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The Student Newspaper of Hopkins School

    • “Toxic Charity” by Robert Lupton

Who Benefits from Community Service?

Edel Lee ’26 Assistant Op/Ed Editor
We are taught to praise volunteers for their sacrifice of time and effort. We know that we should volunteer. But is volunteering always helpful to communities in need? Or can community service end up only benefiting the volunteer?
We are taught to praise volunteers for their sacrifice of time and effort. We know that we should volunteer. But is volunteering always helpful to communities in need? Or can community service end up only benefiting the volunteer?

Toxic charity, as conceptualized by Bob Lupton in “Toxic Charity: How the Church Hurts Those They Help and How to Reverse It,” is community service that transfers resources to communities in need but doesn’t create actual change. Specifically, toxic charity doesn’t recognize the capabilities of those being helped and works for, not with, people in need, offering short-term solutions that fail to solve the bigger issues. These temporary solutions only encourage dependence and do not consider the dignity of the beneficiary or address the root of the problem. Toxic charity often oversimplifies what are complicated issues due to a lack of knowledge on part of the do-gooders. No matter how altruistic the intentions of the volunteers are, misguided charity is not only futile but harmful. For instance, toxic charity can wrongfully support biases about lower-income communities that are completely out of touch. Ultimately, to improve the quality of life for the members of a struggling community means empowering them. It means helping individuals get to a point where they no longer require assistance. It doesn’t mean self-righteously inserting yourself into people’s lives for a couple of hours and delivering a short term fix. It means listening to people and recognizing their humanity — good deeds can only have an impact if they truly address the priorities of the people in need.

Here at Hopkins, students are required to volunteer for at least 12 hours in their senior year, with two additional days dedicated for service during exam week. While these “hours” are opportunities for seniors to give back to the broader community before they depart, the fact that they are graduation requirements can distort what should be charitable motives. When charity is required, different factors come into play — and, in the end, these (in)volunteers can be incentivized to provide quick solutions that disregard and even obscure bigger issues. This is not to say that required service hours can’t do good — they can and do help people in need. Still, close examination of motives and methods should make certain that mandatory volunteering doesn’t become toxic.

One of the key reasons why community service becomes self-centered, especially in high schools like Hopkins, is the role of college admissions. While the ideal applicant is “authentic” in their volunteering, per Mark Spencer, Dean of Admissions at Brandeis University, it can be difficult to sort out on paper whether a candidate’s service was altruistically motivated or not. As such, community service can become just another application-booster: a way to get ahead in the increasingly competitive race for acceptance at elite colleges. Though not without benefits, this puts service at risk of becoming robotic, bolstering the resumés of well-educated students, but not making a meaningful impact on the lives of the people for whom it is supposedly intended for. Instead of using service as a pawn in the college admissions game, we need to strive to make it what it can be: a tool that, if used right, can help people to build their own lives.
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Asher Joseph

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Margaret Russell

Claire Billings
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The Razor's Edge reflects the opinion of 4/5 of the editorial board and will not be signed. The Razor welcomes letters to the editor but reserves the right to decide which letters to publish, and to edit letters for space reasons. Unsigned letters will not be published, but names may be withheld on request. Letters are subject to the same libel laws as articles. The views expressed in letters are not necessarily those of the editorial board.
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