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Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help

How could giving money to a poor family or helping clean-up a neighborhood do more harm than good? The unintended and harmful consequences of charity is the topic of Robert Lupton’s book, “Toxic Charity.” The CMC forum on Wednesday, February 3 will feature Lupton,
Michelle Heritage, CEO of the Community Shelter Board, Chad Jester, president of Nationwide Foundation and Fredericka Wallace-Deena, executive director of COMPASS. This forum is presented in partnership with Community Shelter Board.

“Bob presents some disruptive thinking in terms the way we all go about philanthropy –are we doing that in the most helpful way?” said Michelle Heritage. After hearing Lupton speak a few years ago at The Columbus Foundation, it was an “Hmmm, Oh!” moment for Heritage who began to look at charitable work differently. She shared, “What resonates the most for me is how we honor the dignity of the people who may be in need.” Summarizing Lupton’s thesis, she explains that “When giving is a one-way relationship, it can be harmful to the person receiving.”

Lupton questions the old model of charity such as dropping off toys for children at Christmas time or cleaning up trash and planting flowers in an economically depressed area. Although it may make the donor feel good about “giving to the poor,” it can be demeaning to the recipient because they realize their current inability to provide for themselves and their families. In these examples, a more respectful approach would be to include the parents in choosing gifts and involve the neighbors in planting donated flowers and picking up trash. In other words it’s about empowering others to take responsibility for their own neighborhoods and families to the extent that they are able.

Heritage explains that the Community Shelter Board, which is comprised of 19 providers that offer services to the homeless, has started the conversation about how to involve the people who need help in the plan that will lead them out of homelessness. Heritage emphasizes that the message should be that things can get better. “It’s about helping them make a lasting change in their lives by working with them, instead of giving them something,” she explains.

Heritage continues, “It’s the dignity piece. Help give people the opportunities and spaces to be successful themselves.” The Community Shelter Board has already found success with this new approach with greater numbers of people moving from shelters to homes and fewer returning to the shelters. Finally, Heritage says “They [the former homeless] say ‘I did this,” and they [assistance services] helped me out, not, they gave me. It’s just awesome!”


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