Do Some Programs Hurt the People They’re Trying to Help?

By: Unity Foundation of La Porte County Last Updated: June 8, 2015

Unity-Foundation-of-La-Porte-CountyAs a community foundation, we get many requests for funding. Organizations of all stripes look to the Unity Foundation to fund specific programs or projects. Our Grant Committee members and board of directors want to be good stewards of our precious resources. How do we know we’re funding the right things?

The Unity Foundation has been a member of the Indiana Philanthropy Alliance (IPA) for decades. IPA has supported grantmakers for 25 years in Indiana. At last year’s conference, they featured Robert Lupton, author of Toxic Charity: How the Church Hurts Those They Help and How to Reverse It. It was so thought-provoking that we asked the IPA to bring Robert Lupton to our region. In Valparaiso on Tuesday June 2nd, he shared his stories with 170 people from non-profits, funders, churches, and government agencies. La Porte County was well represented with 45 attending.

His views can be liberating or off-putting. I was struck by his message to “first do no harm.” He told stories about his experiences over 40 years of hands-on work in South Atlanta. They brought up familiar experiences and feelings for me. Sometimes the helpers are doing it to get their own good feelings, not considering the effect it has on others. Lupton says what people don’t really want to hear.

An example Lupton gave was the time he saw volunteers come to his neighbor’s home to deliver holiday toys and food baskets. He watched as the man disappeared out the back door and the mother accepting gifts on behalf of her children with composed embarrassment. The children saw that the good stuff comes from rich people and it is free. Even the most kindhearted, rightly motivated giving, as innocent as toys to children can take an unintended toll on a parent’s dignity. The givers felt good about giving, but the receivers were demoralized. Lupton’s group learned from this and developed new ways to provide support during the holidays AND empower families at the same time.

Lupton described ‘one-way’ giving programs. When you give someone help once, especially in a crisis, they are grateful. Help them twice they begin anticipating your next gift. Help them three times and they ‘expect’ help, four times becomes entitlement and five times creates dependency.

So what can we do about it? We can change from one-way giving to asking “How can we ‘strengthen’ individuals and families?” And to keep in mind that almost everyone has some resources and strengths, if we just look for them.

Lupton created an Oath for Compassionate Service:
1. Never do for the poor what they have (or could gain) the capacity to do for themselves.

2. Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.

3. Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, investing and using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements or behaviors.

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.

The Unity Foundation will continue to fund the right things and with a renewed effort to first, do no harm. You can join us, by reading his book and rethinking the way you give and help others.