Toxic Charity: The Short-Term Service Industry

This post is part of the series Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It).

For reference, here’s the version of the book I’m using.

There is such a thing as a short-term service industry: countless nonprofits that rely on groups fo volunteers who come to work with them for a few days or a week and then disappear into the ether. The group – either the same individuals or the same organization with different individuals – might reappear a year later to perform the same exercise, but they are, in a sense, tourists. They do not have a consistent presence, they don’t learn about or get to know the community, they don’t join in anything approaching solidarity with those they serve.

The existence of such ‘vacationaries’ – a clever combination of ‘vacation’ and ‘missionary’ – is only reinforced among youth by the increasing demands, both formal and informal, for service work. When schools come to expect service work – either as part of their curriculum or for admissions – without checking the quality of that work, simply encourages volunteers to find make-work situations and gives the impression that the act of volunteering is more important than the effectiveness of that volunteering.

And Robert Lupton has no difficulty finding examples of vacationary work that is utterly, utterly pointless: a wall built at an orphanage that was torn down after the mission group left, a church that was painted six times by six groups in one summer, a church that was built and went unused because the community did not need it. He also identifies the core problem: a combination of the desire to serve and a misdirection of that desire caused by the volunteers’ viewing “aid through the narrow lens of the needs of our organization or church – focusing on what will benefit our team the most – and neglecting the best interests of those we would serve.” (p. 15)

That this is a serious problem is not in doubt. Many nonprofit volunteering opportunities are inefficient. But what do such opportunities result in? According to Lupton, such service work does not “empower those being served, engender healthy cross-cultural relationships, improve local quality of life, relieve poverty, change the lives of participants [or] increase support for long-term mission work.” (pp. 16-17) Fair enough. Many volunteer opportunities fail to do any of these things and the vast majority, I imagine, fail to do all of them (in the sense, that very few actually accomplish all of them). This is a legitimate criticism of the vacationary tendency.

But it’s not just about what doesn’t happen in service work, it’s about what “most mission trips and service projects do: weaken those being served, foster dishonest relationships, erode recipients’ work ethic [and] deepen dependency.” (p. 16; emphasis original). Lupton illustrates this with the story of a Cuban seminary that hosts American vacationaries. This seminary arranged food, lodging, faculty presentations, materials and supervisors for volunteers who were laying tile, but who did not have any experience in doing such work all while skilled laborers were waiting outside the seminary gates hoping some paid work would be left for them. This was clearly a misapplication of the $30,000 the group was spending on its trip as well as the resources the seminary put into hospitality for the group.

And the seminary president was afraid to talk to the group about this for fear of losing their more modest donation.

I agree that such a situation probably weakened those being served (by requiring the seminary to waste resources of hospitality) and fostered dishonest relationships (because the volunteers did not understand the impact of what they were doing). However, I fail to see how it eroded anyone’s work ethic or deepened dependency. Indeed, I can see how inefficient charitable work can be a weakening force insofar as it prevents the charity from making positive investments in its community and I can see how a charity can foster dishonest relationships – Lord can I see how a charity can do that – but the claim of eroded work ethics and fostered dependency seem to be little more than assertions on Lupton’s part.

But perhaps that will change.

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