Are you doing more harm than good?

I’ve been reading an eye-opening book by Robert Lupton lately called Toxic Charity. In it, Lupton presents a case stating that years of charitable giving at home and abroad have barely made a dent in reducing poverty and often encourage dependency.

In this book, Lupton details the negative cycle of giving related to traditional charity.

  1. Give once and you elicit appreciation.
  2. Give twice and you create anticipation.
  3. Give three times and you create expectation.
  4. Give four times and it becomes entitlement.
  5. Give five times and you establish dependency.

As I begin to think through this concept, I flip the coin and consider instances when I’ve been on the receiving end of a gift. I think about the times when friends or family have helped me with the farm or moving cattle. The first time someone helps me I’m grateful. But as time goes on, I absolutely do begin to expect them to help me—and I even begin to depend on their assistance.

I do a lot of work in Niagara, and this concept has made me think about how I can help people without hurting them. I live a fast-paced life, so I want to do what’s most convenient and has the biggest impact. The biggest immediate impact is usually giving money. But I’m realizing that’s not what I should always be doing.

What is easy for me is probably the most harmful thing that I can possibly do. Giving money makes me feel good, and it doesn’t take a big investment of my time, effort, or energy. It takes me all of eight seconds to write a check and give an investment of my resources.

But what if the people I’m trying to help really need an investment of my time, effort, and energy?

Lupton offers an oath for compassionate service:

  • Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.
  • Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.
  • Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing and use grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
  • Subordinate your self-interests to the needs of those being served.
  • Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said—unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.
  • Above all, do no harm.

In the real world, this may look like a church replacing its traditional food pantry with a food co-op. Local residents could pay $3 in co-op dues for $30 worth of groceries, and they buy the food, box it, and distribute it. Another example might be turning a church’s free clothing closet into a revenue-generating thrift store that teaches job skills. Or, transform a soup kitchen into an entrepreneurial venture for female recipients who have a vision for starting a catering business.

This new way of looking at compassionate service has been on my mind lately, and I hope this message inspires you to consider how you can give empowerment instead of entitlement.

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