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When giving does more harm than good

Charity should be measured more by restored lives than good intentions, some experts suggest. Perhaps we should be going about 'helping' differently.

By Nov 22, 2013 12:53PM

This post comes from Matthew Illian at partner site on MSN MoneyThe giving season is fast approaching, and many of us are making plans to donate our time, talents and treasure to help those in need. Helping others is an integral part of the American character. Compassion experts and fieldworkers argue that much of these good intentions fuel a toxic form of charity that fails to offer lasting change.

Thanksgiving turkey dinners are handed out to the homeless at a kitchen (© Susan Watts/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)When President Lyndon B. Johnson announced the War on Poverty, he intended for these new efforts to be a "hand up," not a "handout." In hindsight, while the War on Poverty introduced massive increases in welfare spending, the American poverty rate remained at 15%, right where it stood two years after Johnson's effort was announced. President Bill Clinton, before passing welfare reform legislation, shared that welfare is "a broken system that traps too many people in a cycle of dependence."

Private charity can create the same cycles of dependency. According to two books, "When Helping Hurts" by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, and "Toxic Charity" by Robert Lupton, much of the assistance Americans provide to those in need is doing more harm than good. Religiously motivated charity is often the most irresponsible. These authors argue that charity should not be measured by good intentions but by restored lives.

But how do we determine if our helping is actually hurting another person? "When Helping Hurts" suggests that we begin by trying to define poverty.

Thought experiment: Define 'poverty'

Corbett and Fikkert give seminars around the world and ask their attendees to define poverty. Wealthy, developed-world audiences tend to emphasize a lack of material things when defining poverty: lack of money, food and access to clean water, for example.

The poor talk about material things, but they also emphasize the psychological and social nature of poverty. "When one is poor, she has no say in public, she feels inferior," shares a woman from Uganda in a World Bank publication called "Voices of the Poor". Material gifts may help in the short term, but they are just as likely to accentuate this woman’s feelings of inferiority.

The result of these exchanges reminds me of the "Jesus Comes at Christmas" trips our family would take to some of the relatively poor families in our North Jersey suburb. These were quick drop-offs of holiday food baskets that included toys for the kids, but it was hard not to have a bit of a savior mentality as we drove house to house. .

I vividly remember the feeling of disappointment when a young child answered the door and sheepishly accepted our gift basket and closed the door quickly without any of the appreciation that we were all secretly expecting to receive.

The problem was that we had no relationship with these families except to play Santa Claus one day a year. Looking back, both families were a bit worse off by the awkward exchange. Our family left disappointed by the thankless welfare mentality we observed, and any feelings of superiority we harbored at the beginning of the expedition were only reinforced. The receiving family had to endure the humiliation of another unknown do-gooder family showing up at their doorstep.

Determine what needs must be met

Corbett and Fikkert suggest that those who desire to help should start by discerning the type of need that exists. "Relief" can be defined as urgent and temporary provision of emergency aid. Immediate support is needed after a natural disaster or when a woman seeks refuge from a physically abusive relationship.

But relief is no longer needed when individuals have the opportunity to help themselves. After the crisis has been averted, it is important to move quickly into "rehabilitation and "development." These next stages require the "helpers" to move into a partnership role and allow the "helped" to participate and plan their own recovery.

However, relief is relatively easy to administer, whereas rehabilitation and development require much more time and effort. Painting a house, writing a check or dropping off a food basket can all be done in a short time period and make for great Kodak moments. Development takes years or decades and often endures as many steps backward as forward.

Distinguishing between "relief" and "rehabilitation and development" can also be challenging. Does having electricity cut off at a poor family’s home require a relief response? Both books suggest this depends in part on the degree to which the person was responsible for their terrible situation. The sad fact is that some people are not ready to seek rehabilitation or claim any responsibility for their condition. For example, it's worth reconsidering why the Cratchit family in "A Christmas Carol" is so poor.

Many of those who would like to help lack the time and expertise to ensure their time and talents are being used effectively. We can, however, begin to learn how to identify charities that are able to help those in need make the transition from relief to rehabilitation and development.

