When Helping Hurts: How to Avoid Toxic Charity

Pain Knuckle Tattoo


Seeking to serve the poor, do we ever hurt them instead?

Sometimes when we provide assistance to someone, we end up insulting them, confusing them or hurting them, often quite unintentionally. There is a favorite expression in my family whenever this happens: “The helping hand strikes again.” It’s a special danger when you occupy a different income bracket from the person you are seeking to assist. Maybe you have never thought that the perspective of the poor may be dramatically different from your own.

Whether you are looking to volunteer to build homes for Habitat for Humanity, work at a local food pantry, or serve the poor in your neighborhood or city—it’s crucial to begin with a bit of self-awareness. In his book, Toxic Charity, the urban activist Robert Lupton, (New York: HarperOne, 2012) offers a few guidelines for providing assistance to the poor:

The Oath for Compassionate Service

  1. Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.
  2. Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.
  3. Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
  4. Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.
  5. Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said—unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.
  6. Above all, do no harm.

This oath should remind us—particularly if we are resourceful, middle class, and have never had to skip a meal in order to make financial ends meet—that there is much to learn as we begin to help others and seek social change. Hippocrates, speaking to physicians, had it right: “First, do no harm.”


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