Summer Book Club: Toxic Charity

June 14, 2018



Written By: jon

By Jon Simons

Considering you are reading this it’s likely we agree that charitable giving is a good and powerful tool to make the world a better place. And like me, you may also have dedicated much of your professional career to fundraising, witnessing the life-changing impacts of charity on both the donor and recipient.

In an effort to continue to learn and consider alternative views, I was intrigued by the book Toxic Charity by Robert D. Lupton. The core premise of the book is that while well intentioned, not all acts of charity are helpful to those who receive them. Lupton goes so far as to say that, in some cases, individuals and communities may even be weakened by the charity they receive. A few statements from the book should give any development professional pause:

“Even the most honorable and kind-hearted charity can exact an unintended toll on a recipient’s dignity.”

“Often we miss the big picture because we view aid through the narrow lens of the needs of our organization while neglecting the best interests of those we would serve.”

To be clear, this book is not knocking the power of charitable giving, rather it is challenging all of us to ask better questions before we embark on our next crusade.

A few key takeaways for me included:

  • Engage a person or population in helping themselves.
  • Focus on doing “with” rather than “for” a community.
  • Before lending a hand, assess and understand the strengths and resources that already exist among the needy population.
  • Establish benchmarks and outcomes before you start.


When considering the development of a funded program to address a need or serve a community, Lupton poses a number of key questions:

  • Does the proposed activity strengthen the capacity of the individuals or communities to prioritize and address their own issues?
  • How and when will the proposed activity become self-sustaining for the community?
  • Does the proposed activity have a timetable for training and transferring ownership to indigenous leadership?


The book also illustrated the danger of developing a cycle of unintended dependency between the donor and recipient:

  • 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

I strongly encourage anyone working in the fund development space to read Toxic Charity. It is filled with great information, examples and solutions. It might even challenge the way you approach your next charitable project!





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One response to “Summer Book Club: Toxic Charity”

  1. John C Alexander says:

    Excellent excerpts, Jon…thank you.