This holiday season, consider this Oath for Compassionate Service developed by Robert Lupton of FCS Urban Ministries:

  1. I will never do for others what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.
  2. I will limit my one-way giving to emergency situations and seek always to find ways and means for legitimate exchange.
  3. I will seek ways to empower the poor through hiring, lending, and investing and use grants sparingly as incentives that reinforce achievements.
  4. I will put the interests of the poor above my own (or organizational) self-interest even when it may be costly.
  5. I will take time to listen and carefully assess both expressed and unspoken needs so that my actions will ultimately strengthen rather than weaken the hand of those I would serve.
  6. Above all, to the best of my ability, I will do no harm.

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its affiliates.

More from

Dec 1, 2013 9:57AM
I give to charity because I am fortunate to have everything I need and want but remember a time that I didn't have any help whatsoever and could not even afford to eat every day. I made it through hard times by hard work and sacrifice. I have seen much abuse of the "system" and lots of people taking advantage of the generosity of others over the years and l must admit it makes me a little angry. One situation that really stands out is Christmastime in a place where I worked years ago. There was a girl there who had several children, we made the same amount of money and we were both single moms. The only difference was that she was receiving government assistance and I was not. My ex wasn't paying his child support at that point. This girl's mom and dad paid for a car and insurance for her. Mine were already deceased by that time. She came to work (almost) every day, Big Gulp and Breakfast Burrito in hand, moaning and groaning about how poor she was. Nearly every day most of the people in the office went out to lunch...she was right with them. (My stomach would growl when I smelled the food they brought back, but I really could not afford to buy lunch out.) Our boss felt so sorry for this young lady she allowed her to bring the kids in to this place of business when they were kicked out of day care for whatever reason, even when they had head lice, and the rest of us were expected to take up the slack when she couldn't work because she had other things to do. But the worst was the day I was reprimanded because I could not take part in the collection being taken up for this family because I could not even afford Christmas for my own family that year. I am serious. One present under the tree that year...a music CD. What made it worse was I had heard the young lady on the phone with her mother that morning giving her the kids' Christmas lists...a couple of days later a church she had appealed to brought several boxes of gifts for this family. As a mom, my heart was breaking for my own family as I was feeling MUCH disrespect for this other mom, knowing there were others like me, and others like her out there. I have never been able to let go of the disappointment and disgust since then, even though I will be able to do whatever I want for me and mine this year. I have adopted three families this year alone, I have volunteered for a local charity, and of course I will donate to animal charities in the next few weeks (the only DESERVING recipients), but I must say, my heart is a little hardened and I don't really feel sorry for anyone who doesn't have enough. BTW, my children are wonderful, hard working, resourceful and trustworthy people...who also have MORE than enough these days....
Nov 25, 2013 2:22AM

If people cannot afford to help themselves, then why are they having children?

Nov 25, 2013 2:09PM
If you are helping out or donating just to receive a thank you or gushing appreciation, you are doing it for the wrong reason.
Nov 23, 2013 9:05AM
Amen.  The Lord helps those who help themselves.  I have often iterated that our government has found the perfect form of slavery.  Keep people chained to their needy lives and you will get all the votes you want. If a helping hand becomes a regular handout the bureaucracy reigns supreme.  If our programs truly worked to get people out of poverty, how would the government payrolls be justified? The same goes for charities.  I am culpable of the giving during the season.  But, I also donate heavily to organizations which try to foster the rehabilitation abd development apect such as Goodwill and Salvation Army.  I will continue to give food to food pantries and help with the Thanksgiving baskets. I will no longer donate toys to families who make lists requesting expensive video games and high tech gadgets.  Where I work, we select a family to help.  One year, each of the four kids requested those items; games  for 4 different gaming platforms.  The next year, each of the three kids asked for warm coats or boots  Guess who I wanted to help.
It seems that most people these days have gotten over being humiliated by hand-outs (or else they'd work instead of having babies as a cottage industry)! I have long said that our welfare system is just slavery - plain, old slavery - to anyone who takes food stamps, WIC, section 8 housing, living stipends, etc. They have done nothing to earn it - heck, they don't even have to do any work for it!!!  What is wrong with that system?  Why aren't welfare recipients required to work 40 hours a week for their handouts? At one point, it was a big, hairy discussion across the country about making people who receive unemployment benefits (something they had to work for) work for their money but it was ruled illegal since welfare suckers didn't have to work for that money. Instead of making the welfare recipients work, the whole issue was just dropped!!! This has become a country of people going around with their hands out, expecting the government to step in and support them! When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I didn't see one person trying to help clean up trash, work on temporary shelters for themselves or others but what I did see what a city of whiners demanding that the government show up and do something! Cripes, they didn't even have enough backbone to leave the city knowing that Katrina was going to hit! They just waited, then blamed the government-built levies for the hurricane and then blamed FEMA for giving them new mobile homes that had fumes and they didn't want to let them air out (just like the ones my parents purchased when I was 10 because we needed a place to live). This has become a sad, pathetic country with the work-nots wanting to take from the worker bees and the federal government is helping them do just that!
Nov 23, 2013 4:09PM

