Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much

One of the biggest questions in addressing poverty is the question of why people remain poor despite the many public and private resources available to them. Among those who make the case against charity, the theory is often that something is wrong with the person who is poor: they are dependent, they are entitled, they lack a strong work ethic. The solutions proposed follow naturally from the diagnosis: limit charitable giving to emergencies, develop an entrepreneurial spirit, teach people the hidden rules of the middle-class.

In Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, economist Sendhil Mullainathan and behavioral scientist Eldar Shafir present an alternative idea: perhaps poverty is the reason that people remain poor.

Of course, Mullainathan and Shafir’s argument is deeper than that. Throughout the book, they look at a variety of kinds of scarcity – poverty (scarcity of money), busyness (scarcity of time), loneliness (scarcity of social connection), and so on – and discover that these very different forms of scarcity share an underlying psychology of scarcity. The person who is busy behaves the same way towards time that the person who is poor behaves towards money. Scarcity – “having less than you feel you need” – has “a common logic… that operates across diverse backdrops.”1Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Kindle Edition (New York: Henry Holt, 2013), 4-5

Through detailed and varied experiments and observations, Mullainathan and Shafir give us a picture of that psychology of scarcity. It’s a very different picture than that painted by advocates of welfare and charity reform.


There are three key concepts in Mullainathan and Shafir’s theory that I want to take a look at here: tunneling, bandwidth, and slack. Together, these three ideas create a portrait of the psychology of scarcity and help explain why people facing scarcity make the decisions that they do.

When people face scarcity – regardless of the kind of scarcity they face – they become intensely focused on making the most of what they have: they tunnel. This can have immense benefits. Many or us know the power that a looming deadline has to increase productivity. In the face of a deadline, we’re able to focus on the task at hand to the exclusion of all else and complete projects that had been languishing in the wilderness of ample time. Scarcity captures and focuses the mind in a way that is “unavoidable and beyond our control.”2Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 26

While this can be beneficial – a sort of focus dividend – it can also be tremendously damaging: “Focusing on one thing means neglecting other things.”3Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 29 Things inside the tunnel come into sharper focus while things outside the tunnel become invisible. The effect is that we make choices that are good in relation to the things we’re focused on even if they are bad in relation for things we’re not focused on.

A perfect example of this is payday loans. Mullainathan and Shafir use the example of Sandra Harris, an otherwise successful radio host who began taking payday loans after her husband lost his job. Each month, she would roll the loan over to make ends meet. She bounced checks, her car was repossessed, and she ended up deep in debt.4Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 105-107 The scarcity that Harris faced now created a tunnel that maintained that scarcity in the future:

That initial bill she could not pay created scarcity. She then tunneled on making ends meet that month. Within that tunnel, the payday loan proved eminently attractive. Its benefits fell inside that tunnel: it helped her make it through the month. The costs of the loan— the repayment and the fees— all fell outside this tunnel. The loan seemed to offer a solution to the problem she was fixated on.5Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 108-109

Tunneling leads us to see only the consequences of our choices that are inside the tunnel and to ignore the consequences that are outside the tunnel. We’ve all made choices that had immediate benefits and distant – even invisible – disadvantages: skipping the long-term benefits of a visit to the gym in favor of getting a project done before a pressing deadline, for example. This is a result of scarcity.


Scarcity causes us to tunnel, focusing on the challenges of our scarcity to the exclusion of other things. It captures our attention.

The result of that capture is that it limits our bandwidth. Mullainathan and Shafir use the idea of bandwidth as a shorthand for a variety of psychological constructs.6Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 47 Among these are cognitive capacity (the ability to solve problems, engage in logical reasoning, etc.) and executive control (the ability plan, control impulses, and so on).7Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 47 Scarcity, according to Mullainathan and Shafir, “directly reduces bandwidth.”8Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 47 People facing scarcity aren’t inherently less able to solve problems, retain information, or control impulses. They simply have fewer resources available to actually do those things.9Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 47

This last point is especially important. Mullainathan and Shafir’s research showed that test subjects suffered a 13 to 14 point drop in IQ when preoccupied by scarcity. But that effect exists only when preoccupied with scarcity. People facing scarcity aren’t any more or less intelligent than people not facing scarcity, but they appear to have lower intelligence because some of their bandwidth is being used elsewhere.10Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 52 Similarly, people who are facing scarcity show less self-control, but only when they are facing scarcity. They don’t have less self-control, but they appear to have less because their bandwidth is being taxed.11Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 55-56

All of this leads to a fascinating bottom line, a narrative that counters a lot of popular opinion about the capacities of the poor: “Poverty itself taxes the mind…  We would argue that the poor do have lower effective capacity than those who are well off. This is not because they are less capable, but rather because part of their mind is captured by scarcity.”12Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 60 I’ll return to this idea shortly, since it has huge implications for how we address poverty. First, though, I want to look at a third key concept from Mullainathan and Shafir’s work.


