Before A. and I moved, the staff at the non-profit where I worked read and discussed a book called When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett. From what I hear, it's kind of making waves in the non-profit and ministry worlds right now, so much so that it's almost becoming a trend. (In fact, a local church that had never supported our agency called us up after having read the book because they felt we upheld a lot of its principles and wanted to learn more. We were pleased and flattered but also concerned that the fervor for what we believe to be timeless principles would fade.) But if you have a heart for impacting the world for the better, I think it's an essential read.


The entire book is rooted in faith, and it builds on ways in which we should be inspired and encouraged by our faith to do good works. The authors state that there is both a "now" and a "not yet" to the Kingdom of God. There are things that we will never be able to reconcile or make right on this earth because they are for another time, but that shouldn't be taken as an excuse to remain inactive. In fact, Israel was sent into captivity for its worship of idols, yes, but also for ignoring the needs of the poor. Jesus came along and declared the kingdom in words and deeds, and so should we.

There are several different kinds of poverty, and what we believe to be the root cause will influence how we seek to alleviate it. If we believe poverty is a lack of knowledge, we will seek to provide education. If we believe poverty stems from oppression, we will seek to bring about social justice. If we believe that poverty is a result of personal sins, we will seek to evangelize or disciple the poor. If we believe that poverty is simply a lack of material resources, we will seek to provide physical things. But human beings are multifaceted, and each of us experiences poverty in some of these areas, often in combination. So a successful attempt at poverty alleviation must address all of these areas.

Poverty alleviation, as defined by Fikkert and Corbett in the book, is the ministry of reconciliation: moving people closer to glorifying God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation (the four foundational relationships we all have, one or more of which may be broken in poverty). The goal is to restore people to a full expression of humanness. To alleviate poverty, you must first admit that you yourself are poor in some of these areas in order to truly walk alongside the poor you are trying to help. Our focus should be on people and the process and less on projects and products.

The three phases of poverty alleviation are:

  • Relief, which is urgent and temporary and takes the form of giving to,
  • Rehabilitation, which is a restoration to pre-crisis conditions and takes the form of providing with, and
  • Development, which is a process of ongoing change for all involved.

Too many charity agencies in the United States give out help in the form of relief, which should be reserved for only the most dire circumstances, like after a tsunami or tornado. By continually giving out material relief, agencies actually impede their clients from improving their overall life situation. Their modus operandi should be, instead, not to do things for people that they are capable of doing for themselves.

There is no quick-fix for poverty, but Fikkert and Corbett espouse the belief that if we relinquish our God complexes and truly embrace people and the process by immersing ourselves in it along with those we seek to help, we can make great strides toward improving the world.

I'm not necessarily saying I buy everything they say hook, line, and sinker, but the book provided some great food for thought, especially for one (like me!) whose life goal is to participate in non-profit charitable work. The authors take some stances that are bound to be unpopular, such as their eschewing of short-term mission trips, and the book at times lapses into jargon and charts that lost me as a layperson. But I respect their views on the importance of involving people in their own improvement and have been evaluating non-profit agencies with new eyes as I look for a job here in Atlanta. I have become even less likely than I was in the past to give change to a  beggar on the street and more likely to donate to agencies that are working toward long-term solutions, especially on a local level. And I believe firmly with Fikkert and Corbett that it is the church's role to rise up and face these issues with grace and with tough love. If we truly believe that Jesus is the reconciler of all things and that we are His hands and feet, than it is our sacred duty to live out his principles in our daily lives. Not because we are better than secular organizations, who can do fine work as well, and not because we are more blessed than the poor, but simply because it is what we have been designed and called to do. As Christians and as people of conscience, we should be aware of how our actions, and often our inaction, affect the rest of the world. And for that, I applaud Fikkert and Corbett for their adding their book to the worldwide conversation on poverty alleviation.

How do you view charity? If you are a volunteer or a donor, what do you look for in an agency that you choose to support? What inspires you to do what you do for others?

(Another book that delves into this issue that you might want to check out if this interests you is The Power of Half by father and daughter duo Kevin and Hannah Salwen. It's a pretty inspirational story.)

Laura Lindeman

Laura Lindeman