Toxic Charity – Robert Lupton Book Review

By | July 12, 2021

For years, I’ve heard about two books related to charitable work, Toxic Charity being one. I finally got around to reading it recently. The book is written by Robert D. Lupton and is based on his years of work among the poor in the Atlanta area. The book is valuable because it helps to answer the question anyone who desires to help should be asking, “What can we do to truly help?” One of Lupton’s foundational beliefs is that there are effectively two types of needs: emergency and long-term community development. A main “toxic” element of charities Lupton identifies is offering emergency type aid indefinitely. When this approach is taken over the long term, it separates people into the benefactors and the needy. This unintentionally devalues those being served by effectively saying that they have nothing of value to offer. It can also lead to frustration on both sides. Benefactors may eventually tire of continually being requested and even expected to give more. On the other side, people may feel ashamed to receive. (How many benefactors would refuse any help, taking pride in their perceived self-sufficiency?) Yet if the giving stops or is reduced, recipients may become angry because they have come to expect the stream of giving to continue and have even become dependent on it. Rather than being grateful, they have become entitled.

One big question which this book brought up for me is how do we know when emergency, one way giving is appropriate and when it is not? Lupton really only addresses people who are in poverty but are otherwise able. The sense then was that all charity would be temporary until people are empowered and able to take care of themselves. But it quickly occurred to me after reading the book that there are people who will need ongoing help indefinitely such as the disabled (mentally or physically). Or I think about people who are homeless. Even if homeless people are empowered to a point where they obtain housing, there will always be more people becoming homeless. Therefore it seems that will always be a need to provide some initial “emergency” provision to the homeless.

Another question for me, one who is in the position of supporting charities, is how do I know which charities are helping and which might be hurting? The book can be alarming and made me wonder if I should stop giving to many charities. I realized though that there isn’t any such things as perfection, that no charity will be perfect, and that to some degree I have to trust a charity to do the best they can. Certainly I can try to understand what a charity is doing and support charities which seem to be doing the best work. But I support charities in part because I don’t have the expertise and time myself to dig into each situation and to know what is most helpful to each person and group in need.

One concern I have about this book is some people could take it as supporting the point of view in which people in poverty merely need to work. In reality, there are many systemic issues which have led certain communities more impoverished than others.

In conclusion, Toxic Charity is an indispensable book for leaders of organizations working with impoverished communities. It points out pitfalls to avoid and suggests ideas on how to help in a way which leads to lasting change. The book is less helpful for someone like me who at this points supports rather than leads charities. It also doesn’t offer a significant amount for charities involved in helping categories of people such as the homeless in which will always those in need.

“When we do for those what they have the capacity to do for themselves, we disempower them.” (p. 3)

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