Scarcity forces us to think in terms of trade-offs. Mullainathan and Shafir use the example of ordering a $10 cocktail while out at a restaurant with friends. When we think about it, we know that any $10 purchase means that we don’t have that $10 to spend elsewhere. When we’re not facing scarcity, however, we behave as though there is no trade-off. Because the cost is low, we act as though there are an infinite number of $10 purchases in our budget. If we’re on a diet, though, that drink suddenly has a trade-off: having that many calories now really does mean giving up dessert after dinner. Scarcity means we must account for everything.13Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 70-71

Scarcity creates trade-off thinking. But a lack of scarcity provides slack. We experience slack when we have a light week with holes in our schedule or when we have enough money that we don’t need track our spending. Importantly, this isn’t the time or money that we purposefully put aside for unforeseen circumstances; it’s not the forty-five minutes we schedule for a twenty-five minute drive or the money we have in an emergency account. Instead, slack is the by-product of abundance. It’s the result of not having to budget every dollar or hour.14Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 74-75

Here’s the important point: slack provides room to fail.

When we have slack, we can make poor choices. When we have a large financial cushion, we can make a seemingly infinite number of dumb $10 purchases without having to worry about the trade-offs we’re making. Someone who is poor, however, does have to think about those trade-offs; a bad $10 purchase has consequences for her that it doesn’t for someone who enjoys financial slack. And that leads to a vicious feedback loop. Because of bandwidth usage, people facing scarcity are more likely to make those poor decisions and less likely to have the slack necessary to avoid them.

Rethinking Poverty

If the arguments that Mullainathan and Shafir make are true and their theories accurate, they have huge implications for how we address poverty. As Mullainathan and Shafir write, we often assume that the cause of poverty is at least partially internal. Even if we admit that accidents of birth contribute to poverty, “one prevailing view explains the strong correlation between poverty and failure by saying failure causes poverty.”15Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 115

Mullainathan and Shafir, however, suggest that “causality runs at least as strongly in the other direction: that poverty— the scarcity mindset— causes failure.”16Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 115 The problem is that the poor aren’t just short on money. They’re also short on bandwidth. And those two problems are, of course, interrelated: being poor results in having less bandwidth available to address the roots of that poverty, and having less bandwidth available leads to making choices that keep a person poor.

This suggests that we might be able to address poverty by, well, addressing poverty. It’s a common idea among those making the case against charity that we need to address the mindset of poverty before (or alongside) addressing the material facts of poverty. But this understanding suggests that addressing the material facts of poverty also addresses the mindset. Reducing material scarcity helps us leave the scarcity mindset behind and behave in ways that will keep us out of poverty!

Mullainathan and Shafir provide an interesting example of this. Street vendors in Koyambedu market in Chennai, India, are often caught in significant debt: they borrow 1,000 rupees each day to buy stock, sell the stock for 1,100 rupees (a 100 rupee profit), and pay 1,050 rupees back to the vendor at the end of the day (the 1,000 rupee principal plus an astonishing 5% interest). The amazing thing is that each vendor has a small amount of slack that they use for tea, a snack, and so on. Let’s assume they spend about 5 rupees of slack each day. If a vendor spent that slack on inventory instead, she would be debt free in 30 days – thanks to the power of compounding – and effectively double her profit for the rest of her working days.17Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 123-124

As an experiment, Mullainathan and Shafir bought the debt of hundreds of vendors, letting them out of the debt trap.18As an aside, I should point out that 1,000 rupees is about $15. The direct cost of buying hundreds of vendors out of their debt isn’t huge. They then tracked the now debt-free vendors – and others – for a year. For several months, the vendors didn’t fall back into debt. They did exactly as we would hope. But one by one, they did fall back into debt. By the end of the year, they were back where they had started.19Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 133-134

But what caused them to fall back into debt?

“The core of the problem,” according to Mullainathan and Shafir, “is a lack of slack.”20Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 135 When the vendor encountered a shock bigger than the slack she had available – even if it was a foreseeable shock – she used her savings to cover it… and tunneling meant that she wouldn’t think about the future consequences of raiding those savings.21Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 135-136 Escaping debt – or scarcity more broadly – means more than being debt free, it also means having the tools necessary to deal with shocks.

