Charity Vs. Justice Part II: Toxic Charity

Late May, I posted “Beyond the Pandemic:  Charity vs. Justice (Part I)”.

Then:  George Floyd, protests, public outcry.  So many minds suddenly tweaked, seeing as if for the first time that “This shit is real!”  and in turn, blowing the minds of the people who have been trying to tell us this for – well, forever!  As author Robin DiAngelo (White Fragility) asks, “How have you managed not to know?”

Now as more people are asking “What can I do?” I want to revisit and expound on this vital distinction between charity vs. justice.  I had some pushback last time from people involved in various charitable endeavors.  Please understand, this is not disparaging all charity.  It is an invitation to assess your current efforts in a fresh light, and/or to choose your engagements wisely.

“Well, charity ain’t justice.  Charity is beautiful, but you ain’t got to be charitable to me if I already got justice.  If I already got a sense of participation, you ain’t got to be charitable to me.  Just treat me right every day.”  Michael Eric Dyson

Fair warning to liberal/progressive and conservative readers alike:  Some sacred cows are due for a reality test.

Long-time urban activist, Robert Lupton, has penned Toxic Charity:  How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, And How to Reverse It.  He contends that “most non-crisis-specific charity is harmful.”  He spoke in Rochester a couple of years ago.  I was impressed with the stories gleaned from his 30-plus years of experience on Atlanta’s front lines, and the credibility they afford him.

He tells of the experience of delivering a Christmas basket to a family, and noticing that the male head of household was timidly lingering in a side room, too ashamed to show his face for his sense of failure to provide gifts for his family at Christmas time.

“The burden of poverty isn’t just that you don’t always have the things you need, it’s the feeling of being embarrassed every day of your life, and you’d do anything to lift that burden.”  Jay-Z

He notes that much of what he has learned is counter-intuitive.  “For example, I believe now that the only effective charity is the kind that asks more from those being served, rather than less.  Asking for more sends an affirming message to the recipient that he or she also has something of value to offer.”  I personally witnessed this during the 7 years I spent as a weekly volunteer at Habitat for Humanity.  Those hoping to own their own home were first required to put in 100 volunteer hours working on a home being built for someone else.  Then they were required to spend 200 hours working on their own home as it was being constructed!

Lupton concludes:  “The hard reality is that it takes more than compassionate hearts and generous gifts to elevate people in need out of poverty.  In fact, giving to people in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy them.”

In his sequel, Charity Detox: What Charity Would Look Like If We Cared About Results, Lupton expounds on the methodologies that avoid this inadvertent outcome.  His chapter headings give a sense of the thrust of his recommendations.  I present a few here as a teaser:

  • Partnering with Business
  • Social Entrepreneurs
  • Return on Investment
  • Meeting Market Demands
  • Reciprocal Exchange: Food
  • Gentrification with Justice
  • The Three R’s of Community Development

Lupton demonstrates how to begin serving impoverished people in a way that will lead to lasting real-world change.  In other words, he describes charity practiced in ways that promote justice.  I don’t agree with all that Lupton has written, but I’m paying attention to his contention that regardless of political persuasion, those of us involved in charitable or justice efforts:

  • Can be guilty of selective hearing.
  • Can tend to impose theoretical solutions without consulting those we purport to help.
  • Can “throw money” at problems haphazardly.
  • Can fail to conduct sober, fact-based analysis of actual results.
  • Can maintain programs out of habit and protect pet projects regardless of impact.
  • Can miss the signs that our helping is triggering a different kind of pain.

Helping Each Other

Here is an investigative checklist, an assessment of either charitable or justice efforts in which you are currently engaged or which you are considering joining:

  • Are there ways in which our efforts inadvertently evoke a sense of shame or helplessness or powerlessness in those we seek to serve?  (Caution:  do not trust your own judgment on this.  See the quote above.  Ask, with genuine curiosity, “What is it like to come here?”)
  • Does my charitable or justice work put me in genuine, peer-level connection with those I am serving?
  • Am I following the lead of actual community members and leaders, those who are in touch with real conditions, real situations, real needs?
  • Where does the money come from, and precisely where does it go?  To whom?  And how much is wasted along the way – e.g., on administration?
  • Who is in charge?  Take a look at executive-level composition and Board composition.  Are those served represented in significant numbers?
  • Go to meetings and pay attention to the dynamics:  Whose voice holds sway?  Who holds decision-making power?
  • How willing are the leaders to submit to the opinions of those who have the need?
  • How willing are we to submit to the opinions of those who have the need?

