February 28, 2018

Charity Skepticism

This post is a reworking of a few previous posts to introduce a key reason that I research and write about charity: the rise of charity skepticism in the Christian church. The posts that this brings together are The Case Against Charity (January 18, 2016), The Case For Charity (May 30, 2016), and Charity Matters (January 4, 2016).

Half a decade or so ago, I was given a copy of Robert Lupton’s book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). I was surprised at what I read. The core argument of the book is that charity – except in cases of real crisis – is harmful to both donors and recipients. It fosters dependency, erodes work ethic, and creates a sense of entitlement. Instead of giving charity, he argues, we should help people in poverty by creating jobs programs, using asset based community development, providing loans, and helping people participate in systems of reciprocal exchange. Traditional charity, according to Lupton, cannot hope to lift people out of poverty. We need a different strategy

What I didn’t know when I first read Toxic Charity was that it was my introduction to an entire genre of literature and an informal movement aimed at reforming traditional charity. Lupton’s book is one of the more famous in the genre, but there are plenty of others: Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and YourselfSteve Rothschild’s The Non Nonprofit: For-Profit Thinking for Nonprofit SuccessRuby Payne’s Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities, and more. There are TED talks, articles, seminars, workshops, and lots of other channels for this movement. All of them telling churches and other nonprofits that we need to rethink how we serve the poor.

Call it charity skepticism.

Charity skepticism comes in three forms.

Skepticism about giving. Charity skeptics are skeptical of the idea that traditional charitable giving – usually described as ‘doing for others what they can or should be able to do for themselves’ – hurts the people who receive it and keeps them trapped in poverty. Traditional forms of charity like food pantries, clothes closets, Christmas toy drives, and so on encourage dependency and entitlements while destroying the work ethic of the poor. In order to avoid hurting the poor in these ways, we need to avoid using charity except in real cases of emergency. Instead of using traditional charity, we should help the poor enter into systems of reciprocal exchange where they can earn their way out of poverty: microcredit, co-ops, small businesses, and so on. The path out of poverty runs through the marketplace.

Skepticism about the nonprofit sector. Charity skeptics are skeptical of the idea that the nonprofit sector is able  to attain the scale and influence necessary to solve massive social problems like poverty. Nonprofit organizations a tiny compared to the challenges that they want to conquer. And they are kept that way because they are unable or unwilling to adopt the best practices of successful for-profit businesses. In order for the nonprofit sector to increase its scale and influence, it needs to invest in talent, improve its marketing, and attract investors. The best way to do this is to attract large investors with the promise of financial returns. The path out of inadequacy runs through the marketplace.

Skepticism about people living in poverty. Charity skeptics tend to argue that people living in poverty have a distinct culture: they use casual language, rely on verbal and physical violence to settle conflicts, live in the present, see money as something to be spent, and so on. This culture works when a person is living in poverty, but doesn’t include good strategies for escaping poverty or fitting into the middle class. When a poor person receives a financial windfall, for example, she is more likely to spend it on immediate gratification than invest it in a future return. In order to make the transition out of poverty, people in poverty need to adjust more than their financial situation or their behaviors. They need to adjust to a new culture: the culture of the middle class. The path out of poverty runs through American middle class values.

Over the last decade, this movement’s influence has grown by leaps and bounds. I’ve heard its ideas discussed in nonprofit board meetings. I’ve had its books and other media recommended to me by employers. I’ve been asked to comment on it during talks at churches. I’ve seen the principles of Lupton’s ‘Oath for Compassionate Service’ listed as criteria on grant applications. I’ve seen individuals change how they give, and churches and nonprofits change how they operate, based on the advice coming from this reform movement. But this movement is changing more than the strategies and tactics that we use to address poverty; it’s doing more than recommending microcredit over cash transfers. It’s asking us to change the way we think about the effectiveness of charitable giving, the way we imagine the church and nonprofit sector, and the way that we think about the poor.

But charity skepticism is wrong. Emerging research and rapidly growing literature indicate that charity — giving money to people living in poverty — is an effective way to alleviate poverty… provided that it is generous enough. Poverty is largely the problem of having enough money. And when people living in poverty are given money, they tend to invest it in ways that improve their lives. Not every time, of course, but often enough that giving money is almost certainly one of the most cost effective ways to address poverty.

[bctt tweet=”But charity skepticism is wrong… When people living in poverty are given money, they tend to invest it in ways that improve their lives… Giving money is almost certainly one of the most cost effective ways to address poverty.” username=”cmarlinwarfield”]

That doesn’t mean that charity skeptics are arguing in bad faith. I think that Robert Lupton, Ruby Payne, and others really do want to help people who are living in poverty. Unfortunately, charity skeptics have a prior commitment to the modern Western economic order. The skeptical argument wants to help people experiencing poverty within the bounds of systems that prioritize exchanges over gifts. Or, to put it bluntly, the skeptical argument tries to solve poverty with the systems that create and maintain poverty in the first place.

And charity is a powerful alternative to those systems. One of the things I’ll be doing with the blog going forward is making a strong case for charity from a Christian perspective. This will be based on three key ideas:

That charity is a cornerstone of the Christian faith. Traditionally, Christians have encountered the literal presence of Christ in two deeply intertwined ways: communion and almsgiving. In communion, we come before the altar to receive Christ’s presence. In almsgiving, we go to people living in poverty and make gifts to Christ. Communion and charity form a complete cycle of giving and receiving between Christ and the world.

That charity presents an alternative to living in an uncaring world.  Poverty and marginalization usually go hand in hand: the poor are pushed to the ragged edges of society, and those on the edges of society are denied access to the things they need to improve their lives. It doesn’t have to be this way. Charity presents a vision of the cosmos that competes with the vision of our dominant political and social structures. It suggests that we do not live in a world of limited resources that must be carefully distributed, but in a world where generosity is not only possible but natural.

That charity works. As I already mentioned, a growing body of research shows that giving to people living in poverty really does have transformative effects. People who are experiencing poverty tend to know what they need to do to improve their lives, and tend to meet those needs when they are given the resources to do so.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018


I’m a pastor, an author, and a nonprofit development and communications professional. My passion, my mission, and my calling is bringing people together to do good, with a particular focus on serving people who are experiencing poverty and other forms of marginalization.

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