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Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help

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Veteran urban activist Robert Lupton reveals the shockingly toxic effects that modern charity has upon the very people meant to benefit from it. Toxic Charity provides proven new models for charitable groups who want to help—not sabotage—those whom they desire to serve. Lupton, the founder of FCS Urban Ministries (Focused Community Strategies) in Atlanta, the voice of the Urban Perspectives newsletter, and the author of Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life , has been at the forefront of urban ministry activism for forty years. Now, in the vein of Jeffrey Sachs’s The End of Poverty , Richard Stearns’s The Hole in Our Gospel , and Gregory Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart , his groundbreaking Toxic Charity shows us how to start serving needy and impoverished members of our communities in a way that will lead to lasting, real-world change.

208 pages, Hardcover

First published October 11, 2011

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About the author

Robert D. Lupton

7 books27 followers
Bob Lupton is the founder and president of FCS Urban Ministries, a non-profit organization serving inner-city Atlanta, and is on the board of the Christian Community Development Association. He is a Vietnam veteran, has a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Georgia, and consults and lectures internationally on urban issues.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 660 reviews
Profile Image for Idiosyncratic.
104 reviews1 follower
July 20, 2016
I have worked in an extremely poor neighbourhood for 15 years. While there were some useful concepts in this book, it was still essentially a middle-class viewpoint on what the poor should do to cure their ills. The lack of awareness in this book was summed up in a sentence where he talked about " 'lifestyle' poverty" versus "true emergency". "Lifestyle" poverty? REALLY? That, to me, was a dead giveaway that, underneath all his well-meaning thoughts and work, he is really only interested in the "deserving" poor . Having said that, for people who haven't thought much about the pernicious effects of "here-you-go" charity, it's worth a read. I suspect "The Revolution Will Not Be Funded" is a much more useful, well-thought-out book (I have yet to read it, but will)>
Profile Image for Jan Rice.
532 reviews460 followers
February 8, 2017

This is a controversial book. In some circles this review might be as controversial as, say, one on a book on evolution by an author tarred with creationist leanings, or as one seen as suggesting that morality requires a religious basis. But perhaps the circles in which this one might be controversial are not my usual Goodreads circles.

The 2011 review in The Christian Century says it will ruffle some feathers, and that's an understatement.

The author gave a presentation on his next book (same topic) during Labor Day weekend 2015 at the Decatur Book Festival--the first I'd heard of him or either of these books. I thought it behooved me to read the first one first.

He is coming entirely from a Christian viewpoint, with a target audience of churches, both leaders and members. What he has to say would certainly be applicable for others; it's just that he's talking to Christians and never mentions interfaith or any other group besides Christians. The closest he comes to mentioning anything else is one reference to Judeo-Christian traditions. Thus, what he has to say is all the more surprising (to me, I mean, of course, although probably to others as well).

Some of his points: (1) There is a difference between emergencies, on one hand, and lifestyle poverty, on the other, poverty in developed countries no longer entailing starvation. (2) Traditional alms-giving and donated goods and services help in the former case (emergencies) but hurt in the latter (long-term ingrained and institutionalized problems). (3) Charitable giving by and large is geared to meeting the needs of the giver(s), not the recipients (and in fact in some cases is big business). (4) Typical charitable efforts demean the intended recipients and further sideline them when it comes to responding effectively on their own behalf. (5) Typical efforts emphasize the negative in a target community, as doing so both galvanizes giving and maximizes the psychological rewards for having done so, but it's focusing on the positive--the available resources and the skills and initiative of the natural leadership, that is, the potential--that will enable change. And much more: The author goes into detail about food banks, charitable drives, and mission trips, showing how they benefit the churches and participants, not the recipients, at least not when done reflexively and repeatedly. I thought my Number 5 above was fascinating. Usually I had thought of "cherry-picking" as applying to texts, but in essence he's showing how it can apply to reality.

This is the stuff of heresy.

Around 2010 I was in a church social hall on a Wednesday evening watching a community development film about efforts in some California city (San Francisco?), when the token rabbi among the Christian clergy in the film said something that electrified one of the watching church members. I don't know exactly what the rabbi said since to me it was apparently innocuous and had blended in with the conventionalized discussion, but the upset watcher thought she had heard the rabbi express a veritable evil. "Did she say what I thought she said?" asked the woman. Time stood for a moment while I tried to understand what had just transpired. Then another woman whom I knew better and with whom I was on a friendly basis responded. She said that she did not think there was anything wrong with "getting to the root of the problem." So that was what the rabbi had said! My friend said she thought getting to the root of the problem was a good idea.

A lot of what Robert Lupton advocates is helping the poor participate in the economy instead of handing them out largess from the economy. So since Jews historically are longtime participants in the economy, maybe they in fact do better along those lines, helping the poor to participate in the economy instead of offering handouts. From my admittedly limited perspective, no, not in congregations, at least. We believe the same as the larger community.

In a Jewish book club discussion of of a book favoring monetary awards to poor families as a strategy for change, I mentioned the book Toxic Charity, which was quickly labeled "trash" by another participant, on the limited basis of just having heard it mentioned. He also rejected any criticism of the unintended impact of the form welfare to families with dependent children had taken in the past, even policies that now are widely understood to have had a negative impact on poor families. So much for that.

In fact, synagogues could be seen as under an additional layer of pressure, with congregations expected to live up to what is good according to the norms of their neighboring churches.

This is all very hard to think about because of prevailing community norms according to which charity and unrequited giving are indeed what is defined as good. People who get up and run the community breakfasts are the saints among us. People who stay up late and run the shelters are those who feel closest to God. If you don't feel that way, there's guilt. Open your mouth and pressure is brought to bear, so you go along to get along.

The emperor might not be naked, exactly, but something's wrong with his clothes. Perhaps they're woefully out of date.