 “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”  St. Augustine

You’re encouraged to Leave a Reply below.


Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help and Charity Detox:  What Charity Would Look Like If We Cared About Results, by Robert D. Lupton.

When Helping Hurts – How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert; Shows how some alleviation efforts, failing to consider the complexities of poverty, have actually (and unintentionally) done more harm than good.

Please Stop Helping Us:  How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed.  Author Jason Riley is an editorial board member of the Wall Street Journal, a Fox News contributor – and he is Black.  He is a political conservative.  His critique is blatant and fact-based.  He cherry picks his facts to fit his theories, but his view is provocative for a thoughtful person.



So many have found a new or renewed desire to become part of the solution to racial injustice.  We need to convert the desire to concrete action, since the desire itself accomplishes nothing.

Census 2020 is a critical opportunity for Black people to be counted.  So much Federal, State and local funding of important programs depends on the demographic data.  There is a push on within communities of color to boost the participation, to allay the fears that many may have about the implications of registering.  Here is one local effort that can be done from your home.  It involves easy texting (without revealing your phone number).   Or it can be done from your computer.  See this 30-second video.  And get volunteer sign-up info here.  (Thanks to Rebecca Johnson for that information!)

General Census information here.  Note that this cycle’s deadline is extended but only to September 30 due to COVID-19, and is unlikely to be extended further.


This election cycle will be significant for many reasons.  Two efforts are spearheaded by the local League of Women Voters to boost voter participation.  These are non-partisan efforts to ensure the right to vote (and combat voter suppression) and to increase voter registration.

Choose, and act.

8 thoughts on “Charity Vs. Justice Part II: Toxic Charity”

  1. Hopefully our goal will be a transition to a fairer economic system and a reduced need for charity. A delicate and sensitive balance will be needed. We need a better understanding of “Justice.”


  2. Hi Frank, This is such a tricky business and it reminds me of arguments against affirmative action. I think the key to giving is giving with humility, that is asking what is needed rather than assuming what is needed. And as you say, asking for something in return is so important. Black administrators at School 22, where I and others from the First Unitarian church volunteer, remind us often that they want the kids to give back in return for our “charity”. That giving back could take the form of a glee club participation in a service or perhaps preparing cake for after a service or other ideas. In any case, as usual, your blog gives me lots to think about. Thank you.


  3. I have since read a critique of the books. It stated that most (63 per cent) of those Living in poverty are the working poor. And that “the family Taking their children to eat dinner at the soup kitchen are not lazy, they just can’t pay the rent, the utility bills, and the food bills…”. (Paraphrased). The answer, the critique said, is to pay workers a living wage. Soooo, I am left perplexed….do I still support soup kitchens or don’t I? Can you give more guidance or suggestions, Frank? This is a complicated question. To give or not to give? Is it really enabling or is it helping the mentally ill and others who can’t work? Since I spend a significant amount giving to local soup kitchens, and even volunteer my time during non- COVID times, I need advice! Thank you for reading my comments and helping me. – Lynne


    1. Lynne, I understand that struggle. I know a half dozen people who volunteer in soup kitchens. It’s not “wrong!” Lupton himself distinguishes that he’s addressing non-crisis-related charity mainly. I’d encourage you to get a hold of his sequel Charity Detox. That chapter on “food” particularly. I understand that he’s critiquing handout programs that ask nothing of those served, and convey the sense that we good, holy souls are giving you poor unfortunate people some of our time and money. It’s an attitudinal thing as well as a systemic issue.


  4. I have read parts of the books mentioned. I admit it is painful to think that all of my charitable efforts, and there have been many, may have actually done harm. It is good to be reminded though, that there are better ways to help. I recall reading in the D and C about businesses that teach basic job skills to people. That “teach one to fish” instead of giving out fish. I will look for ways to support these businesses.


    1. Thanks for that contribution, Lynne – and for having the humility and openness to changing! And just a note – we can’t be responsible for what we didn’t know when we didn’t know it. Let go of judgments about past efforts. Our guilt does no good for others and just addles us!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s