As a company, we spend a good bit of time thinking about the give back component of our business. It is, after all, the foundation on which our concept was built.  From the outside looking in, it may seem like we just give shirts to students, but it is so much more – it has to be more.

Some of you may be familiar with the book Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton. A few of our team members have read it, and we found his writings to be insightful and thankfully, very much in line with our way of thinking. In the book, Lupton discusses how even compassionate people with the best intentions can actually harm those they try to help (coining the term "toxic charity"). Though it can be hard to stomach, the fact of the matter is that the ideas of charity, mission work, corporate social responsibility, and many more have exploded in recent years, yet poverty is still a very real problem in our world. Lupton writes to bring light to what’s happening and ideally reverse some of the not-so-helpful practices. In this post, I’ll be discussing Agape North’s charitable practices and how we strive to keep them non-toxic.

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The majority of Lupton’s book focuses on impoverished communities as a whole and the necessary steps to make those areas flourish. He pinpoints the following as indicators of community health:

1.     Public Safety

2.     Education Improvements

3.     Economic Vitality

4.     Homeowner/Renter Retention

5.     Neighborhood Associations

6.     Spiritual Vitality

While it would be nice to tackle all of those issues, we at Agape North have found our niche in the education realm. The education system, regardless of where one lives geographically, tends to keep its status as a hot-button issue. It’s one that is multifaceted, complicated, divisional, and yet of utmost importance to most people. Lupton repeats throughout his book that “there are no quick fixes,” and this description could not be more accurate for education. Regardless, change is happening, and whether it is two steps forward or one step back, we are proud to be a part of this movement.

I said before that we do more than give school uniform shirts to students, and here’s how. Providing a new school shirt, be it a uniform polo or a fun school spirit t-shirt, to a student in need is a small thing, but it’s the switch that starts a domino effect. Having a clean school shirt to wear can be the difference between a child coming to school or staying home, and as we all know, attendance is imperative to learning. Providing shirts to a school body means the administration is able to allocate those funds to other necessary things like books or curriculum. There may not be long-term quick fixes, but these short-term fixes can have long-term impacts.

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Going back to Toxic Charity, Lupton describes the ideal outcomes of any short-term charity project or service work:

1.     Empower those being served

2.     Engender healthy cross-cultural relationships

3.     Improve local quality of life

4.     Relieve poverty

I imagine you would be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks the above outcomes aren’t worthy. Along those same lines, these days it is rare to find an organization with no interest in giving back; social responsibility is very much at the forefront of our thoughts. We see this all the time with our clients – there is a strong desire to do something more and give back by partnering in the community, but oftentimes there is a gap filled with questions like “Where do we start? How do we get our employees involved? What makes the most sense?”

Agape North exists to bridge the gap.

We have spent the last few years building relationships with local schools, so we can more easily connect our clients to schools in need of support. But there’s an important distinction to make here – we don’t just tell our clients which school they’re donating to and then send some shirts. As Lupton states, “What we look for is likely what we will see.” By planning a giving event and inviting our clients into the schools, we introduce them to a world they may not otherwise see. It is a world of incredible hope, dedicated people, and world-changing work – and yes, it is often in the most poverty-stricken areas of town. 

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The giving events at schools don’t last long and each one looks a little different, but the four outcomes above are the common goal:

1.     Empower those being served. - Empowerment is key, and yet something that can often be lost in charitable exchanges. In many cases, the shirts we donate are given as an award for academic achievement or good behavior. Even if there’s not a high test score to celebrate, though, we try to make it clear to the students that the shirts they’re receiving are the result of their efforts as learners. Our clients do not donate because they feel sympathy, but because they want to let the next generation know that someone is supporting them and cheering them on.

2.     Engender healthy cross-cultural relationships. - It’s no secret that people, as a whole, struggle with cross-cultural interactions. This is why our giving events are so important – it’s where the barriers come down. We try to incorporate small-group or one-on-one discussion time between students and our clients because it gives both sides a chance to recognize the humanness in the other. Instead of a wealthy, mysterious benefactor and a poor kid who just doesn’t try, our clients become the kind visitors who read a book and actually show they care and the students become a bright spot in an otherwise dull outlook on a particular zip code in the city.

3.  Improve local quality of life and relieve poverty. – A new shirt can do a lot, but I can’t sit here and tell you that it will lower the poverty rate a certain percentage. What I can tell you is that it instigates movement in the right direction. New, clean clothes invoke a sense of confidence and pride, improving self-esteem. Students with higher self-esteem tend to be more engaged, better learners. From a parent’s perspective, additional school shirts for their children could mean one less load of laundry to do or at least one less uniform polo or school spirit t-shirt to buy. What we value as even more important, though, are the relationships that develop between our clients and the schools. In his book, Lupton encourages people to shy away from transactional interactions in favor of relational ones because these hold significantly more meaning. Relational interactions are more time-consuming, require accountability and vulnerability, and are definitely not a quick fix, but it is in these kinds of relationships that trust develops and people and communities flourish.

Our work at Agape North isn’t rocket science, but thanks to our clients and partner schools, it has the potential to make a big impact in cities around the globe. There are no quick fixes. There is no secret sauce. There IS compassion, and there are opportunities for change in our community. Let’s build some bridges.

Carly Warner, Agape North Director of Operations

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