In other places in other times, people did starve. No work, no money, no food--no safety net (or not much of one). I just finished reading Of Human Bondage, set in Victorian England, written 101 years ago this year. People did starve, in the West, that recently.

On top of all these facts, it's the case that in other times, and still, now, among those who do not happen to be Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (W.E.I.R.D.), different values may prevail. Honor and dignity (that is, values other than "fairness" and "harm") continue to be of significance, and that, for many people, is another issue with receiving alms.

I used to discuss my frustration with these forms of charitable giving with my husband (the only one then with whom I would broach the topic), and he always used to reply, "Well, people have to eat."

If you are involved in this sort of giving, you may become frustrated upon seeing its failure to have any lasting impact. It just goes on and on. Those of us who have worked in the field of therapy are aiming to bring about some lasting, positive change. I've mentioned before that, upon starting out in public mental health in a poor area of town where pathology was rampant, my first impulse was to hook people up to available programs and resources. I'm making an analogy to charitable giving of the unhelpful sort. I was overwhelmed and, lacking faith in the therapeutic endeavor, I looked to material remedies instead. But that doesn't work. If people haven't changed, they are going to sabotage themselves. Sabotage themselves--see>? You start blaming the recipient. Toxic charity! The old joke goes, "How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?" Answer: "One--but it has to want to change." Getting to that point is step one, a step I first had to see myself.

The last chapter confronts the fact that church members can't just pick up and change. Some see it's going nowhere fast, but many others have invested their lives in such efforts. So there has to be a both-and response rather than "cold turkey."

Just a little while ago, this book was still lingering in my stack of unread books. Then last month my husband saw that a book club at his most recent church (most recent former church?) was reading it. Hooray! And they said I could come. They had been reading a chapter a week so were already on Chapter 6. No problem; it's a quick read. What with vacations, I only got to attend two meetings, but they got me to read this book.

They did, though, expend most of their energy disagreeing with the book.

At my husband's actual former church, the one where the lady thought the rabbi was evilly inveighing against charity, there was one program in which, monthly, a group would get together and pick up trash along a busy thoroughfare in a nearby deprived area, then have breakfast. They said they worshiped a servant God, so they should serve. Imitatio Dei. At the present church, the one where I attended the book-club discussion on this book, a pastor in attendance quoted a text from Matthew about giving to the poor. I'm not sure which one; maybe "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat..." or "Give to the one who begs from you...." Such verses are in the Hebrew Bible as well, saying to simply give to the poor; if you have it, give it. Or, according to the Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers): "It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either."

It says so, so shouldn't we just do it?

We don't do everything it says in our scriptures. We have to take responsibility for what we activate out of our traditions, not blindly do whatever we think it says. We can, arguably should, show judgment. The situation may have changed. Economically speaking, we may have learned a thing or two.

And, no, "Teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime" is not in the New Testament. (Wrist slap for Jan.)

The author's next book is called Charity Detox: What Charity Would Look Like If We Cared About Results. I'll say one thing for him: He gives pointers--which sets Robert Lupton's books apart from those reviewed in a very discouraging 2010 New Yorker article by Philip Gourevitch, although perhaps they're part of the same genre.

In his book, Robert Lupton reported on a January 2011 Christianity Today article in which the same question was posed to three veteran ministry leaders who were known for their commitment to the poor: Should Christians always give money to street people who ask for it? The first said, "Yes... ... 'Freely you have received; freely give.' ... God is the judge, not us." The second minister said rarely, as a last resort, as some of these beggars are scammers collecting hundreds of dollars a day. He gives them a card and invites them to his mission. In support of his position, he quoted scripture saying Peter and John gave healing, not money. And the third minister said never give to beggars; that is "cheap love." People need love more than money; take him or her to lunch and listen to his story. Save your charitable dollars for "effective, holistic programs...."

The book is written in a very matter-of-fact style, almost dull, not shocking like the Gourevitch article, but then again, it is shocking to those impacted. Perhaps that's why one Goodreads reviewer who gave it three stars said he would have given it five if it hadn't been "so bitter." What? I heard no bitterness, just pragmatics. I give it four stars for the simple fact that it was written at all.

Although my husband says this has all been known for 40 or 50 years....

1,547 reviews49 followers
February 10, 2014
I found this book incredibly infuriating, especially in the first sections-- there's a lot of talk about the inherent dignity of work that is just right wing red meat, some pathologizing of the poor and people in third world countries and an insistence on the right way to develop that I thought was really short sighted and maddening. And his insistence on the role of faith communities makes me uncomfortable for the way it excludes people.

But then, in later sections, there were some good ideas: of course it makes sense to let communities decide where they want efforts on their behalf focused; I don't know quite how the food co-op works or if it would help all the people that need help. But there are good ideas here that I haven't previously thought about.

Occasionally the controversial "truth-teller" tone is a turn-off, and there's not a lot on the page that you'd really savor, but mostly Lupton is clear and straight-forward about his methods, even if I don't think I'll ever really agree with his perspective.
3 reviews2 followers
February 2, 2014
Lupton fails to address the systemic issues that precede the toxicity of charity. Without addressing racism and its evil twin, paternalism, charity will continue to be toxic.
Profile Image for Scott.
475 reviews70 followers
May 1, 2012
This book reads like sitting in your living room across from a veteran mercy minister and you simply ask him "I see there's a problem and I want to help, tell me how to help." Lupton spends the rest of the book doing just that. Identifying the problem and then proceeding to tackle it.

One of the things I found most fascinating was that there seems to be two categories of people that pose difficulties toward effective mercy ministry. Also, as a caveat, it should be noted that I'm just an observer so what I say should be taken with a grain--no, a spoonful--of salt.