Mullainathan and Shafir are clear that this doesn’t mean “that the only way to avoid scarcity traps is to have wealth large enough to weather all shocks… that the only way to solve the vendor’s problem is to give her even more money.”22Mullainathan and Shafir, Scarcity, 137, emphasis original But there’s no reason to suppose that this couldn’t be a solution. If the vendors had not only had their debt forgiven, but had also been provided with a cushion they could use until they had built up savings, would that have helped them avoid falling back into debt?

The more important point is that the vendors didn’t immediately fall back into debt; they didn’t waste what was to them a huge amount of money. Instead, they fell back into debt when they encountered a bump in the road. And that suggests that we really can help people by providing them with material or financial resources. Poor vendors in Chennai aren’t irresponsible, they’re consistently caught in situations where their attention is captured by the reality of scarcity. When we help them overcome scarcity, we also help them overcome the mindset that keeps them in poverty.


The understanding of poverty – and scarcity more broadly – provided by Mullainathan and Shafir runs counter to the narrative we’ve become used to. The poor aren’t dependent, entitled, or lacking a work ethic. They aren’t caught in a culture of poverty.

What Mullainathan and Shafir are proposing is a different direction of causation. It isn’t that irresponsible behaviors cause material poverty (though they may contribute). It’s that material poverty causes irresponsible behaviors. If we accept this direction of causation, we can accept that material assistance – contra those making the case against charity – really might be an effective way of helping the poor.

This counterintuitive narrative makes Scarcity a powerful book. But if that’s all that it offered, it would be easy to dismiss. Fortunately, Mullainathan and Shafir do offer something else. Scarcity doesn’t just provide a counter-narrative. It isn’t assertions and anecdotes, though it does contain both. It’s claims are backed up by real research in the forms of deep background reading, interactions with people facing scarcity, and numerous experiments.

They are embarking on a true science of scarcity. And in an era of opinions and assertions, that science is desperately needed.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Being Stingy Doesn’t Work

Last week, I shared this post from Vu Le at Nonprofit With Balls. I excerpted this quote from it:

Budget Testing allows a larger nonprofit to be able to grow, while smaller, grassroots organizations continue to struggle. Getting 10K, while great, is not nearly as helpful as getting 100K. With 100K, you can hire a full-time exempt person, an essential element in organizational growth. With 10K, you can’t do much; if you’re lucky, you may be able to Frankenstein some other sources of funding together to get a part-time person, or pay for other elements to help your program to limp along. It’s like telling a kid, “Because you’re so little, I’m going to give you a few cheerios. When you grow big and strong, I’ll give you more and better food.” The flaw with this argument is that kids cannot grow just by being fed a few cheerios every day. (Despite my 2-year-old’s insistence otherwise)

Le is talking about foundations and nonprofit organizations. Budget testing is his name for the idea that foundations should provide funding based on the size of the budget of the organization to which they’re giving. For example, a nonprofit with a $1 million budget can apply for a $100,000 grant, while a nonprofit with a $100,000 budget can only apply for a $10,000 grant. His problem with this approach is that it means that the large organizations can get grants that are big enough for them to grow (e.g., $100,000 can hire a new staff member) while small organizations are left in the dust (e.g., $10,000 has to be combined with other resources in order to help a program).

And that’s all true. Small organizations need more help in order to grow into large organizations and make a greater impact on their communities.

But this quote also made me think of how we approach poverty as a problem.

Often, we place severe restrictions on who can receive help. A person must be struggling with immense poverty in order to receive help. Even if they qualify, the help they get isn’t enough to make a dent in their poverty. Someone who needs a little help can’t get the help that they need; someone who needs a lot of help can only get a little. It’s like we’re trying to do the least that we can to make it look like we care about the problem.

The reformers – those authors and speakers making the case against charity – try to justify this approach.

“If we give people more than this,” they say, “they’ll become dependent. They’ll become entitled. They’ll lose their work ethic. We don’t want our helping to hurt. If anything, we should give less.”

The problem is that being stingy doesn’t work. Solving a little bit of the problem doesn’t solve the problem. Forcing poor people to cobble together support from dozens of government programs and nonprofits doesn’t solve the problem. Inventing reasons to provide less doesn’t solve the problem. Asking poor people to work harder doesn’t solve the problem.

