The Hole in Our Helping, part 2: Service versus Charity, Institutional Self-Interest, & Individualist Ethos

June 26, 2012

The second of a three-part contribution to the faith, values, and service-learning series by Richard Slimbach:

2.  Charity orientation

Once we’ve resolved the questions of who our neighbors are, and what our moral obligations are to them, the question we’re left with is how neighbor-love can best be expressed. In the majority of cases, it is expressed in works of charity—the direct, short-term, personal involvement of good-willing people in the lives of the less fortunate. Global service learning, as a form of charitable involvement, engages young adults with discretionary time and money in a variety of “helping” projects: running summer camps, operating food pantries, giving small loans, teaching English, and becoming surrogate caregivers for orphans. One-off service projects use students’ can-do spirit and desire to “make a difference” to address the symptoms of disadvantage and temporarily improve conditions.

Collegians are typically sent afield with only limited knowledge of the local language and culture, much less of the national or global factors shaping local conditions. Their focus is on one thing: meeting a need, fixing a problem. They organize to do something for or to people. Field relations are set: recipients remain recipients and givers are content to remain givers. The resources (assets) resident in the community itself are either unknown or devalued in favor of what the volunteer can gain from the experience (progress toward ‘intercultural competence’ or ‘global citizenship’). Little if any consideration is given to the long-term effects on local organizations, much less the broader community.

“Development,” on the other hand, attempts to challenge the root issues of disadvantage. Compared to charitable activity, community building is slow and bottom-up (grassroots), with impacts often imperceptible in the short-term. It’s three distinguishing marks are: (1) asset based, (2) internally focused, and (3) relationship driven. “Asset based suggests that poor people, no matter how destitute, have enormous untapped capacity that must be found and built upon. Internally focused recognizes that the best starting place is what can be found inside a community. Relationship driven reminds us that communities only get strong through connections among people that permit people to give their gifts” (Green & Haines, 2011).

Faith-based students and service-learning practitioners often find it difficult to reconcile the apparent contradiction between what the Bible teaches and what development wisdom tells us. Whereas the Bible consistently enjoins a “doing for” ethic for meeting the needs of persons and families (Psalm 82:3-4; I John 3:17; Titus 2:14; Eph. 2:10), the global development and community organizing literature consistently highlights the vulnerability of charity responses to various disabling effects as a result of the “law of unintended consequences” (Illich, 1970; Linthicum, 1991; Easterly, 2006; Corbett & Fikkert, 2009; Lupton, 2011).


Service Providing


Capacity Building

Focus on student growth Focus on community growth
Change from the top down or outside in (external agencies) Change from the bottom up (internal associations)
Power comes from credentials Power comes from relationships
Community as needs and deficiencies Community as assets and abilities
Focus on individuals Focus on community
Residents viewed as clients and beneficiaries Residents viewed as citizens and partners
Problems framed in terms of dysfunctional persons or cultures Problems framed in terms of broken systems
Volunteers respond to symptoms (“hacking at branches”) Volunteers respond to root issues (“striking at root”)
Mindset of planning and ‘doing for’ Mindset of participating and ‘doing with’
Interventions emphasize projects Interventions emphasize people
Services improve conditions: “feed a man a fish” Services strengthen community capacity: “teach a man to fish”
Assessment based on inputs (service) Assessment based on impacts (change)
Entry point Ending point

3.     Institutional self-interest

One of the ways Western colleges and universities seek to gain a competitive edge in the global marketplace is by branding themselves as “community-engaged” and “internationalized.” Service learning, whether in national and international contexts, becomes a valuable instrument towards this end. Not only does it promise to deliver “a life-changing experience” for students; it also enables the considerable resources of elite institutions to serve the common good. Predictably, higher education institutions use anecdotal results of service “inputs” as evidence of responsible “engagement.” What remain largely unexamined are the longer-term community impacts of service activities primarily focused on student development.

It makes perfect sense for colleges and universities to focus on developing the student subject on the home campus. After all, that is their core mission. However, change the learning context to poor communities, and the objective to improving local circumstances, and developing the student subject as a primary goal transforms itself into an act of colonialism. (Lewin & Van Kirk, 2010, p. 550)

The relative neglect of community impact assessment among American models of global service learning is also traceable to its historical development as a field in higher education. Humphrey Tonkin (2010), president emeritus of the University of Hartford in Connecticut, describes the enduring disconnect between service-learning and community development:

International service learning emerged as an expansion of study abroad in the direction of community service, rather than an expansion of community service in the direction of study abroad. This perception is reinforced by the painfully widespread view in many study abroad circles that the study abroad enterprise exists to serve an American purpose, namely, the liberal education of the student passing through it. It is but one step from this belief to the damaging notion that the larger world exists as a kind of classroom where the American student can learn values or skills that can be transferred to the United States and that student’s adult life. To see the world in this way is to lose all sense of reciprocity, an issue central to service learning… At best, study abroad programs are expected to do no harm to the communities in which they are located: rarely is the question raised as to how they can actually do good. (p. 193)

The attention of grassroots organizations also tends to be skewed in favor of institutional preservation over community benefit. Many seek to partner with Western institutions, not because they can’t find local residents to do the work assigned to foreign volunteers, but because affiliation with foreign entities raises their local stature and guarantees financial survival (even if beneficiaries are left without self-determination). Something like a co-dependent relationship develops: Western institutions need national NGOs to provide meaningful service experiences for student-volunteers, and national NGOs desperately need Western institutions for cash and international connections. For both parties, institutional self-interest effectively deflects primary attention away from the ordinary people they purport to serve.

