Book Review of Toxic Charity

By: Eman Albash
Ohio State University Social Work Intern
Academic Year 2014/15

At my first week as an intern at SON Ministries I was given the book Toxic Charity to read as an introduction to SON’s philosophy of how to serve the community. Toxic Charity was written by the pastor Robert Lupton, a man who has many years of experience of community development in the U.S. and internationally. He has researched and personally experienced many effective—and ineffective—models of charity. Toxic Charity is a call for people to critically examine the ways they and their communities attempt to help those who are less fortunate to ensure that their attempts to help are, in fact, helping.


If the message of Toxic Charity could be reduced to a single statement, it would be this: “When we do for those in need what they have the capacity to do themselves, we disempower them.”

Robert Lupton illustrates this concept by sharing many examples of helpful versus toxic models of charity. One of the first examples he gives is the following story:

One summer a group of students and adults went on a service trip to an African village. The village did not have its own water supply and as a result the people of the village had to spend a significant part of their day transporting water into the village. The trip’s mission was to build a well for the village. The service group dug and built the well and by the end of their trip the village had a regular, local supply of water.

Months later, the leader of the mission followed up with the African village to see how their water situation had been holding up. The response he received was that the people of the village had resorted back to hauling water into their village from other locations. Why? The well had broken down.

So that summer, the same group of volunteers went back to the village and fixed the well. Once again, the village had a plentiful supply of water. Yet when the man contacted the village some months later, the same report came back—the well was broken and villagers were transporting water in from other places.

When I read this story, my first question was why the people of the village did not simply fix the well themselves. Surely someone in the village had the necessary technical skills? Lupton argues that this occurred because the village did not feel as though the well belonged to them. The church group had fully funded the costs of the well and the volunteers built it. They did not use the money, resources, or manpower of the villagers to help create the well.

When we do for those in need what they have the capacity to do themselves, we disempower them.

So what is to be done? Lupton asserts that people in communities should always have a role in helping to develop or improve their own communities. To not draw upon a community’s resources is not only to disempower individuals but to ignore the vast amounts of strengths and assets the community has. And every community, from the Hilliard suburbs to the inner cities, has these assets.

Lupton is not using Toxic Charity to try to discount the charitable work of churches and faith-based communities. It is a blessing to live in an era and a community that puts such a high value on helping others. Lupton simply says that people who serve have the responsibility to ensure that they do no harm to the people they mean to help.

Toxic Charity is a must-read for social service agencies, places of worship, and for anyone who has or wants to help others. Luckily, the book is easy to read and Lupton gives a lot of practical advice of how best to work to improve communities.

At SON Ministries WE bring HOPE to children and families in need by connecting them to people, resources, and a hand up.

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