Thursday, January 19, 2012

Review: Toxic Charity

In my ongoing quest to be a better philanthropist, I recently read Toxic Charity by Robert D. Lupton.  The full title is Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) which was a big title to live up to, and it didn't completely do it for me.

I appreciate his thesis: that in our compassion we may end up doing things that hurt and undermine the very people we intend to help.  In our good intentions, we give people things that they might be better off working for themselves.  His assessment of mission trips is particularly brutal, as he shows us unemployed people standing outside the gates of a church being poorly painted by volunteers who are paying thousands of dollars for the privilege.  When I think of the time and energy I spent rousting groups of people to do labor that might have gone to someone who needed the work and the money, I just cringe.  For this information alone, I am glad I read the book.

I also appreciate his experience.  Lupton is writing from his own background of 40 years in urban ministry, and is open about his mistakes and what he has learned from them.  His anecdotes showing what is said and done behind the scenes of the projects that make us feel so good are sobering.

But for me the weakness is that his argument seems to rest almost entirely on anecdotes.  Some things are presented as statements of fact without any corroborating evidence whatsoever.  For example, he writes that "Decades of free aid from well-meaning benefactors has produced an entitlement mentality and eroded a spirit of entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency."  That may be true, but he presents no evidence to support it.  It's a tremendously sweeping statement and one I would have liked to see some data to illustrate.

The other problem with an anecdotal argument is that it is just as easy to argue the other side with other anecdotes.  He's not very enamored of food pantries, for example, but I'm sure you could find plenty of anecdotes from people who used a food pantry for a while to get back on their feet--and who do not feel it eroded their spirit of entrepreneurship. Who's to say whose anecdote is right? I found myself aching for more research and more data on each approach and its results and effects.

I wish this were a stronger book because I think it has some important things to say, such as its astute insights into the short-term service industry, its approach to community leadership and intervention, and its examination of how one-way giving poisons relationships.  I still recommend it as a starting place for discussion and understanding, but only as a starting place. 

Even so, it changed and challenged my thinking.  I'll need to continue in my quest, but Toxic Charity at least gave me food for thought.

1 comment:

Norma said...

I agreed with much of what he said, but see no Biblical evidence that "development" rather than "benevolence" is the way to go. Jesus never called us to save neighborhoods or partner with private and gov't agencies.