When Charity Turns Toxic

Is the Church's service really helping the community? How to make good on good intentions.

There’s a growing scandal the majority of Americans both refuse to see and actively perpetuate—that while Americans are very generous in charitable giving, much of that money is either wasted or actually harms the people it’s targeted to help.

Here’s the truth: Giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people.

And it is churches that remain the greatest abusers. American churches are at the forefront of the burgeoning compassion industry, spending billions on dependency-producing food pantries, clothes closets, service projects that serve mainly themselves and mission trips that turn people into beggars.

It’s important to be clear: There are different moments and different motivations for charity. In times of crisis, for example, the moment demands immediate intervention. When an earthquake devastates Haiti, food, water, shelter and medical supplies are essential to save lives. But when the bleeding has stopped and the rebuilding begins, the moment becomes one of focusing on development strategies. Therein lies a problem. It is far easier to raise money and mobilize volunteers for emergency assistance than it is to plan and execute the reconstruction of infrastructure and economy. Thus, the tendency is to remain in relief mode long after the transition to development should have taken place. But doing so perpetuates a victim mentality that actually disempowers those being served.

Food pantries and soup kitchens are common examples of this tendency to continue to “feed fish” when most of the recipients need to “learn to fish.” To be sure, hunger is real. Sometimes it’s a matter of life and death. Hunger is a crisis issue when a famine sweeps sub-Saharan Africa. But it is a chronic issue, not a crisis, in urban America. In 40 years of inner-city ministry, I have never seen a starving person. Poor nutrition, yes, but not starvation. So, why do charities and churches continue to use crisis-intervention strategies that foster dependency when chronic needs call for development?

On the surface, feeding, clothing and sheltering the poor seems to fulfill the Matthew 25 mandate to directly serve Christ. And unconditional giving seems to reflect the unconditional grace we have received from Christ. A closer look, however, reveals a less redemptive reality. What if such giving is perpetuating unhealthy dependency? What if it’s supporting a destructive lifestyle? What if these well-meaning services diminish the dignity of recipients and erode their work ethic? Surely Christ intended the Church’s compassion to be helpful, not hurtful.

The following are several questions that will help you determine whether your service to the poor will be transformative or toxic.

Whose needs are you serving?

You want this to be a meaningful experience for your group. But if most of your planning energy is invested toward ensuring the event will be “a life-changing experience” for your members, this may be a clue that the event’s focus is more about serving your group than serving the poor. This is a particularly difficult question for missions pastors and youth leaders since they are hired to minister to church members. A well-organized, spiritually motivated, project-specific mission trip can be very satisfying for volunteers and yield moving accounts for back-home reporting. It is doubtful, however, that a “what-works-best-for-us” approach will have transformative impact among those who are expected to accommodate the schedules and preferences of their resourced visitors.

Is the proposed activity meeting a real need?

An African woman recently told me that as a child she never understood why Americans loved to paint so much. In preparation for the Americans’ arrival in her rural village, her classmates were instructed to deface the school building with mud and stones so their guests would have something to paint. Her entire school building was repainted five times in the four years she was a student there. Extreme example? Perhaps. But unfortunately, it’s representative of the “make-work projects” often created to make compassionate volunteers feel good about serving. If a project is truly important to those being served, they will be the first investors in that effort with their own leadership, labor and resources.

Is the proposed mission a top priority?

A group recently returning from Haiti recounted their experience of seeing mothers carrying infants wrapped in dirty rags and newspapers. Moved with compassion, the mission group purchased blankets and distributed them to the mothers. The following day, the blankets appeared in the shops along the street, sold by the mothers to local merchants. Discovering the babies still swaddled in filth, the missioners were highly incensed—until it was explained to them that the mothers sold the blankets to buy food for their babies. Food, not blankets, was the higher priority. To determine the true hierarchy of need, enough time must be spent among the needy to understand the daily survival pressures they face. Repairing a widow’s rotting porch may not be as important as getting her water turned back on. Adapting the mission to the priorities of the poor is key to redemptive service.

