How to Recognize Smart Charity

by FCS Ministries on

Most of us want to create programs that alleviate poverty and support families struggling day-to-day. We do not intend to create toxic programming that produces dependency or promotes unhealthy power-based relationships. If you’ve read When Helping Hurts or Toxic Charity, you have seen examples of how some well-intentioned work can lead to disaster while other programs promote dignity and community.  


However, when you come across a new initiative or are evaluating a ministry of your church for the first time, it can be difficult to determine if the work is toxic or smart charity. To help out, we’re offering 5 questions based on Bob Lupton’s characteristics of smart charity:

Who is giving?

In a smart charity model, everyone has something to contribute. There is dignity in creating space for the poor to collaborate in addressing a need. It may manifest through leadership participation, affordable payments, or sweat equity, but everyone should be allowed and expected to participate. Relationships where one side is giving while the other is receiving can have negative consequences down the line.

What are people saying?

If a missions team says a project was a success, that is only half the story. It’s crucial to listen to feedback from those hosting the teams and receiving the services. The conversations must be delicate since power dynamics, flow of resources, and cultural communication can all affect responses.

Does it make sense?

We might launch initiatives as a heart response, but projects should make head sense, too. One way to see is to imagine the program in a different context. If a neighbor in a wealthy suburb had fallen on hard times one Christmas, would it make sense for you to buy all her kids’ Christmas presents, wrap them, and go over to open them with them?

What is the outcome?

It’s true that some goals of charity organizations can be hard to measure. But sometimes, metrics are a challenge because there’s no clear goal or pathway to reach it. For example, if a community is struggling with food insecurity, simply handing out food every week is not really addressing that problem. While it might be a necessary stop gap, charities must analyze their impact on the issue they address.

Is the work part of a whole?

Beware the word “just.” If these kids just had help with their homework, they could go to college and leave poverty. Simplistic solutions ignore the complexity of poverty and the interconnectedness of life. While this statement doesn’t mean an after-school program is unnecessary, it does limit its effectiveness. Smart charity would partner with other groups effecting change in the local schools, funding college scholarships, and supporting students who do attend higher ed through the transition, for starters.

While no one organization or group can do everything required to support families, develop a community, or eliminate poverty, smart charity is an important first step. The more we can mitigate harmful consequences and create truly beneficial programs, the more our communities can thrive.

Image source: Sacca