5 Mistakes We Make When We “Help” The Poor

You volunteer along with many others to help make some repairs at a family’s home one Saturday. You end up sitting on the front porch listening to the mother’s story. She shares her stress over mounting medical bills that keeps her awake at night.


You decide to spend several hundred dollars to fly to the other side of the world to spend a week working with a mission organization. You get to know a few of the local people who work along the missionaries. At a meal, you sit by one local who shares with you their passion for the work they are doing among their own people. Within the conversation you learn that they need more financial support.

You have a compassionate heart. That is why you invest your time, money and energy into helping others. And their stories tug at your heart-strings. We look at our financial means, and we want to help. We “know” we can help out of our abundance.

However, our good intentions to help those “less fortunate” than ourselves can cause more harm. In my work with local nonprofits and with international missions, I have seen 3 main mistakes made when we try to help the poor.

First, understand I have made many of these mistakes too. Our perspective is just that, our perspective. We can only understand or make sense of the world around us through our lens of experience influenced some by gained knowledge.

We assume we understand the story. In our attempt to make sense of another person’s life, we jump to conclusions about their situation and the remedy. We get caught in a moment of time..that day we sit with them on their porch…that week that we serve on a mission team in another country. In our attempt to “fix” the problem, we think we need to act as soon as possible.

We don’t check with those who does know the story. Almost always someone is closer to the situation than we are. I don’t know why we ignore their insight, but often we do. We can avoid causing more pain simply by having a conversation with a the project/ministry leader or the missionary.

We lack an understanding of their culture. I have been on many short-term mission trips to countries all over the world. What I notice about myself, is that my mind is on overdrive taking in everything around me. My mind is trying to make sense of what it is observing. Without any conscious prompting, I make conclusions about what is true and not true about this culture that I am experiencing for maybe the first time.

I laugh when I or others spend one week in another country and based on our experiences, we proclaim, “this is how they do it in Thailand or Guatemala, or China…”.

This is true for our interaction with others that live close to home. We think that just because we live within 3o minutes of each other that we approach life the same way; that we have the same cultural standards and expectations. Nothing is farther from the truth.

Our perception of success is different. As we listen or see someone’s situation, we often begin to look for solutions. We often think that money is what will meet the need. Is it possible that the person is sharing their needs with you, because they need someone to listen? Or maybe they need someone to give them advice?

I have sat with a homeless friend of mine at lunch more than once. The only thing I did was listen and pay for lunch. I didn’t try to get him off the streets. I didn’t give him money for anything. I listened to him as a friend. I still see him from time to time standing on a street corner asking for money. When he sees me, he smiles and waves.

What he needed more than the money was a friend.

We respond from a  “god-complex”. We think that because we have more financial resources, even if by our standards we feel poor, we think that this will solve all the “poor” persons problem. What we neglect is that God is ultimately in control, and He is working in this person’s life. He has been long before we show up on the scene.

We are responding from our own need for significance. This need clouds our best judgement. We end up causing more harm than good, and we make commitments that later we regret.

What do you do now?

I hope you continue to respond with compassion! I also hight recommend this book if you haven’t ever read it:

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself

This book influences many of my thoughts in this blog. Also, visit The Chalmers Center which goes deeper into how you can help others without harming them or yourself.

Do you have a story to share? I want to hear it! Leave it in the comments below.

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I am a longtime Austinite. Married my beautiful wife over 25 years ago. Adopted our son September 2012. Currently a writer and loving it. Previous jobs and careers include project management, missionary, and pastor. I enjoy sports (both watching and playing), traveling, reading, digging in dirt and hanging with my friends and family.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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