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Does the Transform Rockford Movement Believe We Suffer from 'Toxic Charity?'

Why Woodward CEO Tom Gendron put the controversial book on the 'Transform Rockford' reading list.
ROCKFORD -- As the Transform Rockford movement moves into a new stage with its first 'Community Vision' Summit Wednesday at the Coronado, it has has also put out a reading list, and one book with a provocative title tops it. Its title is 'Toxic Charity -- How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help.' And the man who put this book on Transform Rockford's reading list is Woodward CEO Tom Gendron. "Paul Logli introduced it to me," Gendron said at a recent press conference.

The book is written by Robert Lupton, a man who has spent more than forty years in faith-based charity work and who one day realized his personal war on poverty was having the opposite effect on the poor. "What I noticed over time was that one way giving -- That is your typical clothes closets, food pantries, soup kitchen kind of giving -- tended to produce unhealthy dependency," Lupton said in a phone interview with 'Eyewitness News.'

Lupton believes that one-way giving -- even with the best intentions -- inevitably leads to dependency. "It tended to erode work ethic, certainly diminished dignity, and those were not the outcomes we intended or hoped for."

Lupton writes that ... In his experience ...
-give once and you elicit appreciation.
-give twice and you create anticipation.
-give three times and you create expectation.
-give four times and it becomes entitlement.
-give five times and you establish dependency.

"That's a dependency that weakens rather than enhances people," he says.

As an example, Lupton writes about the typical Christmas toy drive. He recalls delivering toys to a home himself to find elated kids but a father who had clearly been humiliated. That was the last time his church gave away toys. Instead. they created a toy program designed to also improve self-esteem, and it's catching on. Lupton says that, "Increasingly, churches and organizations are favoring Christmas stores where folks can come in an purchase toys for their children at very reduced prices, and if they don't have money, they can go and work in those locations so that everyone participates in the process of exchange."

Tom Gendron admits he used to participate in free toy drives, but not any more. "Now I think back and think 'that's not the right approach.'" he says, convinced Lupton is absolutely right.

Yet one-way giving is the approach so many charities and non-profits in Rockford take, and a recent study by the organization RMAP seems to back Lupton up when it comes to what he says are the inevitable outcomes of such giving.  It shows poverty exploding in the Rockford area, and hints that the city's vast network of charities, non-profits, and government aid may be part of the problem.

Lupton is also critical of large charities he says tend to concentrate poverty in one area. Take for instance the recent controversy over the expansion of Rockford's Rescue Mission, which was publicly criticized by Rockford Alderwoman Venita Hervey. "I tell you. You don't live there," Hervey told the city council in objecting to the plan. "You don't see it. You don't deal with it, and it doesn't affect your families and your children."

Lupton agrees with her, saying, "Importing people with all manner of addictions and problems into that community is not a community friendly strategy."

Even the city of Rockford's economic re-development strategies run counter to what Lupton says works, like the city's 33-tax increment financing districts. Far better, Lupton believes, to hyper-focus redevelopment on one neighborhood at a time. "Without a concentrated effort on a narrowly defined neighborhood those energies tend to get dissapated and never really get traction," he says, which of course is exactly what is happening in many of Rockford's TIF districts.

But most importantly, Lupton says toxic charity happens when no one listens to the people they are trying to help. "To figure out people's problems when you're not in their community is a little disingenuous," he believes.

It's a trap Gendron and the Transform Rockford movement have worked hard to avoid by aggressively reaching out to Rockford's poorest communities, and he adds that in all those meetings, "not a single (person) has ever has ever come to me or said in any visioning session 'we need a handout.'"

So here are Bob Lupton's guidelines for churches, charities, and non-profits when it comes to avoiding toxic charity.

  • First, don't subsidize poverty.
  • Second, reinforce productive work.
  • Third, create producers, not beggars.
  • And fourth, invest in self-sufficiency.

Most importantly, Lupton say we should not support one-way giving to the poor unless it's an absolute emergency. Even with the best of intentions, he says that type of charitable giving is doomed to become toxic.
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