First, those that have care, concern, and want to help but are misguided. For the sake of classification, I'm going to call them the "Feelers" because they are mainly motivated by feelings of despair for the poor and marginalized. The problem with the Feelers though is that their primary motivation is their feelings, and so once their feeling is satisfied they don't think twice about the ramifications of their deed. This is dangerous because good-intentions that aren't gated by well planned action can do more damage than good. This seems most evident in the case of Africa--over a trillion (!) dollars of aid and development has remained stagnant. College students are tremendously guilty of falling into the Feeler category as they desperately want to have compassion toward a broken world but often times only support a cause in so much as it satiates their feeling of making a difference. Lupton writes mainly in this book to the Feeler and with some education can utilize the good intentions of the Feeler into a force that can catalyze development in broken areas.

Secondly, those who are doing, have done, and are typically jaded. We'll call them "Doers". To be honest, the Doer troubles me more because in the midst of getting their hands dirty, they see the despair, thanklessness, and loneliness that can come from mercy ministry. They see that community development isn't easy and have seen their efforts bear little to no fruit. Thus when a 20 passenger van rolls into their neighborhood brimming with idealistic 18 year olds knowing the solution to the problem, the pain from the sting is unbearable. In situations like these it's hard not to want to beat your chest chanting all the things you've done for the community while an idealistic teen stands far off asking to be of some use for God's kingdom coming.

All things considered, the two categories reminded me of one thing: any ministry toward community development desperately needs the gospel.

The gospel enables people to work with little to no praise because their approval has been sealed by a heavenly Father. The gospel enables individuals to work hard and sacrifice time or money or comfort because they have a Redeemer who sacrificed the wonders of heaven to bear a wooden cross. The gospel transforms the day in, day out hardship and suffering into perseverance, endurance, and joy. Community development or mission not seen through the framework of the gospel (creation, fall, redemption, restoration) will yield little results and harbor much resentment, burnout, and ultimately failure.

Which brings me back to my review: my only request from Lupton's book is that he would have been more heavy handed on the framework to which one can do mercy ministry, namely, the gospel. It could be that since he is writing to church folks he can make certain assumptions (and it seems like he makes passing comments that reflect the gospel framework), however I'm of the opinion that you can't be too explicit when it comes to spelling out the gospel.

I am incredibly humbled and grateful to see brothers and sisters in my congregation, by God's grace, dive headfirst into the world of mercy ministry, motivated by a love for their fellow man and a want to see the kingdom of God be ushered in house by house and block by block.
Profile Image for Erin.
624 reviews18 followers
August 27, 2012
Huh...so basically 95% of the charity work I do (and probably most of us do) could be considered toxic: doing for others when they could do it for themselves, charity leading to attitudes of superiority and condescension on the part of the giver, charity work making the giver feel good, regardless of how the receiver might feel, charity work treating situations like emergencies, and workers being there only short-term, and not for the long haul. It's a lot easier to do one-time charity work than it is to make an ongoing commitment, but true transformation happens when relationships exist, when people who wish to help are in the trenches with those needing help, seeing what work needs to be done and then doing it. For people who wish to be helpful, it's difficult (and this speaks to me) to not just jump in there and fix it, take over and tell you what you need help with. People knee-deep in the situation (residents of Haiti, inner city neighborhoods in Atlanta, a failing school system in Detroit) have to lead the charge, and they need the support system. That's where charity workers come in--we're the support. We're the money to give people microloans to start new businesses; we're the hands and feet when disabled people need a new roof (that they have paid for); we're the people with connections to city councils and banks and education systems. We're the ones who can listen and offer guidance and another perspective when a project stalls. But we cannot give money away and think we're done--that's easy and it benefits few. We cannot take over and think that action doesn't deplete dignity and foster resentment. I've seen this in my own personal relationships, and it spoke to me. This book is highly recommended for anyone who regularly volunteers but wonders if maybe they are doing more harm than good (or they wonder if they can even SEE the good). And the best part is Lupton gives great advice and concrete examples for how to turn our charity work from toxic to productive. Wanting to help is not enough--you have to do it smartly. Lupton just made so much common sense--really great read. And a great discussion with my church folks!
Profile Image for Hugs.
83 reviews
September 20, 2016
Other than agreeing with the author's views of mission trips, there was very little I liked about this book. After reading several excerpts to my husband he remarked, "That makes me feel that if I really got in a bind there would be no help for me, and I would be better off with a predatory loan." It has really put me in a funk and makes me want to withdraw from people.

If you feel led to help someone, please help them (without expecting anything in return). You don't need a program to give, and I don't believe that giving leads to dependency even near to 100% of the time. To think that way strips people of their dignity before you ever even get started.

ETA that I'M DONE. I had several other books going on poverty, and this book ruined it for me. Putting poverty reading down for a while. Finishing this book came with a cost: It caused me not to want to be around people I love and has me dreading events I used to look forward to.
Profile Image for Tori .
597 reviews7 followers
June 4, 2013
I read an article that mentioned this book, and I started it right away on the Kindle. I was really looking forward to reading it. I found the tone of the book offputting. It would mention some people being "worthy" of help implying or outright saying that others were not. I disagreed with some of the author's presumptions about behavior and what motivates people so I had a hard time buying into some of the suggestions. I also didn't feel like there was any call to push for changes in policies. It felt like the message was people could get out of poverty with hard work alone without addressing oppressive policies or even addressing practical issues like trying to afford childcare with minimum wage jobs. I think the book is addressing a really important subject, and I was disappointed in the book. I will search out another one on the same topic.
Profile Image for Kirk Battle.
Author 13 books9 followers
July 15, 2013
Author is a Dr. Lupton, who has 40 years of working around inner-city Atlanta including moving into impoverished neighborhoods and turning them around. His basic thesis is the same thing Sowell argued in Basic Economics, that welfare and other social aid programs create a stagnate social class. Giving out food and clothes makes them dependent, so that they will be poor forever.

