Sermons and Posts

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,”((Robert 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 presents((Robert 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.((Robert 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…

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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…

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A Short Word on Church Grants

A surprising number of churches – sometimes churches that otherwise have very little money – provide grants to nonprofit organizations. I know this because I write a dozen or so applications for these grants every year. And having filled out a few dozen grant applications, having answered many questions about mission and vision and impact, and having attached all of the required supporting documentation, I had to ask: is this really the best way for churches to be managing their mission budgets? Let me give an example. I recently submitted a grant that, in addition to a few pages of questions about the purpose for which the funds would be used, required: a current operating budget, a recent audited financial statement, a list of current funding sources, documentation of nonprofit status, a recent annual report, a list of members of the board of directors with affiliations, and copies of brochures. The final document was 32 pages long and about a quarter of an inch thick. The size of the grant being requested? About $5,000. And while I was putting this all together, I was asking myself: is this committee really going to read the financial statement? Are they going to compare funding sources? Are they going to evaluate the affiliations of our board members? Is all of this information really going to help them compare the organizations applying for grants and make a decision? I suspect the answer is: probably not. Here’s my experience. The churches who give in response to my grant applications tend to be churches who would have given anyway: they ask me to submit an application, other groups in the church give, and so on. The grant application is documentation for a decision they’ve already made. We’re either an organization that they support or an organization that they don’t. And while there are many things that might convince a church that doesn’t support us to send some money, a grant application usually isn’t one of them. I don’t know why churches – especially those that aren’t among the few that manage large foundations – require grant applications. I suspect that it’s a signal to their congregations that they’re very serious about how they use their mission money. They aren’t just giving money away. They review financial statements, they evaluate board membership, they know about other funding sources, they have Robert Lupton’s Oath for Compassionate Service in their criteria. The mission committee is doing very serious work. They’re as thorough as a community foundation or a government agency. Look at see: there’s paperwork! This application is 32 pages long! It’s a quarter of an inch thick! As you might have guessed, I’m not convinced this is a good way for most churches to make decisions about giving. First, I don’t think that most mission committees have a strong method for evaluating and comparing all of this data. This is especially true when it comes from different organizations taking different approaches to solving different problems under different circumstances.…

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(Re)Defining Poverty

When most of us think about poverty, we probably have a pretty clear idea about what we mean. Poverty means not having enough money. Some of us might think about it a bit more. We might make a distinction between absolute poverty and relative poverty. We might make a distinctions between income poverty, asset poverty, and liquid asset poverty. Some of us might think about poverty in relation to other issues. We might consider poverty and economic rights, poverty and social rights, or poverty and cultural rights. We might understand poverty as a symptom of bigger social and political issues. But when you get down to it, even those of us who think about poverty a lot still think of poverty as not having enough money. Which is why it’s noticeable when those making a case against charity define poverty in different way. And it’s especially noticeable when they define poverty in a way that means that “the ability to leave poverty is more dependent upon other resources than it is upon financial resources.”((Ruby Payne, Phillip DeVol, Terie Dreussi-Smith, Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities, Kindle Edition (Highlands: aha! Process, Inc., 2009), Kindle Locations 209-210)) It’s especially noticeable when they define poverty in a way that makes solving the ‘not having enough money’ problem less important than solving some other set of problems. For example, when Ruby Payne defines poverty, she describes it as “the ‘extent to which an individual does without resources.'”((Payne et al, Bridges Out of Poverty, Kindle Location 194)) While these resources include financial resources, they also include emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical resources, as well as other things like support systems, role models, knowledge of ‘hidden rules’, and coping strategies. Unsurprisingly, given her perspective and the quote in the previous paragraph, most of her work is focused on addressing these other deficits. In fact, because one of the ‘hidden rules’ of poverty is that “any extra money is… shared or quickly spent,”((Payne et al, Bridges Out of Poverty, Kindle Locations 387-388)) giving someone money or things without addressing the other deficits would almost certainly be doomed to failure. Or, to give another example, when Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert describe poverty, they look at the ‘brokenness’ of four key relationships. These are the relationships between us and God, us and the rest of creation, us and others, and us and ourselves. The brokenness of these foundational relationships leads to different kinds of poverty that affect our economic, social, religious, and political systems. In addition to material poverty – the kind of poverty we usually think of when we think about poverty – there is poverty of spiritual intimacy, poverty of stewardship, poverty of community, and poverty of being. All of these latter forms of poverty affect everyone: we are all poor.((Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself (Chicago: Moody, 2012), 58-61)) Of course, this means that we can’t address material poverty alone. In fact, “until we embrace our…

