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Charity Detox: What Charity Would Look Like If We Cared About Results

Robert D. Lupton
Published by HarperOne in 2016

David P. King is Assistant Professor of Philanthropic Studies and Karen Lake Buttrey Director of the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Charitable giving in the United States continues to rise. The most recent research from Giving USA, the Annual Report on Philanthropy, calculated charitable giving in 2015 at an all-time high of $373 billion dollars.1 The numbers seem to illustrate the generosity of Americans and demonstrate the unique vibrancy of the nonprofit sector within the United States. Despite doomsday reports of declining religious affiliation and attendance, as well as the shuttering of congregations and demise of denominations, giving to religious organizations continues to hold its own. By far the largest sector of charitable giving, 32% of all giving in America goes to congregations, denominations, and missionary societies. Education comes in a distant second at merely 15%. If the definition of what counts as a religious organization is expanded to include the wide variety of faith-based nonprofits, the percentage in some studies balloons to find almost three-quarters (73%) of all giving going to religiously identified organizations.2 These reports all seem to assert good news, so why does Robert Lupton seem to be throwing cold water on Americans’ penchant for charity?

Lupton has made a name for himself in cautioning Christians to consider not only their giving, but also the impact that giving and volunteering has on recipients. Since he published Toxic Charity in 2011, Lupton has made the strong and persuasive argument that “charity often hurts the people it was designed to help” (1). Along with Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s When Helping Hurts, Lupton’s Toxic Charity has made incredible inroads into Christian communities. Lupton has also taken his message on the road, speaking to diverse groups from community foundations and rescue missions to local churches and large faith-based nonprofits. His message is spreading: the traditional way we have engaged charity and philanthropy is largely unexamined and oftentimes harmful to those we seek to help. Our approaches to charity have most often focused on the giver and volunteer without extending that same attention to the impact on the recipient or even more so the often complex relationship between giver and receiver. Lupton would claim that our motives are noble but our practices are actually doing more harm than good and ultimately perpetuate the cycle of need that we seek to solve.

Lupton has the credibility to back up his claims. He has served as a front-line voice for community change in urban neighborhoods for decades through his Atlanta-based nonprofit Focused Community Strategies (FCS) and has also applied this U.S.-based urban experience to work in Nicaragua. Lupton can narrate his own transformation as he came to see how well-meaning charity could turn toxic for individuals and communities. Through his engagement in organizations such as Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) and relationship with leaders like John Perkins, Lupton is well suited to be a voice challenging Christian leaders to reconsider how this massive industry of charitable compassion could be refocused away from doing harm and toward enormous impact.

The turn toward positive change is where Lupton seeks to take us in his new book, Charity Detox: What Charity Would Look Like If We Cared About Results. If Toxic Charity was Lupton’s attempt to get our attention with his bold claims, he has written Charity Detox to help us step back from the problem and make some first steps toward a healthier approach. He notes that the question he most is asked by those hearing his message is, “How do we start?” This book is his attempt to answer that question (16).

In providing answers, Lupton takes the tone of a wise and experienced teacher. He is patient, even if demanding. He has done this hard work himself, and he is not naïve to the slow forms in which change takes place within faith-based institutions. He understands that incremental change is often the necessary first step. He also understands that having such a conversation on the toxic impact of charity, which many have long considered an unqualified and uniform good, is not easy, nor is institutional or programmatic change. What Lupton will not settle for, however, is excuses. Just because something is hard work does not mean it is unnecessary.

Lupton unfolds his argument more through stories than structure. This is not an academic text, and he makes his points most forcefully through illustrations. At times his argument may feel a bit repetitive or get lost amidst the stories, yet his central theme remains clear. He is seeking to shift our focus from givers to recipients, while moving away from asking how nonprofits raise funds to focusing rather on how organizations develop programs and build communities. If Lupton’s first goal is to refocus our attention on what the subject of our analysis should be, then his second is to reframe the methods we employ to address poverty. For him, the answer is less from traditional nonprofits and more from the for-profit sector. Lupton’s thesis is direct: where nonprofits fail, business stands a better chance. He is proposing capitalism with a twist, ending poverty through “sanctified self-interest” (20).