Are the poor capable of doing this for themselves?

The poor are weakened when well-meaning people deprive them of the incentives and rewards of their own hard-won achievements by doing for them what they have the capacity to do for themselves. As one leader of a microlending ministry in Nicaragua lamented when describing the effects of U.S. church partnerships, “They are turning my people into beggars.” Why get a loan to build their own church, the peasants reason, when the Americans will do it for them? Predictable byproducts of such service include increased dependency, erosion of work ethic and loss of dignity. Conversely, partnerships, lending relationships and mutual investments require joint effort and grow indigenous capacity.

How will you measure success?

Typically, churches evaluate their service projects and mission trips by the number of volunteers involved, the activities performed and the impact on participants. Less attention is paid to the results on the receiving end of charity. If, however, preserving the dignity and self-esteem of recipients is important to you, then you will need to assess the amount of mutual collaboration, leadership sharing and reciprocity structured into your event. If your goal is to actually empower those you serve, you will focus less on activities performed and more on measurable longer-term outcomes, such as leadership development, increased self-sufficiency and educational and economic progress.

Is it cost-effective?

I know of one campus ministry that, on a spring break mission trip to paint an orphanage in Honduras, spent enough money on the trip (transportation, food, lodging, etc.) to have hired two unemployed local painters and two full-time teachers and to supply new uniforms for every child in the school.

You Might Also Like

The cost of most mission trips is out of all proportion to the return on investment when comparing it against the actual value of the service being performed. The billions spent annually on such junkets might be justified as a legitimate cost of spiritual development for church members, but it lacks integrity if billed as effective mission strategy. Wise stewardship requires thoughtful assessment of the cost-effectiveness of mission investments. Mission projects can be genuinely redemptive. But the best ones are joint ventures with mature, indigenous ministries that understand both the culture and healthy cross-cultural partnering. Such ministries can, for example, help you put together a “code of conduct” to guide volunteers toward sensitive, mutually transforming relationships.

Achieving redemptive outcomes requires a paradigm shift from one-way giving to reciprocal exchange. This is not an easy shift. It’s much more complex to organize a food co-op that recipients support and manage than to operate a volunteer food pantry. It is easier by far to pack suitcases full of clothes for poor village people than to help them develop micro-enterprises that enable them to provide their own clothes. But an honest look at the actual results of charity proves the benefits of developing people outweigh the extra effort it costs.

This article is just part of one that appears in the Spring 2012 issue of Neue. Robert D. Lupton is the founder of FSC Urban Ministries and the author of several books, incluing Toxic Charity (Harper One). 

Top Comments


Jonathan Hensley commented…

Even though Americans mean well and do a lot of good works, a lot of people in the world tend not to trust americans. I think national missionaries are the way to go for a good start. Check out a book called Revolution in World Missions By: KP Yohannan. Even though the cost is high for Americans to go overseas, I think it is still good for us to go on occasionsimply to come home with a renewedheart for missionsand a desire to grow further in your faith.

Micah Miranda


Micah Miranda commented…

This article asks a lot of good questions, and frankly, the impact of our international development work is the only thing that matters in this sector. Life changing experiences will come and go, our feelings of satisfaction at helping others will only do so much good, but if we can empower communities to build upon their own strengths and resources and learn to steward what they have for increase, that is where good development begins.


Micah Miranda


Micah Miranda commented…

This article asks a lot of good questions, and frankly, the impact of our international development work is the only thing that matters in this sector. Life changing experiences will come and go, our feelings of satisfaction at helping others will only do so much good, but if we can empower communities to build upon their own strengths and resources and learn to steward what they have for increase, that is where good development begins.

Panchu Kumar


Panchu Kumar


Panchu Kumar commented…

Thanks for Nice and Informative Post. This article is really contains lot more information about This Topic. -
Movers and Packers in Chennai
Movers and Packers in Bangalore
Movers and Packers in Delhi
Movers and Packers in Gurgaon

Please log in or register to comment

Log In