Starting with the incredible amounts of waste top-down charities generate, mostly by giving white people "help the poor" vacations or hiring white people to work within the charity, Lupton goes over comprehensive approaches to soliciting community involvement and the sorts of businesses they can develop. Food co-ops, thrift stores, microloans, and other activities that involve a lot more time and energy but also produce longer lasting results. He is intensely critical of programs that directly give to the poor without asking anything in return, often quoting members of those communities themselves.

"Relationships built on need do not reduce need. Rather, they require more and more need to continue. The ways that victim and rescuer relate become familiar communication paths. The victim brings the dilemma; the rescuer finds the solution. When one problem is solved, another must be presented in order for the relationship to continue. If the victim no longer needs a solution, the rescuer is no longer needed. And the relationship ends or must dramatically change."

Some of the most vivid parts of the book are how intensely against this entire concept people are, often telling tragic stories of feeding the homeless or giving aid to a desperate family. He instead goes into the business models of charity, how it must constantly depict the poor as helpless and inept, it destroys their self-esteem, takes away work from them, and essentially leaves them trapped. Sometimes it works, many times people prefer to just keep giving food away because it's easier.

There is not much data. Homeless are hard to track. Charities notoriously do not let you look at their books. The book itself reads almost too good to be true, like the chapter devoted to criticizing elaborate social service centers that put too much burden on neighborhoods. I've been involved in several lawsuits over residents changing zoning laws to stop that from happening. I have never heard anyone say, "Yes, you're right, a ton of homeless people will ruin the neighborhood and that's okay to say. They should build small centers instead."

The implications of the book are ultimately dark. That we, in America, have made a business of farming out the poor and needy to wealthier people in order to make them feel good about themselves. And that if you actually do want to help them, it will take years of work and very little return praise. Because ultimately, that should go the person who is learning to help themselves.
Profile Image for Missy.
14 reviews1 follower
May 6, 2012

I think this is a must read for anyone who has ever participated in church outreach ministry. It gave me a new perspective on how helping out of love can hurt. However, since it was written primarily from a Christian perspective, I was disappointed that the author didn't back up most of his assertions with scripture. An example would be his dislike of food banks and pantries. When James 1:27 clearly calls us to care for the orphans and widows. I volunteer at a food bank that primarily serves the elderly. Would a food cooperative as Lupton suggests be ideal? Sure. But some of these people don't have the money or physical ability to participate in a coop. Read this book. Pray about what you learn. But don't throw the baby out with the bath water.
Profile Image for John.
Author 1 book32 followers
May 10, 2015
In the book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, Robert D. Lupton details how he feels that many aspects of modern forms of charity do more harm than good. It is his opinion that mission trips, food pantries, weekend service projects, and many other forms of charitable giving and volunteerism are ineffective, do not take into consideration the emotional well being of those being served, and in general do not accomplish the goals that they set out to achieve.

I have to say that I have spent much of my adult life participating in the various forms of charity that Lupton sets his sights on, so admittedly, that may lead me toward a defensive bias. Please take that into consideration as you read my opinions below.

So many of the points that Lupton makes in “Toxic Charity” may be factually correct, but the arguments he makes using those facts seem to me to be misdirected. For example, he devotes a lot of attention to the fact that the costs associated to many Christian mission trips to travel to developing regions of the world to “help the poor” could be spent more efficiently in the form of a cash donation to the served communities. He thus argues that it would be more cost effective to hire a local professional contractor in Cuba to work on a construction project for a struggling seminary there than it would be to send a group of unskilled Church goers to do the same work (pg 16). The travel costs, lodging, food, etcetera to send a group of amateur missionaries far outweighs the cost for the local tradesman to do the same job. There is no doubt that Lupton’s economics are correct. But, in making that argument, he also overlooks so much of the motivation for these types of service trips. I do not think the intent of such trips was ever to solely be a financially viable means of getting needed work performed. Lupton’s arguments fail to take into consideration the impact that is made on the volunteers or the available opportunities for evangelization. Seeing and experiencing life in another part of the world leaves a much greater impression on the participants than simply writing a check would do. Not to mention, we as a culture often have a negative connotation of people that are only willing to throw money at a situation, but are unwilling to get their hands dirty. Yet, the latter is what the author argues we do in the name of a decent return on investment. Lupton also makes bold generalizing statements like “service projects and mission trips do not effect lasting change” (pg 15) and “mission trips and service projects do not change the lives of participants” (pg 16). He makes these assertions with little more than anecdotal evidence to back them up. He alludes to research bolstering these claims, but does not cite any of it. I can easily reference just as many occurrences in my own life for which I know these statements are not true.

Lupton continually comes back to the viewpoint of looking at charity like one would look at a business. “What outcomes would we actually like to see from our charity?” he asks (pg 63). I would argue that if he is only doing charitable works to get a decent bottom line – however he chooses to define that – I think he is in the wrong business. I’m sure that Mother Teresa never considered halting her ministry because she and her sisters were not making good enough year-on-year reductions in poverty levels in Calcutta.

Throughout “Toxic Charity”, Lupton pulls out all of the classic conservative arguments that are always used to paint charity in a bad light. Observations such as “…most panhandlers are not really homeless at all. Most are scammers who may collect $300 a day from kindhearted passersby and at the end of the day walk a block or two to their cars and drive home” (pg 45)*. “Personal responsibility is essential for social, emotional, and spiritual well-being” (pg 129). “The negative outcomes of welfare are no different when religious or charitable organizations provide it” (pg 129). Furthermore, Lupton tries to make distinctions between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor (pg 49), between charity in emergency situations versus sustained conditions (pg 129), and serving those that are trying to better themselves as compared to those content with their predicament (pg 60). In Lupton’s final analysis, you will spend more time judging whether recipients are worthy of your charity rather than actually helping them. When passing off all of these well-worn arguments, Lupton cherry picks just enough firsthand accounts of being taken advantage of to let the reader conclude that his anecdotes represent a broad sampling of the poor.

