Bruce's Blog


Thoughts on Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton: Part 1

March 31st, 2014

Part 1 in a 4 part series:

Agreeing with the Principles

A popular book that has made the rounds in church and social services circles for the past couple of years is Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It).

Christianity Today endorsed the book like this: “Lupton says hard things that need to be said....If we accept rather than resist his critique, the poor and the non-poor will both be better off.” The recommendation reflects the major flaws in the book. With any theory we do not have only two options (accept or resist) and we can’t make broad stereotyping statements about anybody including “poor and the non-poor”. On the other hand, the first statement resonates. The things that Lupton says are hard to say and they do need to be said.

5 of the Principles

  • When we do for those in need what they have the capacity to do for themselves, we disempower them.
  • When relief does not transition to development in a timely way, compassion becomes toxic.
  • [We need to] navigate our churches and organizations away from the traditional “doing for” the poor models toward a “doing with” paradigm…..Doing for rather than doing with those in need is the norm. Add to it the combinations of patronizing pity and unintended superiority, and the charity becomes toxic.
  • Mercy combined with justice creates immediate care with a future plan; emergency relief and responsible development; short-term intervention and long-term involvement; heart responses and engaged minds.
  • Forging ahead to meet a need, we often ignore the basics: mutuality, reciprocity, accountability. In so doing relationships turn toxic. …if you don’t have time to invest in forging a trusting relationship, give your money to a ministry that does.


A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit with Robert Lupton and a small group of people involved in providing food to those coping with poverty and food insecurity, sometimes even hunger. I did not hear from anyone in the room any disagreement with these five principles. All of them point to the importance of relationships, reciprocity and options to make the future brighter than the bleak past and present of those with whom we work.


How do YOU feel or think about the principles above? Can you expand on the thoughts or maybe offer your own examples of these principles at work or neglected?


#1 Theresa Bileth said:

I agree with your blog about toxic charity in that investing in a trusting relationship with those you are working with is so much more valuable than just giving a hand out. Churches & charities don't realize they are part of the problem. Of course emergency needs are still important, but long term needs create change. I believe it is possible to meet people's needs while engaging in trusting relationships. It raises accountability and ownership by engaging neighbors and plugging them in where they feel empowered to help themselves and others. When people become invested in helping themselves, they begin to shine for others. They begin to feel welcome at the table Vs. feeling less than. I feel strongly that this is the most productive way to bring balance to the community. The mentality of dropping off a box of stuff to "those people" in need is what is absolutely wrong with most churches. The conversation should never be Us vs. Them. We are one.

#2 Linda Looney said:

While I agree in principle with what the author is saying, I must say that as a long time supporter and former board member and volunteer at UCOM, I think UCOM does a great job of engaging clients, encouraging self growth by offering classes in financial stability and cooking classes with panty items; the homework house enables students to improve in their studies thereby helping to cut the cycle of poverty. So many other things that UCOM does well is shown by the number of clients who also volunteer at UCOM. Job skills are learned and therefore better jobs can be found. While we often drop of items of food or clothing or household goods, we know that as former clients ourselves, UCOM offers hands up, not just hand outs.

#3 Phil and Cathy Cralle Jones said:

That would be "pantry"....right?

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