Toxic Charity : How Service Providers Can Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It)

Previously in these pages we have questioned whether some of what we do to help clients through our distributions and programs might actually be having a negative effect on the long term health and independence of those clients. Earlier this year I interviewed Jan Poppendieck about her book Sweet Charity, which addressed some of these concerns.

Today on ‘From Hunger to Health’ provide a review of another book, Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton, ED of Focused Community Strategies (FCS) a respected community development organization operating in inner-city Atlanta.

Bob Lupton

The book was published last year, and this piece also draws elements from an interview with the author that took place this week.

What does it say to you?

Let’s start out with a little Rorschach test on your attitudes to our work. How does the following quote land with you?

Give once and you elicit appreciation;

Give twice and you create anticipation;

Give three times and you create expectation;

Give four times and it becomes entitlement;

Give five times and you establish dependency.

Does it piss you off? Do you default to a stance that everyone deserves enough food therefore dependency doesn’t even come into it? Or maybe you kind of agree with it. Whatever your response, I would bet that you will find a lot to chew on in Robert Lupton’s book.

“Food in our society is a chronic poverty need, not a life-threatening one. And when we respond to a chronic need as though it were a crisis, we can predict toxic results: dependency, deception, disempowerment.”

His basic supposition is that a lot of what NPOs and churches do to assist people has a negative rather than a positive result. He is not questioning people’s motivations, but rather the unintended consequences of rightly motivated efforts. He believes that if ‘emergency’ relief does not transition to development in a timely way, then compassion becomes toxic.

Excuse for gratuitous picture of the Toxic Avenger, for those of us of a certain age, with a certain fondness for Grade Z movies.

He provides an ‘Oath for Compassionate Service,’ which is meant to be a guide to the provision of services:

The Anatomy of Giving

Lupton describes his own experience of handing out boxes of groceries from one of his church’s food pantries. He began studying the facial expressions and the how recipients seldom gave him eye contact. The body language of the recipients was head and shoulders bent slightly forward, self-effacing smiles and meek ‘thank yous.’ He observed how quickly the  response to charity devolved from gratitude to expectation to entitlement. He then observed his own part in the ‘anatomy of giving.’

Step right up...

“I expected gratitude in exchange for my free gifts. I actually enjoyed occupying the superior position of giver (though I covered it carefully with a façade of humility). I noted a hidden irritation at those who voiced their annoyance when free food stocks ran low. I grew weary of filtering through half-truths and manipulative ploys as I sought to equitably dispense resources.”

After 6 years of running homeless shelter kitchens I would have to agree with Bob’s observation of the attitude he observes in himself and others. He says that doing for rather than doing with those in need is the norm. Add to it the combination of pity that can become patronizing with unintended superiority and charity becomes toxic.

Big is Bad, Small is Good

Lupton spends a good chunk of his book looking at the sometimes misconceived results of church foreign aid trips, and disempowering nature of aid to Africa, but he also provides a detailed demolition job on the work of TAP (The Atlanta Project) born out of Jimmy Carter’s desire to eliminate poverty in Atlanta prior to the 1996 Olympic Games.

JC (the other one) and MJ at a TAP Event in 1993. It almost makes your nostalgic…

This top down approach to community development spent countless millions to leave behind a situation that was actually worse at the end of it. He also looks at the Faustian bargain that was the Salvation Army’s acceptance of a mega donation from the Kroc Foundation to build huge Kroc Centers that would centralize a vast array of social services. While this is convenient for the economies of scale of the service providers, it has the effect of drawing people from miles around to access the services and so distorting the normal societal fabric of the area around.

Asset Based Community Development – The Ninja Star version

Lupton favors the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) model (More on this in a later post) and his own organization in Atlanta operates on the smallest neighborhood by neighborhood approach. He also musters a pervasive though depressing argument about the effectiveness of microloans overseas and the reasons why they would not work in this country, except for with first generation immigrants. (He has nice things to say about ex-Feeding America CEO Vicki Escarra’s new organization, Opportunity International).

