How to Serve the Poor without Causing More Harm than Good

I serve on the board of a local non-profit, Partners in Hope Lake Travis, that serves families who need hope. I use that term intentionally.


Courtesy of Partners in Hope

Courtesy of Partners in Hope

Usually when someone observes the lifestyle of one of these families, they see that they need to clean up their yard, fix their roof, build a wheelchair ramp or repair a fence. While all this may be true, and Partners in Hope serves the families in these ways, it’s not the main thing the families need.

They need hope.

During the nearly five-year existence of Partners in Hope, over 400 unique volunteers have served 50 plus families. The ministry has grown over those five years, hiring a full-time executive director in 2014, adding other family work days, fellowship or community building opportunities to name a few things.

Now the board sees the need to fine tune the ministry.

Why? We want to serve these families and enlist passionate volunteers without causing more harm—to either the families served or the volunteers serving.

Many non profits, churches and people spend lots of resources with the intent of helping the less fortunate. However, over time the efforts cause more harm than good.

If my statement is true, that much of the efforts to help end up actually doing more harm, why is it true? It’s true because we misunderstand what the problem is and what is the solution. Therefore because the effort to help is built on a faulty premise, the results are not only lacking but harmful.

Think of it this way…

We have two groups of people.

  1. Those struggling with poverty. At least on the surface it seems that they are in poverty. So, they have a need.
  2. Those who want to help. Regardless of their motivation, they spend their time, money or some other resource they own to help. They have an opportunity.


This is where the challenge lies.

When volunteers, who have a multitude of motivations, think that the solution is solely to meet the material need of someone in poverty, they misunderstand not only what that person or family needs, but also who they are themselves and what they need.

One reality is that volunteers usually focused on their own need or reason to “help”.

Helping someone in need gives us a sense of fulfillment. We feel that we have done a good deed. And we assume that the person we helped benefitted.

They probably did for a moment. But are they any closer to a life free from poverty? Do they have any more hope for a better life? Was their true need met?

Or was the need of the volunteer met more fully? A need for accomplishment, obligation, or something more transactional like community service hours?

If the real need for those in poverty is to have hope, then do our service projects that focus solely on the material need help or cause more harm?

When we began Partners in Hope, a few of us read When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself.

This book provides an excellent foundation for what Partners in Hope hopes to carry out.

At our last board meeting, we spent time discussing this quote from When Helping Hurts:

…there is also a loss of meaning, purpose, and hope that plays a major role in the poverty in North America. The problem goes well beyond the material dimension, so the solutions must go beyond the material as well.”

Corbett, Steve; Fikkert, Brian (2014-01-24). When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself (pp. 51-52). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

These thoughts bubbled up from our conversation:

  • Hope is what is needed
  • Those battling poverty struggle with aloneness
  • Material help only is not the solution

As we talked we recognized that the volunteers have just much of a need as does the family they are serving. It may just manifest itself a little differently.

Those volunteering have just as much need as those they serve.

The question remains—How do we serve the poor without causing more harm?

I think it begins with understanding that both groups of people have a need. It’s not so much the volunteer that solely has an opportunity. It is the interaction between two groups of people, coming from two different paradigms, that creates an opportunity. An opportunity for both to work together to meet each others needs and to receive from each other.

As a ministry, we see that we can bring  together those in need and volunteers willing to serve. And, if the following happens, I think that both will find what they need:

  • Willingness to Invest Time. Forming a relationship takes more time than just a one time event.
  • Willingness to Trust. Inviting someone into relationship demands trust, especially when one thinks he is superior to the other.
  • Willingness to Understand. We tend to “understand” through our lens. A person who isn’t struggling with material poverty doesn’t always understand how a person who lives in poverty approaches life.
  • Willingness to Extend and Receive Grace. This misunderstanding requires grace.
  • Willingness to Hear Truth. Regardless of which group we find ourselves, it helps to embrace truth about what we need.

This list at least provides a starting point to really help those in need and not cause more harm.

Our relationship to the materially poor should be one in which we recognize that both of us are broken and that both of us need the blessing of reconciliation. Our perspective should be less about how we are going to fix the materially poor and more about how we can walk together, asking God to fix both of us.”

Corbett, Steve; Fikkert, Brian (2014-01-24). When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself (p. 75). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Bottom line – we all come from a place of poverty needing restoration “to a full expression of who God created us to be…”

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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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5 thoughts on “How to Serve the Poor without Causing More Harm than Good

  1. Well. ..PIH has truly “changed my life “… helped clean up our land as well as, MOST IMPORTANTLY; brought us so much closer to God. And since I lost my husband almost 1yr ago ….well I cannot imagine his passing on without Matt and others met thru PIH & our Church family support and loving people at the time ,as well as today! !! Therefore. ..YEP…I can say with all my heart “Yes PIH has affected my life in the most beautiful and amazing ways.” And it’s a fact, God really does work in Amazing Ways ! God Bless everyone with PIH .♡♡☆♢♡☆

  2. Couldn’t agree more. When I first read the title, I thought to myself they need hope and love.

    I might add empowerment to that. These people need to see that they are capable of making the changes they need, and that not everything will just be handed to them.

    I think the willingness to understand is the hardest part. In counseling, we talk about entering the client’s subjective world, or a phenomenological approach. It’s really difficult to do that when we have all sorts of lenses we are viewing things from. I have found that being present in the moment and doing my best to fully understand their struggles certainly helps!