GUEST POST: How To Move from Betterment to Development

by Dr. Bob Lupton
Founder of FCS Urban Ministries, Author of Toxic Charity

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Believing that change needs to happen in the way charity, missions or benevolence is practiced is one thing. Figuring out how to make that change is another! Author, innovator, veteran community developer, and 40-year practitioner of urban ministry, Bob Lupton speaks to the Charity Detox community about the ingredients for change.

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Most compassion ministries begin with a heart impulse.  We see a need, feel a prompting to help, and reach out to assist.  Often the involvement begins with an individual who is hurting – a homeless person needing food, a neglected child whose parents are on drugs, a forgotten senior with no way to patch her leaking roof.  Such needs can be addressed in fairly direct ways – feeding, mentoring, service projects.  We call these “betterment” activities. They improve conditions.  Sometimes organized programs will emerge to specialize in meeting a particular need – like food pantries or urban youth sports teams or home repair initiatives.  All “betterment” activities.  They "make better" or improve the quality of life for those being served. 

Over time, however, betterment activities, like the proverbial “feeding a man a fish”, can foster dependency.  Doing for others what they have the capacity to do for themselves can actually dis-empower rather than empower them.  When that happens, charity becomes toxic. At some point compassion ministries, if they are to be ultimately helpful, will recognize the need to shift from “betterment” to “development”.  They begin to see that continually doing for those in need produces diminishing returns.  They start looking for ways to develop the capacity of those they serve.  Being a more responsible ministry means making the transition from “feeding a man a fish” to “teaching a man to fish.”  It means converting food pantries to food co-ops, sports programs to leadership development, and senior support to senior mobilization. 

The transition from betterment to development is not an easy one. 

But it is a necessary one.  



If you want to make this change from betterment to development, from toxic to responsible work, here are a few ingredients:

  1. Time...Lots of Time. Development is far more time-consuming than betterment. It requires a longer-term commitment. It will not be neat, easy, or quick like many service-project oriented efforts. 
  2. Relationship. Development is much more personal and relational. It requires rootedness in a particular context. It requires the ability, as it says in the "Oath for Compassionate Service," to "listen closely to those I seek to help, especially to what is not being said [because] unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service."  
  3. A Willingness to "Start Small." Development work does not lend itself to large-scale programs. We like big. We like high-impact and impressive metrics. We like to make a difference, change the world, etc. At least at first, development requires us to scale it back, think small, become a learner, and get grass-roots.
  4. A New/Different Skill Set. Running a clothes closet or food pantry may be fine for anyone willing to volunteer, but business and management experience may be required to run a thrift store or food co-op. Development looks for people's vocational/professional skills and asks how they can be used to empower and build capacity in a community, not just provide a service. For example, teaching or counseling backgrounds are valuable assets in designing a curriculum for leadership development. Development calls for different abilities and requires alterations in the way we normally run programs.

These ingredients may cost us more in the short run, but the outcomes are well worth the effort!



The Georgia Avenue Community Ministry in Atlanta is a good example of one ministry that has successfully made the transition.  Urban Recipe, as it is now known, operated for years a food pantry that distributed free food to needy people in their community (and beyond).  Many of the same recipients returned week after week for their hand-out.  Frustrated by the dependency, Chad Hale introduced the idea of a food co-op to recipients standing in the food line.  Several showed interest.  The idea was a “buying club” of sorts where co-op members would contribute $5 each week, the ministry would contribute a share, and together they could access surplus food from the Atlanta Community Foodbank.  The response was overwhelming.  Club membership clearly had more appeal than a pride-less food line.  Co-ops increased as food pantry use declined. Today Urban Recipe has six co-ops of 50 households each that supply ample food to families once struggling with persistent food insecurity. The food pantry is no longer needed.  The shift was from toxic to transformative.

Wayne Gordon in Chicago is another example.  A coach in an inner-city high school, Wayne started an Athletes in Action evangelistic program for kids at his high school.  In time a number of students made spiritual commitments.  Wayne tried to connect them to local churches but street oriented kids didn’t fit into the church culture.  The kids decided that their Athletes in Action group was their church and Wayne was their pastor.  Wayne reluctantly consented. The teenage “elders” decided that only people who lived in their neighborhood could belong to their church.  One might question the motivation behind their turf-protective decision but it would prove to be a defining direction for the church.  It was a decision that would permanently anchor the church to the community, develop indigenous leadership, and become a major influence to turn their ‘hood into a dynamic social environment where their families flourish.  A program for urban kids became a force for the transformation of their community.  

Not all betterment ministry is toxic.  Chad’s was, Wayne’s was not.  But all betterment programs that remain focused on doing for others rather than doing with others will inevitably develop toxicity.  However, ministries that move with intentionality from betterment toward development, using the ingredients above, can mature in holistic and healthy directions. 

The golden rule for effective engagement is this: never do for others what they have the capacity to do for themselves.     

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Dr. Robet Lupton is the Founder of FCS Urban Ministries, a Christian Community Development organization that has been practicing development in Atlanta for almost 40 years. Dr. Lupton has authored numerous books on topics from neighboring in low-income communities to the practice of community development. His 2012 book, Toxic Charity, is helping to reframe the conversation about poverty alleviation in churches and organizations across the US. 

Posted on November 18, 2014 .