talk to Change-Makers who really want to make a difference every day. Here are a few common Toxic Charity mistakes:
Only Focusing on Resource Transfer
Sometimes it can be tempting to try to transfer resources, only in a slightly more dignifying way. For example, we’ve encountered Change-Makers who realized that handing out Christmas presents to children can be really embarrassing for parents — it’s toxic charity. The next step they take is hosting a Christmas store where parents can come and select toys for their kids, wrap them, and give them to their children. This is an absolutely improved model, and it’s one we use ourselves every year for Pride for Parents! What’s key is that we know the toy store won’t solve material needs. Resource transfer can be a healthy ecosystem and a way for organizations to engage, but it is not in itself the solution we are pursuing. This toy store isn’t the only way we come alongside a neighborhood here in Historic South Atlanta.
Shifting to Development without Relationships
Proximity, or being emotionally, physically, and geographically integrated with the neighborhood where you want to work is absolutely essential. Change moves at the speed of trust. Trust is impossible without building neighborhood relationships. Relationships are shallow without time spent listening, learning, and seeking to understand. Yes, it can feel slow, and we know it can be tempting at times to change the systemic realities of a place without investing in relationships. Unfortunately, working on a systemic level without collaborating with neighbors can look like doing development to people without their consent. Building new roads or businesses can be great, but if they’re completed without community buy-in, they will rarely make a difference and can even cause harm.
Locating Toxicity in Neighbors
We all have biases. Interrogating them is critical to being a trustworthy partner. One common error we’ve seen is change-makers trying to change their models without changing their own hearts. We have seen some people try to make change while still viewing their neighbors or neighborhoods as deficient. We’ve had tough conversations with some people who come to the conclusion that Toxic Charity is toxic because recipients are greedy or lazy. These biases will get in the way of trust and true partnership. Beliefs like these also tend to ignore local history and the realities of systemic injustice. We encourage everyone to examine their internal biases and to examine the histories of systemic injustice. We’re all part of systems that oppress some and give others an advantage. We’re all also un-learning prejudices and assumptions we have. It’s a journey!
Ways Toxic Charity has changed us
The key concepts of Toxic Charity have changed everything for us! Some of the most obvious ways we’ve changed are in our language. For example, we’ve moved away from deficit-based language like “serving the poor.” Communities aren’t impoverished or poor. They have been economically marginalized, often through intersecting systems over time. We’ve also tended to focus on the strengths of the communities where we live and work.
You may also notice that we talk about “ministry” in a specific way. Ministry is beautiful and good. At the same time, we want to emphasize the key role of collaboration in high-impact work. We are co-ministers with our neighbors, and we receive the ministry of our partners as much as we extend ours to them.
Toxic Charity taught us the importance of keeping impact on neighbors front and center. When we work with clients, we tell them right off the bat that we will evaluate all of their endeavors by the way it affects neighbors’ lives. Toxic Charity rightfully recognized that people with the right intentions can still do harm. We need to pay attention to the fruit we see for real people, and the people who are most affected.
Last but not least: the lessons of Toxic Charity convinced us that proximity is the single greatest factor when doing neighborhood development work. Getting close to the place where you work, knowing your neighbors, fundamentally shifts the way you understand what’s happening there. You begin to see the complex systems at work. You see the innate dignity and strength of the people. You learn the history of the place. Toxic Charity taught us that relationships can steer Change-Makers away from a lot of common pitfalls.
Lessons Learned in 10 Years of Toxic Charity
It’s been 10 years since Toxic Charity was published! One of the core values Bob presents in the book is a willingness to constantly learn and keep seeking out new perspectives. In adapting, we cultivate a willingness and throw out what doesn’t work anymore. We’ve embraced that spirit. It’s one of the reasons we’ve continued to build upon the principles of Toxic Charity and shift our understanding over time.
One of the biggest moves we’ve made is centering perspectives from people who are different than we are. Listening to our neighbors holistically means learning from their wisdom. We must center a different perspective through what we read and who we listen to. Toxic Charity is a phenomenal book. And we recognize that its audience has tended to be mostly white, middle-class, and Christian. As we’ve listened more closely to our neighbors, we find ourselves reading materials and thought leadership from people who represent different identities and experiences, too!
What Comes After Toxic Charity
We’ve grown from Toxic Charity into a model we call Holistic Neighborhood Development or HND. HND focuses on mutuality and partnership. Transactional relationships get avoided. It measures success by impact, not activity. It pursues long-term flourishing of entire neighborhoods. This model relentlessly pursues relational equity. It doesn’t just seek the opinions of neighbors. It has mechanisms that make us directly accountable to these neighbors. The work of HND must disrupt power inequities by design. Professionals in HND must answer to people they “serve” and vice versa as mutual partners.
Just like Toxic Charity was applicable to everyone making change, HND can transform your development work. Whether you are in an urban neighborhood, a rural county, or a community in the developing world, our team can put these principles and practices to work for you.
Click here to learn more about Holistic Neighborhood Development.
We are beyond grateful for Bob Lupton, the wisdom and lessons we’ve learned from him and the freedom he’s given us to continue learning based on the principles of Toxic Charity. We’re grateful for Toxic Charity, both the book and its concepts. It pointed Change-Makers across the globe towards a more equitable form of engaging injustice. Now, we are even more proud to be charting a course towards making deeper, even more lasting change.
If Toxic Charity is new to you, the best place to start learning more is to take our Seeking Shalom course. This course will give you an in-depth look at what comes immediately after Toxic Charity, and the steps you can take to make your charity less toxic today.