Charity can create a cycle of dependency as shown by the cycle of solicitations I get each year:


1. Fall: School starts. Children do not have clothes or school supplies-pleae give.

2. Winter: Christmas is here. Please give gifts to children.

3. Summer: School is out. No more school lunches. Children will go hungry. Pls give.


To me, these are all routine needs that parents should make some effort to provide for. The parents are mostly able-bodied adults.


i usually donate giving the benefit of the doubt that it will help some child.


What about elderly people? I think they deserve food and holiday gifts as much if not more than younger people.


A few years ago my workplace sponsored a family through a program aiding disadvantaged schoolchildren. Many gave good nonperishable food and household supplies as well as cash for gifts.


Guess what?  Next year this charity asked us not to donate food-just cash for gifts.

Dec 1, 2013 8:25AM
Helping others at any time is good.  You don't have to be thanked because you feel it in your heart.
Nov 24, 2013 2:33AM

The non-profit world is lacking in transparency. Most of the charities are paying a HUGE wage to a couple of social workers while only the directors' pay is disclosed to the public and the rest labeled 'staff' some times. A HUGE amount of money goes to the social worker salaries almost making the actually giving/assistance look like a side-line with so many stipulations and limits, the emergency centers are a revolving door of constant referrals elsewhere and denial even for basics when supplies are plentiful.


The mega churches have moved their evangelism into their charity centers, laying quick judgment upon some and shunning those really in need. The Un-Christian atmosphere even moves onto the church grounds with specific people chosen for verbal harassment while the rest of the 'flock' remains silent. The standard of living (and retirement) for the pastors of even the denominational churches is very comfortable while pastors of the mega churches live an obscenely wealthy lifestyle as the 10% club's numbers hit thousands.


In reality, Retail Christmas is a perversion that really financially stresses even modest income 'middle class' families and certainly any family going through ANY financial crisis. When public school teachers encourage children to write about their Christmas gifts, can POOR be announced any more loudly? When management of formerly conservative churches decide to celebrate Christmas because it is profitable (no kidding), something is just wrong.


Children in the poor elementary schools run around the playground in below freezing temperatures in hoodies while the kids in middle-class areas are all running around in coats, hoods, gloves and hat, yet the cold-weather wear for children is the most lacking in the Christmas donation centers while cheap toys and cans of peanut butter fill the donation boxes. Even used children's apparel is almost absent from the Christmas donation centers.

Dec 1, 2013 11:52AM
We are working on a roofing project in a large city.  I set all of the metal items that we removed in 
a separate pile.  For one I like to recycle. For two it was a full pick up lot and I needed the room in
my dump trailer for the shingles.  For three I don't like paying by weight to dump aluminum and 
steel.   Right when we had everything tore off and the garbage in the dumpster and all the metal
in a pile, A scrapper drove by and eyeballed the pile of metal.  I pointed at it and he pulled over.

The first thing he did was come up to me and shake my hand.  I said take it all, we chit chatted a 
little and then he loaded the metal.  In 30 minutes he was loaded and ready to go.  He saved me
from having to make another load to the scrap yard and he probably made $50 in scrap.  This 
worked out great for both sides.  I look at all people who are doing there best as equals, regardless of who has more money.  Money is only one aspect of life.  What most people what is an opportunity to earn a living, this is just a small example of something that worked great for both sides.  I do this on most of my jobs and most the time a scrapper drives by picks up the metal.

Dec 1, 2013 2:45PM

According to this author the source of being poor is a lack of rehabilitation and development of poor people furthering the myth that poverty is a reflection of an individuals intelligence and beliefs.  In reality poverty increases when wages and employment opportunities (such as a manufacturing base) decline in an economy as has been occurring for many decades in the US,  poverty decreases naturally without interference or control through rehabilitation and development institutions when realistic family wages and abundant employment opportunities are flourishing in an economy. Giving has helped many to sustain while the US economy has been in decline, however this steady decline seems to be a permanent feature of the US economy. So you can send the poor to school, you can rehabilitate their way of thinking, but when they've graduated the program...where will you send them for work when the jobs are not there?