Working for Parity of Relationships is key

Lupton talks about ‘Parity vs Charity.’ That it is a very delicate undertaking to develop authentic parity between people of unequal power. But relationships built on reciprocal exchange (what he calls holistic compassion).

When Justice and Mercy Meet

Lupton identifies compassion as a powerful force, a stamp fo the divine nature within our spirits. It lies within us all – from tender child to hardened criminal – waiting for the right trigger to set it off. Mercy is a power that compels us to acts of compassion. He indicates that the Bible places equal emphasis on both mercy and justice. “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (6:8, NIV)

He breaks this down:

Act justly. Justice is fairness or reasonableness, especially in the way people are treated or decisions are made.

– Love mercy. Mercy is compassion, kindness or forgiveness shown especially to someone over whom a person has power.

“Twinned together these commands lead us to ‘holistic involvement’. Divorced, they become deformed. Mercy without justice degenerates into dependency and entitlement, preserving the power of the giver over the recipient. Justice without mercy is cold and impersonal, more concerned about rights than relationships. The addict needs both food and treatment. The young woman needs both a safe place to sleep and a way out of her entrapping lifestyle. Street kids need both friendship and jobs. Lupton identifies that mercy combined with justice creates:

– immediate care with a future plan

– emergency relief and responsible development

– short term intervention and long-term involvement

– heart responses and engaged minds

“Mercy is a door, an opening, an invitation to touch a life, to make a difference. But it is not a destination.”

I believe that this resounds heavily within our work in ‘emergency’ food provision. We know that the vast majority of what we are now dealing with is the chronic situation not the emergency one. It is time we owned up to the responsibilities and possibilities of what we are involved in.

What is the real ROI that we are seeking with our billions of pounds of food? Those who read this blog will know that I believe that this return is in terms of a huge impact on the preventative healthcare of our communities and by using food banks to leverage and co-lead community development efforts.

What is the way from here to there? How do we transition from emergency relief to development? We could do worse than follow the steps suggested by Roger Sandberg, Haiti Director of the NGO Medair. He describes a progression of three steps:

1. Relief – Responding to the initial need. (We’ve already achieved this).

2. Rehabilitation – This overlaps with the first stage. It is anything that increases the capacity of a local community enabling them to respond to future crises. (This would include nutrition education and empowerment programs that a food bank can run or champion, and I am sure you can suggest lots of other things at this point in the continuum.

Lupton promotes food bank-supported food cooperatives as a replacement for food pantries that ‘offer free food at the price of recipient’s dignity.’ The cooperatives he mentions in his book are run by Chad Hale of the Georgia Avenue Minestries.

This organization is a member of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. Co-op members pay $3 biweekly dues for $30 worth of groceries. (More on the pros and cons this approach in a later post – if anyone wants to share any experiences, that would be great).

3. Development – This overlaps the other stages too. Development work is long term. It seeks to raise the standard of living and the quality of life for a population over many years. (This corresponds to the work a food bank can do creating jobs, assisting with community organizing and partnering with coalitions to work on long-term change in service areas).

Lupton believes that currently, the food bank network as a whole still remains on the sidelines of these efforts. Many food banks have great untapped potential to be involved in community development, but are shying away from it for a number of reasons.

 “Erik, I’m glad that this discussion is coming up. It is encouraging that an increasing number of food banks are reconsidering a more community developmental approach.”

It is not unfair to Lupton to say that he doesn’t necessarily have a lot of answers about what the role of food banks should be in fostering this community development approach. He is clearer on the negative effects of some of what we do now.

That means it is up to us to create this vision for ourselves, in collaboration with our communities and our member agencies.

There is a lot of potential for new ideas and scaling of existing ideas. These are exciting times to be a food banker.

AFTERWORD: I normally stir up the odd vociferous reaction to my posts, and these sometimes upset those on the political left and the right equally. This is usually an indication that I am on to something interesting in my waggling of tooth nerves. The latest post is no exception. People are way too polite it seems to leave stinging comments on the actual blog, but send me emails instead, which is a shame. I am happy for a little public pushback.