My fear with a book like this is that it will do more harm than good. If somebody were to read “Toxic Charity” while on the fence about whether to get involved with service work, it is all the evidence they need to not even make an attempt. It is demotivating and casts a pessimistic outlook on the state of need in our world. Lupton makes it pretty clear that the problems facing today’s needy are too complex, too well ingrained into our society, and too vast to topple. To hear him describe it, if an international charity the size of the Salvation Army has been unable to eradicate poverty in their ~150 year history, what chance does an individual have?

One of the more troubling aspects of this book is Lupton’s repeated assertion that he is motivated by his Christian faith. However, he does not get into details on how he reconciles that faith with the pessimistic view points that he proclaims. I would have appreciated if he cited specific scripture passages and how he applies his thinking towards them. For instance, when Jesus said “What you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45), I don’t remember Jesus following that up with “Well, except for those poor that aren’t truly deserving of your charity.” Or when Jesus said “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” (Luke 3:11), it did not come with the disclaimer of “But be sure that they don’t come back next week for more food or another coat because then they may have lost their work ethic and grown a dependence on you.” Yet, like so many of the “Christian Right” that hide behind their faith, they do not get into particulars when their viewpoints are directly contradicted by the words of Christ.

I am all for being responsible in my charitable giving and volunteerism. I agree that there are individuals and groups that will prey on big hearted donors that just want to help. However, I believe that in “Toxic Charity”, Robert Lupton proposes an extreme over-correction and describes a very pessimistic view of the world. If you are looking for a book that will inspire you to do good and make you feel like you can change the world, this is definitely not it.

* For an authentic firsthand perspective of what it is really like to be homeless in this country, I highly recommend Under the Overpass: A Journey of Faith on the Streets of America by Mike Yankoski. Please see my review for that book, also on Goodreads.
Profile Image for Kris.
1,372 reviews179 followers
March 1, 2023
A fast read with some good points. Something that stuck with me: A relationship built on need will only increase need, not reduce it. Lupton urges charities to treat the poor with dignity and respect, and to expect the poor to exhibit self-sufficiency, self-determination, and agency. He includes examples of toxic charities and non-toxic charities, but I wish he would have added even more examples. Would be a good church group read.

I am also interested in Lupton's Charity Detox: What Charity Would Look Like If We Cared About Results.
Profile Image for Tim.
1,232 reviews
December 24, 2011
A few potentially good ideas to improve charitable giving (narrowly defined around aid to the impoverished) spread among a work of generalized slander and severe overstatement. It is also horribly written with poor examples and prose that reads like a particularly bad Power Point demonstration.
Profile Image for Alex Mayfield.
134 reviews7 followers
February 21, 2017
This book comes across as a middle-class, white, male's perspective of what he thinks is wrong. Though there are concepts that make sense, more data to back up claims would help in it's credibility.
Profile Image for Douglas Wilson.
Author 273 books3,652 followers
June 30, 2018
Given the standard approaches to mercy ministry, this book is a must read for anyone involved in that kind of work, or anyone who wants to be.
Profile Image for Amy.
2,628 reviews414 followers
February 5, 2022
I might have enjoyed this book more if I hadn't just finished The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. Both analyze the use of aid and welfare to help those struggling. Tox Charity reviews primarily focuses on church efforts and mission trips. And I will say, it provides a necessary and thought-provoking critique of church aid. I just wanted more. His list of tips to make sure your ministry is effective felt a little breezy and could have used more fleshing out. But for a short book reviewing some of the problems in our current system, this is a solid read.
Profile Image for Laurie.
314 reviews1 follower
June 9, 2020

This book had been sitting on my bookshelf for a long time, so I finally picked it up. I remember many people in my church had read it for a book group several years ago (it was written in 2011), and I seem to recall they liked it. I bought it, but never actually read it until now.

The basic premise of this book is a good one -- that good intentions can lead to unintended harm. The author is especially critical of church mission trips, saying "most work done by volunteers could be better done by locals in less time and with better results." (For a better explanation of this, follow @nowhitesaviors on Instagram.) The book also draws a clear distinction between one-time service projects and long-term community development work, and that is a worthwhile thing to highlight.

BUT... This book gets only one star because I simply could not get over the tone-deaf and condescending tone. The author speaks of "the poor" in the broadest of terms -- not people living in poverty, but just "the poor." It's like their economic status defines their very personhood. Throughout the book he talks of the dignity of work, as if "the poor" are lazy, dependent and entitled. It was infuriating to me, especially in this time period when we are re-examining the lens through which we see issues of inequality and injustice. There are so many better books out there. This one deserves a pass.
Profile Image for Tim Ervolina.
11 reviews
February 13, 2013
Lupton identifies the elephant lurking in the room where most charitable giving, especially faith-based charity, takes place: it rarely results in real, sustainable long term change.