Lupton’s encouragement to focus on for-profit models is not new or unique, but as a veteran in the nonprofit sector, his enthusiasm for this shift should cause us to stop and take notice. For some having dedicated their careers to government or nonprofit service, Lupton’s embrace of business methods might be a bit off-putting. While Lupton is aware of what is at stake, he does not apologize, and he makes his argument explicit: businesses are about wealth creation; non- profits are about wealth transfer. At best, nonprofits are symbiotic with wealth generation through garnering donations or grants for their work. At worst, the “relationship is parasitic” (30). He goes on to argue that far too often our NGOs, mission agencies, and local congregations leave their best talent on the sidelines and simply ask donors for financial support. What if instead of inviting the CEO or entrepreneur to hand out bulletins on Sunday or volunteer for the short-term mission trip to build a house, we ask them to develop a business plan for a sustainable local enterprise or help evaluate our local missions through asset-based community development models?

Lupton knows that some will criticize him as too pro-business, and this is a fair critique that I admit I raised at multiple points. Yet, I cannot fault Lupton for sticking to his guns. He repeats his key takeaway throughout the text: “You can’t serve a community out of poverty. … Without a viable economy, communities will not prosper” (28). Lupton makes his case by dividing the book in two halves. The first half illustrates particular for-profit business models to alleviate poverty. The second half provides examples of nonprofits borrowing business methods to reassess their work and move away from traditional models of charity.

Before introducing readers to particular models, Lupton realizes he still has work to do to persuade readers that faith and money are subjects worth exploring together. A major strength of the book is that Lupton raises these issues up front. “So fearful have we become of the dangers of mammon,” Lupton replies, “that we have forgotten that a flourishing economy is a reflection of God’s universal grace” (33). Again, we might debate various theologies of wealth and God’s own active role in such a process, but Lupton is right to focus on the issue. These are theological questions. For Christians, they are also issues of spiritual formation and discipleship. If we avoid reflecting on our motivations and vocations, we miss the significance of a theology of working, building community, and experiencing generosity.

With these theological questions in mind, Lupton again turns to business models: “If the poverty needle is to move in a positive direction, that mission ultimately lies with the wealth creators” (33). Lupton makes the case that business allows for “doing well and doing good at the same time” (35). His key category is self-interest. When your personal investment (whether time, talent, or money) is involved, you have a higher level of self-interest than simply making a donation to a local social service agency. The expectations and monitoring of one’s return on investment (ROI) is higher when you have more skin in the game.

To make his case, Lupton most often turns to small and midsize for-profit businesses. He criticizes top-down international development and the limited impact of trickle-down investment. He acknowledges the work of Muhammad Yunus and microlending enterprises, but questions the broad impact on the larger economy from bottom-up development. Instead, he focuses on the “missing middle” (37). Like any American political election, Lupton wants to focus on growing small businesses and the middle class. He claims this is where real change for shifting the paradigm of charity has to occur, and this is what Americans do best. At times, Lupton criticizes American models, but not often. Even when addressing global concerns, his solutions privilege a Western-centric model.

Lupton goes on to introduce readers to social entrepreneurs, benefit corporations (b-corps), and a variety of for-profit companies that are doing well while doing good. Of course, Lupton also offers examples of failures that lead to lessons learned. Sometimes they are corporations coming in with unwelcomed products or underdeveloped business strategies. Other times, they are mission ventures that come in with unwelcomed charity and outside expertise. Lupton spends little time stepping back to consider categories like social innovation deeply through a theological lens and does not equip the reader with anything beyond the basics in the nuts and bolts of business creation. That is not his goal, as he is more interested in inspiration than information. For a similarly short text with theological underpinnings, readers might consult Greg Jones, Christian Social Innovation: Renewing Wesleyan Witness (Abingdon, 2016).