The reactions to the Toxic Charity entry largely indicate a concern that this is some kind of right-wing agenda to ‘blame the poor’ for their situation and to cut them off from help. I don’t see it this way at all. I see it more of a case of ditching kind but ineffectual  low-touch help and replacing it with long term relationship and commitment to make change in the community (which is the best help of all).

I think it is one of those situations where when we touch a sensitive area, then everyone retreats to a defensive position, sensing criticism and judgment and thinking they hear the things they are expecting and dreading to hear. I’m the most sensitive, touchiest little soul there is, so I am just assuming that others are the same.

It may be very uncomfortable for people to deal with Lupton’s criticisms of things that are close to our hearts, but I think if you look into what he is recommending in its place: Asset Based Community Development, you will see that this is not some kind of harsh ‘fend for yourself’ approach, but involves us helping each other in a deeper, more lasting way.

As I get into this work, I find the default approaches of left and right to be increasingly unhelpful and out of touch with my experience of the world. 

Are Non-Profits afraid of Competition? How can we tackle the root causes of hunger in America? Tough Questions from a Community Grantmaker – A dialogue with Mari Ellen R. Loijens, CFRE.

Mari Ellen Loijens

Is there a life after food banking? Apparently so. Mari Ellen Loijens worked in development for Second Harvest Foodbank in Santa Clara and San Mateo County from 2000 to 2004, and is now the Chief Philanthropic Development and Information Officer for the Silicon Valley Foundation.

Of course it is every fundraising professional’s secret fantasy to then go on to work at a foundation and give it away rather than have beg for it. (Without appreciating the challenges that go with such a responsibility). So what’s the difference between your time in the food bank looking out, and outside the food bank looking in?

When I was at the food bank, the needs were constantly growing. There was no single year where we had to feed less people than the year before, and I had a strong sense of urgency about the growing need. Now that I’m outside, it seems like it’s endless and I’m more anxious for real solutions to the issue.  It’s sort of like being an emergency room doctor, and your concern is how to bandage all the wounds for those who need immediate assistance. Then when you walk outside the emergency room, you think, “How can we avoid the people going there in the first place?”

That’s a question a lot of food bankers are asking themselves. Like me, they’ve seen the capacity of food banks grow with their success at fund raising and their ability to bring more food in to their service area. This has created more ongoing demand, so it’s kind of a spiral.  How do you think that food banks could get out of this demand spiral and move towards a long-term solution?

We really need to look at some policy changes.  We are a very wealthy nation and the notion that we have so many people who turn to others for such a basic need is troubling.  Clearly there is something wrong with a system in which many children go to school hungry.

Food banks and other nonprofits are always very reluctant about stepping into these waters, because they worry about offending donors whose political slant may lead them to believe that we are just ‘enabling’ people.  How can we navigate these waters?

Want to dip your toe in…

I think that the problem is that we focus too narrowly on just food.  If you only think, “I need to feed people,” and you think, “That’s my only issue,” then we’re back to the doctor in the emergency room who would be saying: “I’m trying to get people to stop bleeding, and it’s so expensive to keep using up all these wound dressings. So the solution is that we need more money for more wound dressings.”  It’s a symptom he’s dealing with, not the cause. In the same way, hunger is the not cause, it is the symptom of a greater problem in our system. This comes down to something like minimum wage.  Do we have a living wage?  Are people able to earn enough where they live in order to take care of something as basic as food and shelter? We have got to move beyond pushing for increased SNAP (food stamp) benefits and into the bigger issues like: How do we make sure people, who are able, can earn enough money to feed themselves and their families?

So, are you saying that hunger is a symptom of the condition of poverty, or of something else?

I think poverty itself is also a symptom. I’m not a socialist or a communist. I don’t believe that everyone should make the same money, but I do believe that Americans, if asked, would say it’s wrong to have a system which forces people to constantly be in abject  poverty and unable to get out of it, even if they are working hard, perhaps at multiple jobs.  At some point, we are going to have to make decisions about how we pay for our beliefs and values. In the same way we are asked to make tough decisions now about taxes and how we want to pay for the things that we believe our country needs, such as roads or to provide the fire and police services that we want. In the same way, we have to ask ourselves the question: if we think it’s wrong for a child in a developing country to make a dollar a day sewing t-shirts, how are we going to provide an adequate minimum wage so that people in America who work a whole day can feed themselves and provide at the most basic level for their families?

