Can Doing Good Be Bad?

I’ve always prided myself on being a giving person. I love to volunteer and try to be generous to causes I believe in. So when the opportunity to deliver meals on Thanksgiving presented itself, I jumped at it! I picked up the delicious smelling meals from a local church, bought a little gift of fresh flowers for each person to put on their table, and set out excited to have this opportunity to do something good before I ate a Thanksgiving meal with my family.

I arrived at my third home feeling pretty good, but all that changed as soon as I saw the look on the gentlemen’s face when he opened the door. His shame was palpable – he couldn’t get me out of his home fast enough. It was clear that the charity I was providing was disturbing his peace of mind, even as it strengthened his body.

I was left wondering, can “doing good” be bad for someone?

This question is the impetus for this year’s Breakfast with the Bishop, featuring Robert Lupton, author of the best-selling book, Toxic Charity. He will talk about “toxic charity,” a phrase that is quite jarring.  It makes us wonder how something so fundamentally good, like “charity,” can be associated with a negative word like “toxic.”  And “toxic” isn’t just negative – toxic is harmful; toxic creates destruction; toxic means deadly.

What I like about the phrase “toxic charity” is that it invites us to question the impact of our work, and to acknowledge that there are times when it doesn’t help people. It calls us to ask if our help can make it harder for people to be successful in the long run. It calls us to think about whether the dignity of the person we serve is enhanced or torn down. We then ask ourselves: How can we keep that from happening? What can we do to ensure that the people we seek to help leave us uplifted, hopeful, and stronger?

The Catholic Social Services Leadership Team read Toxic Charity together and discussed these questions. We quickly realized how vague and often-changing the line between helping and harming can be. What is right in a crisis situation is harmful in a chronic one, but chronic solutions are impossible without some stability. And, that line between harmful and helpful is completely unique for each individual or family that comes seeking our help. Reading the book together helped create a space for us to talk about the difficult nuances for our work. It allowed us to disagree with one another and challenge one another, and ultimately helped us to strengthen our efforts to help others.

This is my hope for bringing the conversation to our Breakfast with the Bishop. Toxic Charity introduces a difficult topic in an approachable way. I believe that if we want to lift people out of poverty, we are going to have to look at what is working and what isn’t. That is hard to do, but Robert Lupton has helped us to start the conversation and provided us with encouragement and insights to examine our charitable practices to see how we can make them more uplifting and impactful.  And this, in turn, will make us, and our community, stronger.

~ Rachel Lustig, President & CEO


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