Many of us in the nonprofit sector are quick to see that stinginess doesn’t work when it’s foundations being stingy with us. So why are we so willing to implement it when it comes to the people we serve?

Vu Le: Why Budget Testing is a Terrible Way for Foundations to Determine Funding Allocation

Budget Testing allows a larger nonprofit to be able to grow, while smaller, grassroots organizations continue to struggle. Getting 10K, while great, is not nearly as helpful as getting 100K. With 100K, you can hire a full-time exempt person, an essential element in organizational growth. With 10K, you can’t do much; if you’re lucky, you may be able to Frankenstein some other sources of funding together to get a part-time person, or pay for other elements to help your program to limp along. It’s like telling a kid, “Because you’re so little, I’m going to give you a few cheerios. When you grow big and strong, I’ll give you more and better food.” The flaw with this argument is that kids cannot grow just by being fed a few cheerios every day. (Despite my 2-year-old’s insistence otherwise)

Vu Le: Why Budget Testing is a Terrible Way for Foundations to Determine Funding Allocation

Fred Clark: Subsidiarity is Really Important, Whether or Not You Call it That

Orphans — the sad but undeniable fact of orphans — highlight the danger and cruel stupidity of ideologies that preach atomized, exclusive responsibility. Those who allow themselves to be trapped within such ideologies wind up confounded by the existence of orphans. Who is responsible for feeding a hungry child? The parents, they say — only and exclusively the parents. They don’t want to hear any of this “it takes a village” business. But all parents are mortal, and some die too soon, and an ideology which teaches that parents are exclusively and solely responsible for children is unable to know what to do when that happens.

Fred Clark: Subsidiarity is Really Important, Whether or Not You Call it That

Career Paths and Calling

I’m on the mailing list for Mazarine Treyz at Wild Woman Fundraising, so recently I got an email about “winning the game of fundraising careers.”

It started with a short summary of what Treyz was looking for in a career before she became a consultant: she wanted a job at a university, where she “could have resources to succeed in my job, like a decent database, plus fundraising colleagues who would mentor me, and a career structure, and move on up to a position that paid enough to take vacations to Paris.”

Of course, she’s willing to give the reader some free advice on how to get one of those coveted university positions. And she’s willing to charge for more advice.

I’m not going to begrudge Treyz her dream job or her advice. I’ve been to her webinars. I’ve read her blog. I might even pay for her conference. She is a good consultant.

And we all have our own paths to follow and our own goals to reach.

But I’m troubled by the idea of ‘winning at the game of fundraising careers’. I say that as someone who’s been accused of trying to become overqualified for the kinds of jobs I want.

There are people for whom fundraising – or other nonprofit careers – is about getting a comfortable and lucrative position. I know some of them. They’re fine people who are often very good at their jobs. But I’m not one of them.

I’m a fundraiser because it’s a way for me to make the world a better place. I’m a fundraiser because it’s how I can feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and free the oppressed. I’m a fundraiser because, as Frederick Buechner would put it, it’s the place where my deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.

When I take classes at The Fundraising School, it isn’t so that I can get a higher paying job. When I earned my CFRE, it wasn’t so that I could vacation in Paris. When I read the latest research or attend a conference or watch one of Treyz’s webinars, it isn’t so that I can be more comfortable. It’s all so that I can help community-based organizations, progressive congregations, and the people who support them make the world a better place.

Even more, I believe that those community-based organizations and progressive congregations deserve someone with those qualifications and more.

For me – and I suspect for most people in the nonprofit sector – this isn’t a career, it’s a calling. It’s not a game that I’m trying to win, it’s a vocation that I’m trying to live out.

And I bet that’s also true for Mazarine Treyz.

Neil Edgington: 5 Fundraising Mistakes Nonprofits Make

I was talking to a normally very savvy foundation program officer the other day who wondered if one of his struggling grantees should think about launching a new gala event to raise some additional money. I swallowed my first inclination to scream “NOOOOOO!” in the middle of a crowded restaurant and instead calmly explained why events are a bad money fix, and why any short-term money generating strategy is probably a really bad idea.

Neil Edgington: 5 Fundraising Mistakes Nonprofits Make

Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It)

A few years ago, a book group at my parents’ church read Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). My parents were interested in my opinion, so they sent me a copy. I was surprised at what I read. What I didn’t know at the time was that it was my introduction to a genre of literature and an informal movement aimed at reforming charity, the nonprofit sector, and a culture of poverty. This movement has no leadership, no centralization, no comprehensive line of argument. It’s a set of authors, speakers, and consultants who tell similar stories, refer to one another’s work, and suggest complementary reforms to how we address poverty.

