All Commentary
Monday, January 1, 1996

Loving Your Neighbor: A Principled Guide to Personal Charity

Small Scale Is Key to Charities' Success

Mr. Brown is Director of Publications at The Philanthropy Roundtable in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Loving Your Neighbor is essentially a sequel to The Tragedy of American Compassion, Marvin Olasky’s highly influential history of efforts to fight poverty in America. The earlier work shows how, over time, the spiritual foundation and personal character of assistance to the needy in our country were largely undermined by expansive government programs. Each chapter of Loving Your Neighbor describes a particular organization or program for helping the poor, and each confirms lessons drawn from Olasky’s history: the successful ventures are typically spiritually grounded, private, and modest in scale, while the secular and more ambitious public programs are mostly ineffective and often harmful.

Loving Your Neighbor contains a dozen essays previously published in the Capital Research Center’s newsletter Philanthropy, Culture, and Society. Olasky himself wrote three and co-wrote another. The collection is divided into three sections: one describing efforts to help homeless people, one portraying youth programs, and one on urban renewal projects. (One of the chapters on helping the homeless was written by Gerald Wisz, who profiled the same organization for The Freeman’s October 1994 issue.) The essays are united by simple principles that Olasky restates in the afterword to Loving Your Neighbor: “think small, and think of souls rather than bodies.”

Every successful program depicted has a religious, or more precisely, biblical basis that gives it guidance and stability. To begin with, the Bible instructs those working for charities that the needs of the poor go well beyond the financial or material. It teaches that more than wealth is needed to build (or rebuild) a community, more than square meals to nourish a child. A biblical underpinning is also invaluable in sustaining volunteers who labor in a field with small rewards, frequent failures, and strenuous demands for patience and humility.

Successful efforts also draw from the Bible the conviction that true charity cannot undermine the responsibility of those who receive it; on the contrary it must promote responsibility. In most cases that need is met initially by demanding work and good behavior from those who accept food, shelter, housing, or other goods. In the same way, providing meals that allow addicts to spend more money on drugs or booze is rightly seen not as helping, but harming, the recipients.

Because the problems of the underclass and its neighborhoods are deeply rooted and almost invariably call for changed habits, a small scale is imperative for success. Modest size allows for the moral support as well as the accountability that together can turn around a wayward individual or community. As the size and scope of efforts to help the poor increase, there is a persistent tendency for a misguided set of priorities to take over. The number of people being “served” and the level of help (typically measured in dollars) that each client receives become the standards of excellence. This is the all-too-familiar phenomenon of allowing a process to become more important than the outcome it was designed to bring about.

Loving Your Neighbor will not be a smashing success like The Tragedy of American Compassion. But for people who work with the poor it will provide useful examples and illustrations to reinforce the basic principles in Olasky’s previous book.