His solution: asset-based community development, an approach that has been used for at least two decades by community organizations, who try to increase the capacity of neighborhoods and communities to transform themselves from the bottom up. The challenge that ABCD has is the reality that donors don't really like the long hard slog of community building. They want quick easy solutions to very difficult problems. That's why most charitable fundraising focuses on tragedy and pain, not on building and increasing the capacity of people and neighborhoods to solve their own problems. Pioneered by Jody Kretzman and John Mcnight, ABCD has worked in many inner city neighborhoods and increasingly, in developing nations. But its solutions remain difficult to take to scale in larger, national projects. I would love to see Lupton and Kretzman/Macknight become the sages of our battle against world poverty. I just don't think the charity industry is willing to give up its approach to charity as tragedy balm and replace it with investment and development.
Profile Image for Emily White.
72 reviews3 followers
February 17, 2014
I take issue with this book. Or maybe the author. While I understand the problem of giving tons of stuff away to people in need without expecting anything in return, Lupton made charity seem like one big scam. It isn't that simple. Some charities are more effective than others. One thing that I do agree with Lupton about is the idea of sending youth on "mission trips", where young men and women stay a week or so in a location "helping", then go home leaving the "helped" with whatever they left behind, good, bad, or ugly. Beyond this issue, I felt like Lupton treated examples proving his point with depth and thought, but only mildly covered other examples that might suggest something else. Not a well-balanced piece.
Profile Image for Kristen Stieffel.
Author 25 books43 followers
May 10, 2017
This is an eye opener. The author's main premise is that handouts without reciprocity damage human dignity. This is an acceptable trade off in emergencies, but when handouts last for years, the resulting codependent relationship is unhealthy.

Lupton advocates for economic development rather than continuing charity. His theory is that the givers must ask the recipients what they need rather than delivering what the givers choose. It's a provoking and challenging book, I think some reviewers are making a bigger stink about it than is called for. Lupton does not call for ending handouts entirely but for adding programs that use the skills and vision of those in impoverished areas to their own best advantage. It makes good sense.
Profile Image for Erin.
82 reviews
November 20, 2019
I read this book for a church administration class. I hear many people recommend this book all the time. It took me awhile to figure out exactly why I *didn't* like it. On the last day of class I listened to people present their "Toxic Charity" reports (one person per chapter), and I finally realized what my problem with the book is.

First, let me clarify that the last few chapters, which focus on community development, are good. I believe in community development. I believe people and Christians and churches should be aware of the concept. (Though I am sad that this material was mind-blowing for the other students when I learned this stuff 20 years ago at my Nazarene school. #mvnurocks)

Second, the author shares a story that he calls "The Lake Effect". He talks about the old proverb "Give a man a fish....but Teach a man to fish....", and the principle is obvious. But then he asks, "What if there are no fish?" What if the lake dried up? What if it's become polluted and they all died? What if...What if...What if..." Legitimate point. THEN the community needs to find a new solution.

So what's my problem with the book? All of his examples are Lake Effect examples but he presents them as support for why charity fosters dependency. "85% of funds sent to help Africa don't reach the people, so giving money to help people isn't good." No, 85% of funds don't reach the people b/c they have corrupt governments that steal the funds for themselves, so there are no fish in the lake and we need to find a new solution to work around that.

"The number of welfare recipients has increased exponentially from Year A to Year B, from X # of people on welfare to Y #. Ergo, welfare fosters dependency and laziness." No. The cost of living has increased exponentially from Year A to Year B, while the minimum wage and average income has stagnated, causing more people to need welfare assistance. Not to mention that anyone who receives any kind of assistance is classified as "receiving welfare", even if it's a tax break for having children, so the #s are skewed. Not to mention that too many people still think making the wealthy richer somehow benefits the poor so this trend will continue. In essence, there are no fish in the lake and we need to find a new solution to work around that.

"A woman took pity on a single mother who lost her job and she and her kids were homeless. She paid for her first month's rent, bought groceries, and helped her start looking for jobs. 6 months later the mother still didn't have a job and the woman was still paying her rent and the relationship turned sour. Thus, charity fosters dependency and laziness." No. A single mother trying to find and hold down a job which has hours which aren't detrimental to her family is hard. So is leaving your kids at home all day while you work (and could also get her in trouble with social services). And she has no friends or family to help with daycare, and any job she got wouldn't cover the cost of it. A job doesn't magically make all those other considerations go away. There were no fish in the lake and a more wholistic solution needs to be found to contend with all the issues.

The author has such a narrow view of poverty, and it frustrated me at every turn. Yet my classmates found the entire book eye-opening, and now they have become even more indoctrinated with the idea that all American poor are lazy. (This was stated in various ways during the class.) One guy even mentioned how men who come to his church for handouts always want to do some kind of work in exchange for assistance. But telling that didn't seem to make it register with them that that shows that plenty of poor Americans want work. The stereotype persisted.

The author talks about how too many churches are more concerned with "saving souls" than they are with "saving people", and this was brought up during the beginning of class. Later, one student shared how this book has been "wrecking" her and has already made a difference in their ministry. A guy needed payment for rent. He's required to pass a drug test first. He failed. He then called their helpline, not realizing the help line was connected to the finance side. He called to talk about how much trouble he was in and he needed help. They asked, "Do you know Jesus?" He said, "No, and I need Jesus so badly." She ended the story by saying, "And if we had just given him the money, he wouldn't have felt desperate enough to call us and accept Christ." That irony was lost on them, too.

If you're looking for ideas for running a non-profit, you'll probably find this book useful. If you're looking for a good book on the theology of charity, I'd look elsewhere. If you have a better one to recommend, please let me know. Until then, our class time would have been better served encouraging pastors to help people get connected to resources that already exist in the community.
Profile Image for Kenneth Clapp.
11 reviews1 follower
November 5, 2013
Toxic Charity is one of the most challenging books I've read in a long time. Much of the book for me was one of those "yes!" moments. Lupton was describing things that I knew were a problem, but had never managed to nail down the details.

The basic premise is this: With much of our charitable giving we are actually doing more harm than good, because, even through me may be helping to meet an immediate need, we are actually promoting the poverty cycle by creating an attitude of entitlement in those we help.

One of the most challenging aspects to me of the book was the concept that we should use the same "intelligence" in charity that we would use in business. In business we wouldn't just blindly keep throwing money at a problem if we could't see the problem improve, yet in charity we do that exact thing all the time.