Lupton’s book is one of the better known examples of the genre. In it, Lupton argues that charity should be limited to emergency situations because otherwise it hurts the person who receives it. Traditional charity fosters dependency, erodes the work ethic, and creates a sense of entitlement among recipients. Instead of giving charity, we should help people in poverty through jobs programs, asset based community development, microcredit, and so on. Traditional charity cannot solve the problem of poverty. We need a different strategy.

Assertions and Anecdotes

It’s completely reasonable to question whether any given charitable organization – or even the charitable sector as a whole – is effective. That’s exactly the kind of question that any donor or volunteer should be asking about the organizations to which they give.

While there are resources for donors who want information on specific organizations – GuideStar and Charity Navigator are probably the best known – there’s very little information that help us answer bigger questions about which ways of helping people are more effective or whether the sector as a whole is doing what we’d like. This is in part because of ethical concerns. It would be terribly immoral, of example, to find comparable individuals or communities, offer assistance to one, and deny that assistance to the other. Similarly, it would be immoral to offer comparable individuals or communities different kinds of assistance for the purpose of figuring out which method is more effective.

So it’s not necessarily surprising that despite his assurance that he “examined broader aspects of charity” with the same intensity as “Louis Pasteur searching for a causal relationship between germs and disease,”1Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 35 Lupton doesn’t offer data on the effectiveness of charity. He offers assertions and anecdotes. Nearly every section of every chapter contains a story, and many of these stories make for compelling reading: we can sympathize with the father who is embarrassed by the fact that his children must rely on the generosity of strangers for their Christmas presents2Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 31-35, or with the woman whose giving spirit is taken advantage of by a woman who she met at a soup kitchen.3Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 58-61

But the plural of anecdote is not data, and we should be careful about evaluating the entire charitable sector based on Lupton’s stories and the lessons he draws from them.

There are three major reasons that we should be cautious.

First, Lupton writes that when he began his Pasteuresque research into “broader aspects of charity,” he did so “under the microscope of [his] new awareness.”4Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 35 That awareness, though, was an awareness of the very thing he is investigating: it is awareness of “an unhealthy culture of dependency”5Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 35 and a broader toxicity of charity. His ‘research’ confirms what he already knew!

Second, and probably because of the first point, Lupton’s stories seem noticeably ‘thin’. For example, when he describes the Georgia Avenue Urban Ministry (now Urban Recipe) – which he calls “Georgia Avenue Food Co-op”6Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 53 – he ignores the complex model of service and community building in which they engage in favor of comparing its food co-op to the food pantry at Old First Church (which I suspect is also far more complex than Lupton’s few paragraphs suggest).

The description that he gives of the experience that led him to see ‘traditional models’ of charity as toxic is similarly thin. During the Christmas season of 1981, he was living in a community he was serving. He was having coffee with one of his neighbors when a group of guests arrived bearing Christmas gifts for the family. The mother answered the door and “a nervous smile concealed her embarrassment as she graciously accepted armfuls of neatly wrapped gifts.”7Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 32 During the visit, “no one noticed that the children’s father had quietly slipped out of the room.” 8Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity,32

From this experience, which Lupton described in two short paragraphs, he draws this conclusion:

[A] father is emasculated in his own home in front of his wife and children for not being able to provide presents for his family… a wife is forced to shield her children from their father’s embarrassment… children get the message that the “good stuff” comes from rich people out there and is free.9Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 33

Obviously, Lupton knows more about this experience than he reveals. But he doesn’t suggest that he spoke to the family about this experience or their perceptions of it. Instead, he presents the event as though he was able to intuitively grasp how the father felt and why, what the mother was forced to do, and what message the children got. He simply knows that the father is emasculated by the charity and not by the economic system that works so well for this benefactors and so poorly for him. He simply knows that the children get a message of dependency and entitlement rather than a lesson in the value of sharing from our abundance that they will reenact if they’re more fortunate than their parents.

Likewise, returning to his stories of Urban Recipe and Old First Church, he is able to draw an amazing assessment: that the cost of the efficiency of Old First Church’s food pantry is human dignity and that by engaging in these “traditional models” of ministry we “develop toxic relationships.”10Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 54

From this descriptions, Lupton is able to draw large lessons that fit the needs of his argument. As with all of his illustrations, however, Lupton’s interpretation is possible, but not necessary. While it’s conceivable that his interpretations are right, he doesn’t do the work of showing us that they are.