4.     Individualist ethos

Reinforcing the self-interest of institutional sponsors is an individualistic social ethos that lies at the root of the charity/social service orientation. That ethos is essentially defined by the American Dream: of the self-made entrepreneur in the land of equal opportunity who “pulls herself up by her own bootstraps” (meritocracy), works hard, competes well, and is eventually rewarded with success and affluence. Life is likened to playing baseball: Everyone has an equal chance “at bat” in life. Some, by reason of greater intelligence, ingenuity, and moral discipline manage to hit the ball better and run the bases faster than others. Individuals who fail to hit the ball hard enough and run the bases fast enough can only blame themselves. The cause of pervasive poverty, then, is located in the failings of the poor and not in unequal and unjust life circumstances.

The reality, as anyone who has traveled throughout the developing world can tell you, is that some people (most helpers) were born on third base and others (most of those being helped) in the dugout, with no chance of going to bat. Rich Stearns, current president of World Vision International, graduated from two Ivy League schools and became a successful corporate CEO. He writes in The Hole in Our Gospel (2009),

I fell quite easily into the bias that poverty was somehow a choice one made… In truth, my hard work as a young man produced results largely because my circumstances were favorable… I lived in a country that embraced basic freedoms and protected individual rights and the rule of law. I attended good public schools and had access to libraries that I did not have to pay for. I did not suffer from hunger, contaminated water, or lack of basic health care. I was vaccinated against devastating childhood diseases. I had more than three thousand colleges and universities from which to choose, and scholarships and loans were available to make attendance possible, even for someone with no money. I entered an economy that was strong and growing, with opportunities for me to put my education and God-given abilities to work productively. Best of all, I found that diligence and hard work were almost always rewarded. (p. 117)

The individualist ethos manifests in a set of unconscious assumptions carried, as ‘unclaimed baggage,’ by affluent volunteers to poor communities.

  • “You are the source of your problems.” The problem or deficiency is located in the client rather than in their socio-economic-political context. Human “needs” become individual “deficiencies” (laziness, moral delinquency, culturally backwardness, lack of intelligence). The poor (clients) are blamed for what they don’t deserve, even as the rich (servers) are congratulated for what they equally don’t deserve.
  • “We are the solution to your problems.” The educated outsider defines the problem and determines the solution—not the affected persons, not the larger community, and not the larger political, social and economic environment. Foreign volunteers maintain their sense of superiority even though their services may be dressed up in the rhetoric of “participation” or “partnership.” The power direction of the relationship is still one-way—from the outsider to the insider.
  • “We can do good for you without doing justly ourselves.” An individualistic social ethos allows servers to justify severe economic inequality on a local and global scale. Charity becomes an optional “good deed” (what I want to do for me and others) rather than a requirement of “justice” (what I have to be and do in relation to others). Several weeks abroad in ‘helping’ activity becomes disconnected from how servers live their lives back home.

Part 3: Entitlement, Sentimentality, and Assessment Constraints  


Richard Slimbach is Professor of Global Studies, Sociology, and TESOL at Azusa Pacific University. Since 1991, his professional energies have been dedicated to creating, teaching in, and managing academic programs aimed at preparing students to learn in socio-cultural settings radically different from their own. Slimbach supervises the Global Learning Term — a self-directed, full-immersion study and service abroad program that has enabled global studies students to conduct small-scale community research and academic service-learning projects in over 50 non-western countries. He recently completed Becoming World Wise: A Guide to Global Learning.

If you appreciate these reflective questions and this series on faith, values, and service-learning, please share it, post comments or thoughts, and sign-up to receive the upcoming posts by following Building a Better World on Twitter or providing your email address in the box on the right.


Birdsall, J. T. (2005). Community voice: community partners reflect on service learning.

Corbett, S. and Fikkert, B. (2009). When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself. Moody Publishers.

Easterly, W. (2006). The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. Penguin Press.

Ferrari, J. R.,  & Worrall, L. (2000). Assessments by community agencies: How “the other side” sees service-learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 7.

Green, G.P and Haines, A. (2011).  Asset Building & Community Development. Sage Publications.

Illich, I. (1970). The Church, change, and development, 2nd ed. Urban Training Center Press.

Irie, E., Daniel, C., Cheplick, T. & Philips, A. (2010). The worth of what they do: The impact of short-term immersive Jewish service-learning on host communities. Repair the World.

Lewin, R. and Van Kirk, G. (2010). The Handbook of Practice and Research in Study Abroad: Higher Education and the Quest for Global Citizenship. Stylus Publications.

Linthicum, R. (1991). Empowering the Poor. MARC Publishing.

Lupton, R. (2011). Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). HarperOne.

McBride, A.M., Lough, B. & Sherraden, M.S. (2010, May 25). Perceived impacts of international service on volunteers: Interim results from a quasi-experimental study. Global Economy and Development at Brookings.

Stearns, R. (2009). The Hole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us? The Answer That Changed My Life and Might Just Change the World. World Vision.

Stoeker, R. and Tyron, E. (2009). The Unheard Voices: Community Organizations and Service Learning. Temple University Press.

Tonkin, H. (2010). “A Research Agenda for International Service-learning.” In International Service Learning: Conceptual Frameworks and Research (IUPUI Series on Service Learning Research). Stylus Publications.

Twenge, J. (2007). Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before. Free Press.

Wuthnow, R. (1995). Learning to Care: Elementary Kindness in an Age of Indifference. Oxford University Press.

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