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The Case Against Charity

A few years 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 Yourself, Steve Rothschild’s The Non Nonprofit: For-Profit Thinking for Nonprofit Success, Ruby 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. The case against charity tends to come in three forms. The case against giving. This case is based on 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. The case against the nonprofit sector. This case states that the nonprofit sector is unable 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. The case against poverty culture. The proponents of…

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Defining Charity

The idea of charity is baked into our culture. We give charitable gifts. We support charitable organizations. We attend charitable events. We celebrate charity in others. We allow people to take tax deductions for their charitable donations. Charity is part of who we are. It’s part of who we imagine ourselves to be. But what is charity? What makes a few dollars stuffed in a birthday card to a grandchild different from a few dollars given to a panhandler when we pass him on the street? What makes a check sent to a food pantry in a poor neighborhood different than a check given to an elite university in exchange for a building being named after the donor? We can all intuit a difference between these gifts. Few of us could articulate and defend that difference. Not every gift is charitable. Not every kind of giving is charitable. Charity is a distinct kind of giving. Charity has a specific history. Charity is deeply rooted in Judaism and spread through the world as the heart of Christianity. When we understand that history – and here I’m indebted to Gary A. Anderson’s Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition – we can approach a definition of charity. Charity is benevolent giving that has three characteristics. First, it originates in the divine. Sometimes this might be understood as a divine mandate: God commands us to be charitable and we must obey that command. Sometimes this might be understood as a connection to the divine: being generous helps us ride along the natural currents of the cosmos. Sometimes this might be understood as both of these at once or based in some other metaphor or analogy. The point is that charity is connected to a divine something larger than and distinct from us. Second, it is specifically directed towards the poor and marginalized. This probably seems obvious, but it makes charity distinct from other forms of giving. A birthday gift to a friend or relative may be nice, but it probably isn’t charity. A gift that helps create a new business school at an elite university may do a lot of good, but it isn’t charity. Charity has a single focus: providing for the needs of those who don’t have access to the resources necessary to participate fully in society. Third, it doesn’t discriminate based on the worthiness of the recipient. This has become a controversial characteristic of charity. There are those who advocate creating systems of ‘reciprocal exchange’ for the poor, or making sure the recipient of charity has demonstrated a willingness to escape poverty, or creating some other set of requirements that show the the recipient is worthy of charity. These kinds of requirements diminish charity, which considers the poor and marginalized deserving simply because they are poor and marginalized. So here is what I mean when I use the word ‘charity’: benevolent giving that originates in the divine, is specifically directed towards the poor and marginalized, and that…

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Charity Matters

There are Christian congregations across the country who pride themselves on their charity work. They run food pantries and clothes closets and soup kitchens. They take up collections for Church World Service or Heifer International or Operation Smile. They hose English as a Second Language classes and blood drive. in the appropriate seasons they collect food for community Thanksgiving meals or Christmas presents for low-income children or coats for the homeless. They send volunteers to other organizations. They are the hands and feet and words of Jesus. They are doing the work of the body of Christ. They are doing charity. And that matters. Charity matters because charity – God’s charity towards us and our charity towards one another – has been the heart of Christianity for almost 2,000 years. 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 the poor and make gifts to Christ. Communion and charity form a complete cycle of giving and receiving between Christ and the world. Charity matters because it presents an alternative to 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. Charity matters because it works. Personal experience and professional research both show that giving to the poor really does help lift people out of poverty. People who are poor tend to know what they need to improve their lives. When they are given the means to meet those needs, they tend to do so. Charity really does change the lives of recipients and donors. And the fact that it works is evidence in favor of the vision that charity proposes. And that is evidence in favor of the idea that I believe is at the heart of Christianity: that the cosmos is generous and that this generous cosmos reflects a generous God. Charity is, perhaps, the greatest gift that Christianity – and here Christianity owes a lot to its Jewish roots – gave to the world. Charity matters.

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