Lupton identified three types of charitable works: Relief, Rehabilitation and Development. Relief is the place where most of our charity occurs, it's the response to the crisis. An earthquake in Haiti with thousands homeless, without food and water or shelter. They need immediate aid, they need gifts of charity to survive and lesson the suffering. After that should come rehabilitation, putting things back in order. Roads need to re-paved, electricity restored, homes rebuilt. This is more long term . Where the initial relief might last for weeks, or in extreme cases months, rehabilitation could last years. Lupton then points to the third, most neglected but maybe the most important phase - Development. Development is that long view where the causes of poverty are addressed, where entire neighborhoods/communities are lifted out of the mire and toxicity of poverty. This phase may take decades.

Here's the problem Luton illustrates - Relief is easy so that's where we spend most of our time, in fact we sometimes never get of of the relief mentality. Take Hurricane Katrina as an example (I think he also used this in the book). We are eight years after the fact. Curious I did a quick google search before writing this review. the first add popping up was to give "relief aid" to "victims of hurricane Katrina." This is one of the keys Lupton focuses on. When we give with the best of intentions, prompted by our hearts, but fail to use our minds, our charity becomes toxic to those we are giving it to. On fact he quoted several times is how more money has been given to African countries than any other part of the world over the past 50 years, over 1 Trillion. Yet the average African is poorer and worse off than before all the aid started poring in, and development in those countries has all but stopped.

Another key concept that hit me hard is the idea of protecting the dignity of those we help, not crushing their sense of worth and turning them into beggars.

The book is full of illustrative stores from both urban settings and third world settings, of both constructive charity and toxic charity. My problem is I needed a third area, rural. While I walked away from this book that our Churches (and government) are doing so much wrong and encouraging poverty with the very tools created to alleviate it, I didn't walk away with anything clear (yet) as to how it could be applied in small town USA. Because that is declining as well, sinking into poverty in many instances as the poor grow in number and the middle class disappears.

I think this book should probably be mandatory reading for anyone in Church leadership and especially those working in benevolent ministries. If nothing else it will ignite some very good conversation and debate.

I think a good summary of the book is found in Lupton's "Oath for Compassionate Service," so I will include it below:

1. Never do for the poor what they have (our could have) the capacity to do for themselves.
2. Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.
3. Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
4. Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.
5. Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said - unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effetive service.
6. Above all, do no harm.
Profile Image for Sue.
255 reviews34 followers
June 24, 2015
Robert Lupton doesn’t mess around. The first paragraph of this book has these words:
What Americans avoid facing is that while we are very generous in charitable giving, much of that money is either wasted or actually harms the people it is targeted to help.
I read Toxic Charity because of its challenging ideas about giving money, mostly because I want my own donations to make a difference. The problem in a micro sense plays out on the street. Who doesn’t have conflicts when people ask us for money? Who doesn’t feel hard hearted passing them by? At the same time, who doesn’t fear that cash in the cup will be used to support a drug habit?

Lupton addresses this personal conflict as it plays out on a larger stage, claiming that
the food we ship to Haiti, the well we dig in Sudan, the clothes we distribute in inner-city Detroit… may be hurting more than helping. How? Dependency.
Lupton offers examples where aid has failed those it was intended to help, citing Africa as a poster child, but finding plenty of broken charitable systems domestically as well.

Here in the U.S., Lupton believes that the recipients’ gratitude for assistance all too frequently devolves into expectation and then into entitlement. While Lupton agrees that emergency aid is essential, he feels that long-term assistance must focus on development. Wherever he sees sustained one-way giving, he sees an unhealthy relationship and little progress toward actual empowerment.

The author has street cred, after forty years with a community service agency in Atlanta. He tells us to limit our efforts to those where we can listen to indigenous leaders and value them as committed partners. As all work together, a helping effort will provide relief (months), rehabilitation (years), and development (decades). Lupton is a fan of micro-lending as a component of development. He offers several models for good work.

He also notes that a healthy community must have safety, decent schools, and a viable economy. Without them, transformation is not possible. Goodness, he doesn’t want much, does he???

Which brings me to the nagging little thoughts in my mind. When systemic change is so difficult, which short-term assistance is necessary and humane? Who will do it well? How much help will people need along the way? Feeding a hungry person does not often seem so toxic to me. This small book is a start, but the subject of community development is too big, too fraught with bad examples, and not sufficiently addressed.

But I do get it. I think I’ll take a lot of this to heart.

Much of the book is directed to those in the trenches, running programs intended to better their community and serve needy people. But I’m finding new criteria as well for my charitable dollars. Look for outcomes. Look for change. Look for advocacy. I like Lupton’s encompassing question: “Is the need crisis or chronic? Then simply insist upon the appropriate course of action.”
Profile Image for Sam Griffiths.
37 reviews
September 19, 2020
Oof. Rough read. Buckle up, because there's a lot to say.
Before getting into it, here's the TL;DR: --> For me, this book is like mostly spoiled food. So much of it is off, it's probably not worth your time.

Here's the full review:
The Author's initial premise is solid. If we don't understand the problem, our service or charity work can extend it, make it worse, or potentially harm the people we're trying to help. He recommends you integrate into the community, take time to understand the problems you want to help, lean on the the local community's strengths, evaluate your progress, track data, and change tactics as needed. The author seems to have a ton of personal experience trying to drive positive change, and I appreciate that. These are solid, positive messages, and I appreciate that he's given so much of himself to try to live his beliefs.

Unfortunately, that's not the whole picture he paints, and it gets pretty problematic from here. In spite of the author's reference to taking a broader look at charity and building a deep understanding of the people you want to help, he seems to have little thought or data to support several stances he takes in the book. He leans very heavily on anecdotes and christian values, but doesn't include research or studies to back it up, so his philosophies fall pretty flat.