And so how do you see the situation in America now?

I think we have an unspoken social contract in this country which prevents people from moving up out of poverty, and much of that is as a result of not have a living wage in most places.  We also do not have systems in place that update the minimum wage as the cost of living modifies in an area.  The systems that we do have reward the wealthy and do not help the poor.  This means we have to really look at our whole social contract as a country and our value system and say, “Have we set in place laws that support the values that we claim are American?”

Bumper sticker seen outside Santa Barbara’s swankest hotel.

This is the point in the conversation where people begin to squabble about the meaning of the ‘American Dream.’ I see an unspoken fear in many donors I talk to. I would preface my comments by pointing out that these donors are caring and generous people who sincerely want to ‘pay it back’ and provide some level of support for those in need within their communities. However, they may have a voice deep within them, that reminds them how hard they had to struggle and sacrifice to get where they are, so why should they make it easy for someone else? They often don’t see the incredible daily sacrifices and struggles of those in poverty who can find no success story on the back of their struggle.

Whatever the sentiment, Uncle Sam gets pressed into service to wag that finger.

This is why food banks have been so successful, because there is a lot of interest in ameliorating the symptoms but a deep fear of taking the plunge to actually deal with the causes. Either donors are concerned that they will be heavily taxed and lose what they worked for, or they fear that the fabric of American society will change and everyone will expect things to be provided for them without working for them. Consequently they see America losing its ‘can do’ spirit of entrepreneurship and resourcefulness. The type of change that is required to actually deal with a problem is too scary. The same thing is true for issues of immigration, health care and the rest of the sad litany. This means we have to stand around with our hands tied or else harken back to some previous time in our country’s history where these problems were better hidden.

I think a new consensus for action needs to arise that returns the much-loved but threadbare teddy bears of left and right political philosophy to the nursery shelf, and for us to admit that we have grown out of them. They’ll always have a fond place in our heart they were both great in key moments at getting us to the point we are now at as a nation, but now they are getting in the way as our nation enters maturity. These security blankets are getting under foot and gridlocking our ability to do what we do best as Americans – which is to fix something in a no-nonsense straight-forward way.

“I’ve been manhandled so much, I don’t remember whether I’m Republican or Democrat.”

I know from over a decade of working to assist either the homeless or the struggling, that the amount of people sitting on their gluteus maximus and freeloading their way from society (amongst poor people, anyway) is absolutely tiny, just as the amount of people defrauding SNAP benefits is a minuscule amount in relation to the total. Are we going to allow an obsession with preventing the enabling of a few who don’t want to help themselves hold us back from making huge achievements as a country for the vast majority of Americans who work so incredibly hard?

Sounds great, we should import that stuff to America! (Cheaply, of course)

Can you imagine what greatness we could achieve as a nation if we weren’t all so consumed with fear about being able to get affordable medical help, or that we will be living in abject poverty as senior citizens? Modern free market economies are driven by so much advertising and marketing, that are showing people all the things they need to have in their lives to be happy. These forces provide a huge encouragement for people to produce more and earn more. If we can provide a counter-balancing support safety net for all Americans, it won’t extinguish this desire for more – which is equally part of the American temperament. The two can complement each other perfectly well. It’s not exactly a shining city on a hill, but it’s a workable system where we can all move forward at our own pace and to our own ability.

Forgive me for that. As a food banker, if you see a pile of pallets, then your natural inclination is to climb on top of them and start spouting off…

That’s quite all right, Erik. Keep breathing. Seriously, though, I think food banks need to get get braver about legislation. You need to move past the daily problem of feeding people, and start to collaborate with others that can focus on solutions and really start to ask the difficult questions of, “What’s the issue?”  Yet for reasons that you mentioned, like when you referred to SNAP fraud, I think food banks are very afraid sometimes of moving in that area, because if you did a survey of people you feed and even one person said, “Well because I don’t feel like working.”  That’s a terrible, terrible fear of food banks. Suddenly, no one might want to fund their food bank, because there is one person whose is working the system. So essentially, we are ready to punish and live in fear of that one person.  Well, there is always going to be someone working the system.  There are people who go to emergency rooms, because they don’t feel like paying for a doctor. We absolutely can’t set up systems to deal with that one person. We look at the big issues in our country like educations reform and how healthcare reform and you hear about those things all the time. I would love to hear our country talk about poverty reform.  How we are going to help make a sweep of changes that would impact the base line of our country and help bring people who are essentially stuck because it’s impossible to move on or move out.