Third, even when Lupton draws on other research, he does so uncritically. The biggest single example of this is his use of Dambisa Moyo’s book, Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa.11Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 3, 94-97. In the latter section, Lupton quotes Moyo three times and paraphrases her at least twice. There are no citations, footnotes, or end notes. While this is admittedly a personal pet peeve of mine, it’s worth noting that failing to cite sources does not contribute to trustworthiness. Dead Aid may provide some insights into the situation of international assistance for Africa, and rethinking international efforts in the development of Africa may be a good idea. But Dead Aid has been roundly criticized, not least for ignoring the broader colonial, post-colonial, and cold war contexts in which much of that aid took place. Lupton uncritically accepts Moyo’s conclusions without seriously engaging any literature that challenges his own arguments.

None of this is to say that Lupton’s stories or opinions don’t have value. These are good stories and Lupton has years of experience in urban ministry. His opinions are informed opinions. But Toxic Charity is not a memoir. Lupton is not simply sharing his experiences or giving fatherly advice. He is leveling serious charges against traditional models of charity; he is suggesting that those models actively harm the people that they were meant to help; he is recommending a substantial overhaul of the charitable sector (an overhaul, as we will see, that aligns with a particular ideology). Taking these charges and recommendations seriously requires more than anecdotes and gut feelings. It requires data and rigorous analysis.

Christ and Capitalism

Like several of the books that make the case against charity, Toxic Charity is aimed squarely at Christians. The subtitle of Toxic Charity is How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). This book isn’t just about how churches are failing the poor and how the church ought to help them. It is about how the church is failing the poor and how the church ought to help them. Given that, we might expect Lupton to spend some time considering what theologically and pastorally responsible charity might look like. But that thread is absent from the book.

That doesn’t mean that these concerns never appear in Toxic Charity. Lupton does write about the church. He writes about the ‘scandal’ of “religious mission trips”.12Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 5. There are further references on pp. 14-18 and 65-60 He refers to his own Presbyterian church.13Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 11, 65-66 He writes a section on “ministry entrepreneurs” and another on how “bad business equals bad ministry”14Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 18-26. He writes the already mentioned Christmas story.15Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 31-39 He shares anecdotes about and examples of church-based programs for the poor.16Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 51-61, especially. He looks briefly at the relationship between faith and trust.17Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 61-63 He laments the loss of a relationship with a church over poorly organized volunteering.18Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 70-75 He writes about what churches’ ‘mission portfolios’ should look like.19Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 75-78 And so on.

Lupton also refers to scripture and to Christian thinkers and leaders. Micah 6:8 receives the attention of almost an entire section of a chapter.20Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 39-42 The Parable of the Judging of the Nations is name checked.21Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 40 He mentions and quotes Jacques Ellul,22Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 34 Gary Hoag,23Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 45 Andy Bales,24Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 45-46 and Ron Sider.25Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 46 Other, more subtle references lurk in the background.

So it isn’t the case that Lupton ignores the role of the church or Christian thought in charity. He approaches these things through the lenses of scripture and his personal experiences and he offers both compliments and criticisms of the church for its approach to serving the poor. But, like his anecdotes, his examination of charity from a theological or pastoral perspective is thin. Neither his criticisms of nor his vision for charitable activity are not rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead, they are rooted in the ideology of capitalism.

Remember the core problem that Lupton has with traditional models of charity:

Decades of free aid from well-meaning benefactors has produced an entitlement mentality and eroded a spirit of entrepreneurship. The outpouring of more aid, though necessary to preserve life in a time of disaster, is ultimately worsening the underlying problem… [G]iving our resources hurts the poor as often as (or even more often than) it helps.26Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 36-37. The first portion of this quote is in related to international attempts to provide aid to Haiti, but Lupton applies the concept to all charity.

Lupton believes that the act of simply giving to someone as they have need creates toxic relationships and that healthy relationships are created when we “redirect traditional methods of charity into systems of genuine exchange.”27Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 38 Better to open a store where people who are poor can search for bargains or work in exchange for what they need than simply being given things from the abundance others enjoy.28Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 38-39

And that’s not necessarily wrong. there’s much to be said for developing opportunities for people to participate in their economies. But Lupton places an enormous amount of faith in the power of “reciprocal exchange” or “holistic compassion.”29Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 37 He seems to believe that directly including people in American-style economies is the key to helping them escape poverty.