While the first half of the book abounds with illustrations of success and failure in the business world, Lupton knows the majority of his readers are religious and faith-based nonprofit leaders, and more examples of TOMS Shoes or Warby Parker sunglasses will only keep their attention for so long. Remember, Lupton is a veteran nonprofit practitioner himself, and he realizes the multiple social, financial, and emotional pressures of local agencies. Lupton is most persuasive when he is most pastoral. He is not naïve enough to expect that everyone will adopt the changes he proposes immediately or completely. Instead, the second half of the book introduces how faith communities and nonprofits might introduce more business-like methods into their work. For example, how might we incorporate ROI measurements to gauge whether our charitable work is actually making a difference in the lives of a community? Some common measurements—such as dollars raised, hours volunteered, or meals served—might demonstrate growth, but actually inhibit the agency of a recipient. Lupton illustrates his point by bringing up the ubiquitous practice of providing gifts for a family in need at Christmas or handing out staples from the church food pantry. Instead of free handouts, what if recipients must volunteer their time or contribute even nominal finances to participate? Does that not often contribute to greater self-worth and motivation for recipients? Lupton sees these values as foundational for individuals and communities in providing change and flourishing. Lupton is exceptionally poignant when he talks about the relationships between giver and recipient not as unidirectional but as a reciprocal exchange. Such a framework has theological as well as economic resonance.

Lupton acknowledges that these contrary approaches are rarely either-or, but most often in tension. Short-term missions (STMs) serve as Lupton’s most convenient example. Lupton is quite the critic of the STM industry. Why spend thousands of dollars for Americans to build houses in Central America when the work could be done more cheaply by local labor? In fact, not only do Americans take away local jobs, they often undermine local economies by flooding communities with clothes, shoes, and other materials. Lupton does not dismiss the power of experiencing another culture, but he suggests being honest in calling it what it is: religious tourism at worst, pilgrimage at best. Instead, Lupton suggests sending our talented business people to help provide various types of capital and expertise to assist in developing new local industries. Lupton knows his approach challenges many church leaders. Their missiology might incline them to accept Lupton’s critique of STMs, but they know that success is often measured by how many youth they recruit for mission trips. More so, they know that a trip to another culture can be transformational to the spiritual formation of an American young person even if harmful to the local economy of a Honduran community. Clearly Lupton’s pet peeve, STMs serve as one among many examples of the tensions that abound in this work.

Lupton ends the book with several brief chapters focused on specific topics. He uses his platform to recount a model of community development he learned through his involvement with the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA). He discusses issues of gentrification in cities, as well as the turn to for-profit missions as a new form of international development.

Overall, Lupton makes no apologies for his strong positions. In certain spots, Lupton may take the business methods approach too far. Quoting businessman John Coors, he says, “Capitalism and business done well – not socialism or philanthropy – is the only proven path for economic development to lift multitudes from poverty” (50). This presumes a separation of the sectors (government, business, and not-for-profit) that often rarely exists in practice. The lines are more often much more blurred. At a higher level, how do regulation, tax policy, or political lobbies affect the flexibility and advantages enjoyed by American businesses? Lupton’s snapshots and solutions are most often quintessentially American. When expanding globally, I am less confident they would translate so easily, given the complexities of multiple cultures, politics, and theologies in play.

Lupton’s writing is clear, persuasive, and at times hard-hitting, but most readers will give him the benefit of the doubt because of his decades of hard-won experience and easy-going approach. He seems as comfortable with a serial entrepreneur or prominent philanthropist as with a troubled youth sitting on his front stoop. It is precisely here where Lupton’s personal experience makes his point most clearly. The relationship is often the key. In reframing traditional models of charity, Lupton is pushing us to break down the barriers between giver and recipient or even refashion these terms to concentrate more on reciprocity and mutuality. Business methods may help provide better incentives and effective measures, but more deeply this is a question of theology and discipleship. For this reason, I continue to believe that faith-based philanthropy and social innovation is key to addressing the concerns Lupton identifies. Particularly as Lupton talks about doing well by doing good, the questions that still remain unanswered are theological ones: What makes up the good life? How much is enough? How do notions of justice serve to motivate beyond profit maximization or a charitable tax deduction? Non-profit or for-profit, Lupton’s point is a vocational one. By its very nature, generosity forms a relationship that changes both giver and receiver. Taking this seriously forces us to consider how we understand models of charity. On this point, Lupton challenges us to walk in the world differently.

Cite this article
David P. King, “Charity Detox —An Extended Review”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:2 , 167-172


  1. Giving USA 2016: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2015, Giving USA Foundation, 2016.
  2. McKitrick, Landrew, Ottoni-Wilhelm, and Hayat, Connected to Give: Faith Communities, Jumpstart, 2013,

David P. King

Indiana University
David P. King is Director of the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving and Assistant Professor of Philanthropic Studies at Indiana University's Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.