So, who do you think are the right people to lead this movement or does it need to come from a ground swell at a local level?  

I think both. That is how the civil rights movement happened.  You start with that real grass roots movement from people who are experiencing the issues and people who support those people.  Then at some point you get the attention of people in a power position with legislation to be able to move those issues forward.

You mentioned that food banks are timid on the public policy front.  What else do you think food banks could do to make this happen? 

Well, I really like the ideas espoused in your blog about how your food bank is working on regarding entering the preventative healthcare arena. I do think that when you start to see yourself as part of a wider system rather than just an individual issue, then you are able to address bigger issues that have bigger impact. Poverty is not the root cause.  People became poor for a reason. The fact that they are poor is not the issue.  The fact that they became poor and can’t get out of being poor is the issue.

This requires food banks to build broad coalitions with other social service agencies in their service areas, some who may be member agencies and some who may not.

That is a challenge, because there is often reluctance for everyone to sit down and have a substantive dialogue about how do we move things forward?  The subtext from non profit leaders can often be: “I don’t really want to be in a room with them.  I don’t want to compete with them.”

Hey, you’ve been in some of the same rooms as me!

That’s the truth about a lot of nonprofits is they’re just completely uncomfortable with the idea of competition, and if I had the answer to this issue, I’d probably be able to save the world.

Nothing wrong with a little friendly competition.

Well, we’re non profits. Competition is way too business-like and vulgar for us, right?

Yes, you’re very sensitive souls. But, it has to start with non profits admitting it is an issue. Then I think, speaking as a funder, that there is a clear role for funders in facilitating this issue. I think it’s all power dynamics. The one with the power has the obligation. Foundations really have the obligation to reach out to the nonprofits and say, “I really want to know and I really want to understand what’s going on.  Why is this collaboration and conversation not working for you? Where they don’t have to sit in front of their competitor and say what their fears are. We can ask who would you want to collaborate with and how, on what terms?”  I think having an honest dialogue is what moves things forward. This sort of thing needs to occur one on one or in small groups. Large gatherings can neutralize everyone’s desire to make anything happen.

I think what you say about the competition angle is very interesting, because it’s kind of taboo to talk about nonprofits competing. To be a good non profit citizen, you can only talk in the language of shared impact and collaboration. It might be very liberating for people to also have a conversation about competition and to say it is absolutely all right. I presume there is fear that we would be acknowledging duplication of service if we acknowledged competition. Certainly something for people to consider starting a discussion about in their service area.

How do you think food banks and other human services and nonprofit should be thinking about evolving their funding streams over the next few years?

I think if you are looking for systems change, at some point that goes against the grain for sustainability, right?  You want to be working towards your services not being needed anymore. The ideal is that you want to be able to talk about what system changes are you creating, so that you should have to provide fewer and fewer services every year?  That should be the big boast.  “Last year we fed 200,000 people, but this year, thanks to our hard work, we only have to feed 150,000.”

But every nonprofit organization in the world is afraid to do that, because then they assume that the funders will come back and say, “Oh, you need less money this year.”  And so the organization declines.

I think that there is a new generation of funders that have a very different way of thinking, and that what people really want to see are problems solved.  People are tired of the same problems staying around for generations and generations.  You’re right, though. Every nonprofit I know like to boast about how they did even more; served even more. It is a treadmill. But this new generation of funders comes from a very different way of thinking that would say: “No, no, no. The metric I care about is not how many people you serve, but that you made systemic changes so you will have to feed fewer people moving forward.“ It is a way for your organization to evolve to be truer to its mission.

Mari Ellen, thanks so much for your ideas and for your work supporting non profits.