Take, for example, his faith in the power of work. In a section that compares clothes closets and thrift stores,30Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 37-39 Lupton makes much of the dignity of work: “our low-income neighbors would much rather work to purchase gifts for their children than stand in free-toy lines with their ‘proof of poverty’ identification.”31Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 39 No doubt. But it never seems to occur to Lupton that the problem might be the line, the proof, of poverty, and the rules and regulations. Lupton places the blame clearly on the fact that the people in that line are receiving toys for free. Ironically, he seems to believe that the problem with gifts is that they are gifts.

His belief in the power of work is more problematic when he writes about hiring day laborers.32Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 152-154 In an effort to clear a vacant lot of grass, weeds, and debris, he decided “to take on the project”33Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 152 himself, with the help of some other labor. He went to Home Depot and randomly selected “two young Hispanic men.”34Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 153 He agrees to pay them $10 for the day.35Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 153. Assuming that they worked for a mere seven hours, that’s $1.43 per hour, a feloniously low wage since 1968.

Lupton uses this tory to illustrate two points. First, “Little affirms human dignity more than honest work. One of the surest ways to destroy self-worth is subsidizing the idleness of able-bodied people. Work is a gift, a calling, a human responsibility.”36Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 152


Life offers no fulfillment without work. Our earliest glimpse of the cosmos is a creative God at work. And the original design of paradise pictures humanity at work… Clearing debris from a lot or running a corporation, mopping the kitchen floor or selling a piece of real estate. Work, all work, is an invitation from God for us to take an active role as coparticipants in an ever-unfolding creation.37Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 154

Lupton’s right that work is an invitation to participate in an unfolding creation, but he’s not telling the whole story. He’s right that the book of Genesis begins with God creating the cosmos and that the second chapter of that book tells us that “God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”38Genesis 2:15, NRSV But Genesis also tells us that our work is cursed because of Adam’s sin:

Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it,” cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.39Genesis 3:17-19, NRSV

The Bible – and Christianity as a whole – balances two views of work: work can certainly be a blessing and provide meaning, but it can also be meaningless toil we must engage in merely to get the basic necessities of life. We probably cannot put all work on a single spectrum from paradise to curse, but my guess is that running a corporation or nonprofit is a lot closer to the former than doing manual labor for $1.43 an hour.

Lupton doesn’t spend any time looking at the larger socio-economic structures that let some people have fulfilling careers as participants in God’s creative work and leaves other people with drudgery. Just as he doesn’t ask why some people are in a position to give out gifts to the less fortunate at Christmas and others are in a position to receive them, he doesn’t ask why some people are in a position to randomly select people in a Home Depot parking lot for a day of landscaping and others are in that parking lot hoping and praying for a day’s work at scandalously low wages. Lupton, quite simply, doesn’t question the socio-economic systems that allow some people to live in abundance and forces others to live in poverty.

The gospel, however, does question those systems. And it suggests that those of us who are fortunate enough to have more than we need should overcome those systems by sharing with those who do not have enough. Scriptural examples of this are easy enough to find: Matthew 5:38-42, Luke 16:1-13Acts 4:32-37, James 2:14-26, and so on. Despite Lupton’s apparent desire to help Christians respond to poverty in a more responsible way, a Christian response to poverty probably won’t be responsible to existing social and economic systems.


Like many of the books making the case against charity, Toxic Charity is aimed squarely at Christians. But it is not a Christian argument. Lupton’s argument is firmly embedded in an American version of capitalism: provide microloans, give people work, teach people that nothing is free. It’s not surprising that this book seems to be popular among American middle-class churches. It’s based in the idea that, for those of us who are fortunate enough to be relatively privileged by American systems of race and class, nothing needs to change. We can continue to benefit from systems that exploit the poor and assuage our guilt – if we have any – by providing some means for the poor to live better lives within that system.

And, of course, we can villainize practices that don’t play within the boundaries set by American capitalism. It isn’t that poor people are dependent because they are forced to depend on others. It’s not that they lack work ethic because most of their effort goes towards survival, which tends not to pay. It’s not that their ‘entitlement’ is merely the reasonable demand to things to which they are in fact entitled. No. Poor people are dependent, lack a work ethic, and have a sense of entitlement because of charity.

The deep problem with Toxic Charity is that this doesn’t have to be an either-or problem. Or, to put it another way, the either-or problem is on a different level. We don’t have to abandon food pantries and housing rehab programs and mission trips and clothes closets in order to have effective food co-ops and job training programs and local businesses and microloans. We don’t even have to have the former restricted to ‘real’ emergencies while only the latter are available for the chronically poor. Someone can receive some things as gifts while working for others. Most poor people do. Most people (period) do.