One of the biggest issues is his claim that the cause of the poverty is "the poor's" misunderstanding of the value of hard work or lack of access to meaningful work. This point comes up again, and again, and again in the book and unfortunately is just not supported by data. It's actually a gross simplification of the laws, corporate practices, and legal systems in the U.S. that create and reinforce poverty. If you want more info on this, read: "Evicted", "The New Jim Crow", "The End of Policing", or "Stamped from the Beginning", all of which have data supported insights into poverty in America. Suffice it to say that this book's poverty premise is way off the mark and reinforces harmful beliefs about poverty in America.

This point specifically gets worse in the book and culminates in a story about concentration camp workers assigned to move rocks back and forth. The prisoners end up losing hope and some die "because the work they were assigned had no meaning". You don't have to be an expert to know that when starvation, constant physical abuse, and genocide are involved, lack of "meaningful work" is likely not the deciding factor in survival. This concentration camp anecdote is a horrible mistake on the author's part and demonstrates a gross misunderstanding of WW2 and "The value of hard work".

This was a tough read, and I'm still not positive it was worth my time. I'm sure there are better places than this book to learn about running and serving in charities. One option is Melinda Gates, "Moment of Lift", which was a fascinating, educational read.

In conclusion, this book is like mostly spoiled food. So much of it is off, it's probably not worth your time.
Profile Image for Stephanie.
352 reviews6 followers
December 31, 2013
This isn't a perfect book, but it is a good starting place for people who want to think and learn about how to effect positive, long-lasting change in areas typically served by "missions" or "charities": shelters, soup kitchens, church mission trips to poverty-stricken natural disasters, etc. Lupton definitely has some street cred in this area, since he's lived and worked in these kinds of neighborhoods in Atlanta for years. And I think his emphasis on preserving dignity and autonomy by involving residents in every level of planning and implementation is important and correct. He also persuasively makes that case that "mission trips" are almost always misappropriating funds that could be so much more useful if simply given to the needy areas, instead of funding middle-class white Christians in having an "experience."

But he largely ignores some of the more "upstream" cultural, political, and social problems and systems that create these inequalities in the first place. I'm not sure you can have an effective conversation about homelessness, for example, without also examining lack of access to mental health care, the prison system, disparities in public education, and affordable housing compared to wages in the area. Lupton's goal, I know, was to encourage readers to stop giving time and money to "toxic" charity endeavors, but in the meantime, we need both short-term assistance (food banks, homeless shelters) AND long-term policies and partnerships to prevent this kind of poverty in the first place. I would have liked more concrete information about how to pair community development with charity and mission work. Maybe that should be his next book.
Profile Image for Becca.
15 reviews17 followers
September 1, 2017
I have spent my entire career in international development, fundraising and program development at US based nonprofits. While the ultimate point of this book is valid, the language and his implied worthiness of certain individuals over others is extremely problematic.

1) The author flat out tells us that "poor people" are lazy. 2) And in his storytelling he very clearly (but subtly) points out that there is a difference between deserving poor and non deserving poor. And that "deserving poor" should be helped. 3) It's extremely patriarchal. A father is embarrassed because he can't provide Christmas gifts for his family but the mother is blissfully happy and unaware of any of it. 4) he also tries to talk about walking with the community, but his language has a savior mentality that's hard to miss.

Yes, a lot of volunteering is bad for those it is intended to serve, especially internationally. Yes, often times volunteering causes financial harm and unnecessary strain on the host organization. Yes, give money as the primary means of helping.

Read this book, but only if you are challenging the undertones of what he is saying.
Profile Image for Roseyreads.
70 reviews3 followers
May 1, 2013
I thought this book was great. Lupton supported his main idea with testimonies from poor persons themselves and from all kinds of people who have worked in the betterment and in the development of poor neighborhoods. It was refreshing to have someone show how hand-outs may help in a time of crisis but how they can keep people dependent if there is no change from the hand-out to the development of the poor person's own potential talents and ability to work and maintain their dignity. They can go on to make positive changes in their neighborhood because they live there and have a personal stake in the outcome. Lupton speaks with the authority of someone who lives in the same neighborhood with the people he works with and he listens carefully to their candid advice. This book will definitely influence my future volunteering and charitable donations of time and money for projects that I perceive are not toxic. I learned much from this book.
Profile Image for Laura Cheifetz.
72 reviews2 followers
July 16, 2014
This is a really helpful book. I think many have had our wonderings about the ethics of "mission" work, as envisioned and practiced by middle-class and wealthy U.S. congregations. Considering how to make our efforts and our good intentions have greater impact for good and for change is a really helpful exercise, and this book offers a helpful analysis and a place to start, along with models as to how we can do it better. While he does mention racism and classism (structural and otherwise), I would (of course) like to see more in-depth exploration of how racism and classism function in most middle class and wealthy (mostly white) churches to shape how we are often okay with the kind of damaging, paternalistic charity most of us are accustomed to. But a very good book.
384 reviews
April 25, 2012
I am a member of a board of my church that determines how a significant Outreach budget is distributed to local organizations. As a committee we just finished reading this book, which has opened our eyes to well intended but ultimately unhelpful approaches to charitable giving. This book, a compelling read, will be the certerpiece of a new strategic plan for our group. If you are actively working with a group that provides services or support to worthy causes, I urge you to read this book. in addition to outlining the issues, it offers thoughtful solutions and practical steps to altering the approach. highly recommended.
Profile Image for Frank.
Author 30 books15 followers
June 21, 2012
An important book written from someone who has worked on the frontlines in the inner city. He offers a clear and compelling argument for why soup kitchens, clothes closets, and Christmas toy giveaways to needy families is harmful. He then makes an even more compelling case for alternatives that empower people, requiring something of those we wish to help.

Church leaders should take the time to read and reflect on this wise little book. Warning: your opinions are likely to change and then you might want to do something anout the issues he presents and the hopeful vision he promotes.
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