Nov 22, 2013 2:45PM

I would like to see hard evidence to back up the following statement: "Religiously motivated charity is often the most irresponsible." 

Dec 1, 2013 12:53PM

Local St. Vincent De Paul parking lot is jammed with new cars driven by Hispanics, all there to get their free food, than off to the grocery store with SNAP to load up with more, subsidized rent, free medical, 2-3 families in one apartment.


We are being taken advantage of by these scammers.

Dec 1, 2013 12:33PM
I agree with the fact we should be willing to help others who are willing to help themselves.  There are two facts though I think the article lacks.  
1. Welfare is setup to keep people on welfare and its hard for them to get ahead.  Moving off of welfare will take a lot of help and effort from the good doers along with the needy. 
2. In this economy, sometimes those who want to do are limited by what they are allowed to do.  Jobs are not as easily attainable even if someone was willing to go and work more to help their situation. Lack of resources is what started and continues to be poverty's biggest issue.  Most people with attainable resources would go and better themselves.  There is a mental way of thinking that comes once someone has been in poverty for so long.  Go doers that really want to help should take the time to help through the stage of getting them out of the poverty mind frame. 
Just my thoughts. 
Nov 24, 2013 11:06PM
So basically if there is a poor kid whose parents "could have" done for him or her, the heck with the kid.

And note there's NO checking on individual families: the assumption is made there's no parent who is disabled, no spouse who has to stay home because her mom is dying, etc.  There's no excuse for needing short term help unless it gives the people a means of earning more money.  How how do we cure someone of phase 3 lung cancer?

If the author "harbors" "any feelings of superiority" it sure isn't in terms of character!
Dec 1, 2013 11:54AM
Give smart with an open , yet educated heart .... Sometimes just the act itself will steer those with
immediate needs to see grace and mercy  from often , total strangers , unidentified  and pay-it-forward to others when they are on their feet again...  Rather than creating dependency , we can
portray positive impacts , using good judgement plus compassion in the same proportions...

Nov 28, 2013 12:09AM
"Religiously motivated charity is often the most irresponsible."

Excuse me??  Does the writer of this post have some broad-based proof for this statement, or is it just slanderous?
Dec 1, 2013 6:35AM
EXCUSE ME. We are supposed to help those in need that's what Jesus preached while here on this earth.  And as far as children go that have had very little they do not know how to thank anyone for things given to them when they go hungry and starved and without clothes most of the year and we are not supposed to feel like they need to thank us.  Yes, it would be good if they did and they should but that is not the point of giving to them.  While I agree that those who could work and make their way should it is not always possible with no mentality to be able to hold a job.  We need to be thankful for what we have and try to help those in need as much as is possible within us.  Our church feeds people 3 times through the week with a good meal.  We are providing coats for school children this month, and toys for Christmas the 2nd sunday and food for baskets the 3rd Sunday in this month.  That's what we are supposed to do.  But don't give anything if you are going to begrudge what you do and expect something in return. 
Dec 1, 2013 1:27PM
"Religiously motivated charity is often the most irresponsible."  

First, I would have to say that government charity is usually the most irresponsible.  Our government has promoted-taught a cycle of dependence to many Americans.

Second, as a member of benevolent team in my church for years, I developed a philosophy of meeting the needs of the whole person, sharing the gospel and trying to assist those in financial stress with short and long term solutions.

Last, I never question when the spirit prompts me to help another.

Dec 1, 2013 11:10AM

Key word in this story = DO NO HARM........ Think about what you are doing (giving)  Do No Harm.

Give to organizations... Not to addicts. Don't enable........

Dec 1, 2013 10:40AM

The single most destructive act of giving has to be the "SAVE THE CHILDREN' movement.  Not allowing these starving waifs to die just produces more children and an ever-growing need for more aid.

And to top it all of, most of them end up hating us and turning to piracy, drug production, and terrorism.  Next time you feel the urge to give to this outfit,  blow the money on lottery tickets instead.  You won't do nearly as much harm to the world..., and you might get lucky to boot.

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