Written by Bob Lupton
Is hurtful charity better than no charity at all? Take an honest look at the outcomes of our traditional benevolence—from inner-city soup kitchens to aid to Haiti—and the answer becomes obvious. Despite our most charitable efforts, the world’s poor are not emerging from poverty. The poverty gap in the United States is increasing and, across the globe, in lands where our aid is most concentrated, the poor are getting poorer. It is certainly disheartening to discover that one’s sincere acts of caring can harm the very ones we intend to help. But if the poor are ever to emerge from poverty, we will have to face and confront this disturbing truth. The good news is we are beginning to do that very thing.
A seismic shift is beginning to take place in the world of service and philanthropy. An expanding body of practical and professional knowledge is developing that is shining the light on more effective ways of caring. And there are some excellent initiatives that demonstrate new paradigms of effective service, programs that actually move participants out of poverty. Mel Trotter Ministries is one of those models.
Slowly but surely, we are starting to figure out that truly effective charity is much more than a simple handout with nothing required of the recipient. This change in paradigm is symptomatic of a much broader societal shift. Throughout the country, churches are starting to question traditional charity practices. Some are replacing Angel Trees with Christmas stores, and food pantries with food co-ops. Self-sufficiency is becoming a common consideration in mission strategy.
Foundations, too, are starting to ask hard questions – questions about return on investment (ROI) and measurable outcomes. As a result, many foundations are shifting funds toward programs that can produce evidence of lasting behavioral change, not merely impressive numbers of people served or the quantities of commodities distributed.
Such dramatic shifts demonstrate that it’s entirely possible to detoxify charities. Mel Trotter is but one example of the ways a growing number of cutting-edge social service agencies are pushing the boundaries. And internal programmatic change is not the only shift. Increasingly they are becoming aware of the importance of improving their surroundings. City Rescue Mission (CRM) in Jacksonville, for example, is buying up vacant and dilapidated homes in their community, renovating them, re-neighboring them as well managed residences, and restoring charm to the streetscapes of a long neglected neighborhood. Their mission extends beyond the individual development programs within their walls into community development strategies that improve the surrounding area.
We have entered an era of change, a time for new wineskins. For those with adventuresome spirits and entrepreneurial instincts, it is a time of great excitement. An unsettling time for others, perhaps, but one that is none-the-less full of promise.
Bob Lupton, the founder of FCS Urban Ministries in Atlanta, has been at the forefront of urban ministry activism for forty years. His groundbreaking Toxic Charity shows how each of us can start serving the needy and impoverished members of our community in a way that will lead to lasting real-world change.