Our founder Bob Lupton published Toxic Charity ten years ago. After years of working alongside neighbors in Atlanta, he realized the ways that well-meaning people who wanted to help ended up causing harm to the very people they wanted to serve. His passion to help helpers is part of what spurred the creation of the Lupton Center to begin with.
Toxic Charity can creep in even for the most seasoned Change-Makers.
At its core, Toxic Charity is trying to address chronic ongoing issues through one-way giving. It often looks like this: people with resources give to those who lack resources. This kind of giving approaches inequity as though the core issue is that people don’t have the same amount of “stuff.”
Of course, we know that inequity is much more complex than an imbalance of resources. It’s a symptom of something larger. Toxic Charity often ignores that complexity. As a result, it can end up making the recipients of charity objects of pity. It can mean that well-meaning people and organizations stifle local economies or local initiatives by coming in with overwhelming amounts of resources, connections, or power.
More often than not, Toxic Charity conserves power with the giver.
Toxic Charity shares stuff, but not power or agency. It usually doesn’t engage with systems or multiple drivers of inequity. As a result, it tends not to have a long-term impact on the issue it purports to address. A food pantry does not solve food insecurity. A Toy Drive cannot address the economic realities that mean some families can’t afford toys. The cycle of injustice continues.
Over time, Toxic Charity can be deeply disempowering to neighbors and a neighborhood. As such, it can end up harming the people who are supposed to benefit from the initiative. It can create an antagonistic or condescending relationship between givers and recipients. Because these power differentials persist, Toxic Charity can reinforce deeper biases, like the idea that low-income people don’t know how to manage money or don’t work hard enough.
Relationships and Proximity Help Prevent Toxic Charity.
You may have heard us say that proximity is the single most important part of holistic neighborhood development.
As we mentioned above, Toxic Charity can damage relationships. One of the ways Toxic Charity damages relationships is because it gets in the way of creating meaningful ones! Too often, Toxic Charity doesn’t rely on getting to know people or their lives. The program, the handout, and how the giver feels become the most important elements of the charity. This focus leaves little room for the complexity, messiness, and unpredictability of relationships with real people!
Geographic distance plays a large role in this dynamic. When people commute to their charity, they rarely get a good view of the beauty of the neighborhood where they do charity work. Practitioners of this kind of charity tend to see mostly … their program. One group drives across town to bring resources to a different community who appears to lack those resources. This exchange is often done in a transactional, rather than relational, way.
The further the distance there is between those experiencing material poverty and those who seek to help, the more ineffective and harmful the efforts will be. It is in the context of kinship – of true belonging – that Change-Makers can begin to understand the holistic context of the neighborhood. They can begin to see the strengths and ongoing efforts of their neighbors. It is through relationship transformative collaboration and power-sharing come about.
Through proximity, mutual transformation begins to take place and real solutions to real issues become possible. If you are looking to kick the habits of unhealthy charity, start by building meaningful relationships. This includes with other organizations – you’re not going to be able to solve inequality alone! To make meaningful change, you’ll need to partner with others who have expertise in the different areas that make a community thrive.
We are all susceptible to the mindsets and habits of Toxic Charity sometimes. When we catch ourselves falling into it, we can always come back to the core frameworks of Holistic Neighborhood Development. We can come back to relationships, to our neighbors, and re-align with the goals that the community has created.
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.