How to Offer to Help Someone

If you’ve ever been moved to help someone, whether by sympathy for their hardship or excitement for their success, you probably did what most of us do.  Made a well-meaning general offer.

“Hey, I’m so sorry for what you’re going through.  Let me know what I can do to help.”


“I love what you’re doing!  I’m here to help in any way.”

These are not bad offers.  They successfully signal comradery and provide a little bump in mood to the recipient.  But they don’t deliver the kind of help that sticks.  If you really want to do more than signal your sympathy (you are not obligated to do more, so only do if you really want to) you’ve got to get specific.

My nephew passed away two years ago.  Our entire family was in shock and mourning.  Sympathy cards and thoughts flowed in to my sister and her husband.  It was overwhelming to see the support, and it did them good.  Many offered to help and meant it, but it’s just too hard while grieving to think of something a friend or neighbor or stranger can do for you, and it feels weird to ask.  The greatest help came from those who didn’t ask what they could do.  They just noticed something and did it.  They bought dinner.  They took the kids out to get new shoes.  They cleaned the house.

It’s the same for support with exciting projects.  I get a lot of emails from people saying they’re excited about Praxis and want to help.  I love these emails.  It’s great to know people share my excitement for our vision and progress.  There are a rare few who do more than signal.  They don’t ask, they offer or do something specific.  I’ll never forget just after launch when Zak Slayback contacted me and said, “I want to help.  Let me manage your social media pages.”  He had a good reputation and I needed help so I let him.  Then he started doing other things like setting up email newsletters, improving the website, writing blog posts, going to events, and creating marketing material.  Pretty soon we couldn’t live without him and he was hired.  Others help without asking how by making an email introduction to a business partner or potential participant.

It’s perfectly fine and in many cases preferable to let people know you care.  But for those times when you’re really moved to provide support or help a project move forward challenge yourself to not give any open-ended offers.  Before saying, “I’m with you and here to help”, think long and hard about what needs to be done and what you are able to do.  The more specific the better, even if it’s a rather mundane task.  You might have to get creative, but if you learn to offer help in practical solutions instead of generic words you will change people’s lives forever.  They won’t forget.

A lot of what we do in life is signaling.  That’s OK so far as it goes, but it often muddies our ability to identify cause and effect.  Pretty soon we start to believe bumper stickers and ribbons equal change or progress.  It’s the same on the individual level and society at large.  If you push yourself to figure out what will really help, instead of what will signal your desire to help, you’ll begin to see the world anew.


What if ‘The Least of These’ are Criminals?

Nearly every religious and ethical system places a high value on helping those who need it most – those who can do little to help themselves, and who have fewest opportunities, and fewest advocates.  But who are “the least of these”?

People who feel a calling to help the down-and-out often work in cancer research, the Red Cross, international humanitarian organizations, or soup kitchens.  These are all noble efforts.  But in a way, these are the easy targets, and the ones who get the most attention from charity workers.  There are other individuals who actually have significantly less access to assistance, and who are more consistently abused and taken advantage of.

Who are “the least of these”?  Illegal immigrants.  Drug dealers.  Prostitutes.  Felons.  Those accused of crimes who are assigned a public defender.  It is these members of society who are most consistently abused, and who have nowhere to turn and no one who thinks them worthy of assistance. They are in the most difficult position of all, precisely because they are not all wonderful, innocent people.  Some of them might be scoundrels, though innocent of whatever particular charges they face.  Some of them may be decent people.  No one knows, and they rarely get a chance at a fair hearing.  All the incentives are against them.  Law enforcement and prosecutors pad their stats and claim they’re making the world safer by abusing and locking them up.  Public defenders have no incentive to prove them innocent.  The general public assumes that because they seem less than trustworthy in some things, or because they’ve broken the law, they’re probably guilty of whatever they’re accused of and deserving of whatever punishment.  Who would stick their neck out for them?

Working with cancer patients or the innocent poor of the third world is not only fulfilling for many people, but it also makes them look good in the eyes of the public.  But helping accused criminals, drug dealers, prostitutes or illegal immigrants might destroy your reputation.  It’s relatively easy to help people who are seen as good people on hard times.  But what about risking your reputation to help the seedier members of society who are on the wrong side of the law?

What if you told me your one passion in life was to help those least able to help themselves: What if I told you the way to do the most good for those that most need it was to help illegal immigrants avoid harassment by state officials, or to fund legal defense for those accused of crimes who are given a public defender?  Would you do it?

I don’t think anyone is obligated to take a career helping others.  Nor do I think charity efforts are the only or best way to help others.  Indeed, producing, creating and exchanging in the free market, and cultivating the ideas of freedom to do so are more powerful in the long run than all these efforts.  But for those who feel the most fulfillment helping the least of these in the short term, it may be worthwhile to consider deeply who the least are.  Yes, it is a subjective evaluation – a rich and famous person without a friend may be desperately needy.  I am not claiming we can know in any objective sense who are the least.  But we might try expanding our paradigm.

Consider those labelled scoundrels.  Consider those called criminals.  Jesus risked his reputation by hanging out with the unclean riff-raff of society.  Not just the noble poor, but the prostitutes.  He didn’t care that the law condemned them to death.  He dealt with them on their merits as human beings, not their status in the man-made legal system.

Most assistance efforts have a non-criminal record as a precondition to receiving help.  Maybe that blocks the very people who need the most help from getting it.  The laws of man do not determine who is and is not worthy of help.  Don’t let them distract you from offering it.