But at another level, there is a choice. Christians, at least, do have to choose whether we will live by the standards set by Christ or those set by the world. The systems that leave people poor – that, at times, make people poor – can be redeemed, but in order to be redeemed they must be reformed. And this brings me to my final criticism: Lupton has chosen the wrong target. It isn’t charity – and idea with its theological roots in the love of God for the world – that stands in need of reform; it is the global systems of domination. That includes capitalism.

So if you want to make microloans, by all means do so. If you want to start a co-op, do so. If you want to start a job training program or financial management classes or any of the rest of Lupton’s final suggestions, do so. But also expand your food pantry and your clothes closet and your toys for children at Christmas. Being generous in one way doesn’t mean we can’t be generous in many others.

Footnotes   [ + ]

New York Times: Disparity in Life Spans of the Rich and the Poor Is Growing

The poor are losing ground not only in income, but also in years of life, the most basic measure of well-being. In the early 1970s, a 60-year-old man in the top half of the earnings ladder could expect to live 1.2 years longer than a man of the same age in the bottom half, according to an analysis by the Social Security Administration. Fast-forward to 2001, and he could expect to live 5.8 years longer than his poorer counterpart.

New York Times: Disparity in Life Spans of the Rich and the Poor Is Growing

Isaiah 58:5-8 (for Ash Wednesday)

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

3 Things That (Maybe) Worked in Fundraising a Decade Ago That Don’t Today

A while ago, I linked to this post by Carey Nieuwhof titled 9 Things That Worked in the Church A Decade Ago That Don’t Today.” I linked to it partly because I thought as many churches as possible should see it. But I also linked to it because I thought a lot of the things on Carey’s list applied to how nonprofit organizations raise funds. So I’m going to riff on Carey’s list a bit. I’m not going to talk about nine things, though. I’ll just do three.

Thinking People Will Automatically Give Again

Maybe there was a time we could rely on our donors to give to us. Maybe there was a time when all anybody needed was a little reminder to support an organization or a cause that they loved.

If there ever was such a time, it’s over.

It’s a well-known fact in the fundraising world that donor retention rates are terrible. According to Bloomerang – a donor management software company – median donor retention is 43% and first-time donor retention is only 19%. Think about that. Out of every 100 donors you have right now, 43 of them will be gone by next year. And those 100 brand new donors you brought on board? Only 19 of them will stick around. And that’s if you’re in the middle of the pack.

The simple fact is that donors don’t stick around unless we engage them appropriately. That means thanking them promptly when they make a gift, informing them about the good their gift has done, and involving them in our work.

Being Good Enough for Us

We often take pride in being good enough. We get thank you letters out in a time that seems reasonable to us. We publish a newsletter that looks good to us. We invite people to get involved in the ways we want them to be involved. We do what we think will keep our donors happy. And when those donors aren’t happy, we bemoan the fact that they just don’t understand.

Here’s the thing: there are about 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States, and the average Baby Boomer gives to about four of them (the average Millennial gives to about three). We are always competing with a lot of other organizations for a very limited number of slots in our donors’ philanthropic inventories.

Being good enough for ourselves won’t work. We need to be better than the vast majority of those other organizations. We need to thank better. We need to inform better. We need to invite better. We need to stand out.

That’s how you get one of those four slots.

Being a Business

There was a time when nonprofits were businesses. There was a time when appeals eschewed contractions because they were too informal. There was a time when it was okay to talk about ourselves. That time is over.

Donors want to know that we’re professional. They also want to know that we’re people and that we’re passionate. They want to know that we’re passionate people who care about the things that they care about and who will help them realize their own charitable goals. Businesses don’t have that personality. They’re cold. They’re impersonal. They care about themselves.

That’s part of why so many businesses are leaving behind the business image; they know that people want to be involved in people.

We are people. We’re passionate people. We shouldn’t be afraid to show it.

So, What’s Not Working?

This is a short list and – let’s be honest – if it were a different day I might pick three other things that aren’t working.

As fundraisers, we face a lot of options about what we can do. We face a lot of rumors about what will work and soon won’t. How many times have I been told about the wonders of text-to-give or the demise of direct mail? It’s important to take stock of the things we’ve gotten used to and separate the wheat from the chaff.

One thing I’ve noticed, though, is this: the chaff usually isn’t our activities. It’s our attitudes.

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