The Best Kind of Giving: How to Help People Help Themselves This Holiday Season

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This recent holiday season, my wife and I have been trying to ramp up in our giving. She has tried to find a couple of families we could sponsor in the area who don’t have money and cannot afford Christmas. In our efforts so far, we have run into a lot of people trying to cheat the system or pretend they need help when really they need to change their thinking. We have run into a mom and dad who were likely on some type of drugs while taking care of their one and two-year old. A family of seven living in a hotel room who were incredibly grateful but were making many poor choices that kept them in that position.

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How Can You Really Help People?

My wife bought many presents for the children of these families and gave away some of our kids’ toys as well. We are trying to teach our kids to help others in need at an early age and let them know they are very lucky. Even though we are giving presents to the children, I don’t think our actions did a thing to change the lives of the adults. It was almost like both families wanted us to leave as quickly as possible so they could get their presents.

I have been trying to think of ways to motivate people and help them change their lives, but I have had no epiphanies. I thought about giving them motivational books or CDs, but those do nothing to help people if they are not willing to help themselves. My wife mentioned the movie: The Pursuit of Happyness with Will Smith and how she wished the people she was helping were like the character in that movie who risked everything to make a better life for his son. Ironically, last night we caught the last half of the movie on television before we went to bed.

Related: Flippers: Save on Trash Outs AND Help the Community With This Tip

The Pursuit of Happyness

The Pursuit of Happyness is almost ten years old now, but is still an amazing movie. If it doesn’t make you cry, you probably are not human. The basic premise is that Will Smith is a single father with a five-year old son in San Francisco in the 1980’s. He has no job and no money, but he is smart and wants to be a stock broker. He manages to get an internship at a huge company as a middle aged man when everyone else is straight out of college. During the course of the internship, he loses his hotel room, lives in a shelter and sleeps on the subway, all the time with his son. He doesn’t get paid for the internship, but he makes a little money selling medical scanners on the side.

The character doesn’t sleep, barely eats, but he makes sure his son is taken care of, and he works his butt off to make something of his life. In the end he gets the internship, which is where the movie ends, but this was also a true story. The character goes on to start his own company and becomes a millionaire.

How Can This Story Help People?

This movie is all about chasing a dream and risking everything to make your life better. Many of us are in a position where we do not have to risk everything or live in a shelter to chase our dreams. That may be a good or bad thing; sometimes it takes hitting rock bottom to see a huge change and motivate someone to go after what they really want. If you live in comfort your entire life, you may never have the motivation to go for what would really make you happy in life.

I think this movie got to me so much, not just because of the five-year old living on the streets with his father, but because his father was willing to do so much — to do anything to make his life better. It is so rare to see that motivation in people at any level, and it bothers me that so many people float through life without trying.

Can This Movie Help People Get Motivated?

My thoughts are that a movie that shows someone work so hard and risk so much may motivate those who do nothing to help themselves. Would a copy of this movie move people to change their lives, or would they simply look at it as a one in a million story that is impossible for them? I would hope it might change a few people, but in the end, most would not take the time to watch it or would not get the message.

Even so… helping one person still makes a difference.

I may sound down and depressed about the whole helping people situation, but the truth is, I am very lucky, and it is my obligation to help others if I can. I am helping out another family in California through a company I work with, and I am going to send a copy of the movie in the package we have put together. Maybe it will help somebody change their life, and if you can help just one person, then the effort that goes wasted on others is all worth it.

Related: 6 Reasons Landlords Should Thank Their Tenants This Holiday Season

What Will the Future Hold?

I am not trying to sound like a great person because I am helping these families. The truth is, I have not done nearly as much as I could in the past, and I have a lot to make up for. The more I help others and the more I give, the more I realize it is not money that helps people, but the thought and time expended.

Throwing money at people who don’t have much is a nice way to help someone in the short-term. To really help people in the long-term, you have to change the way they think. The hard part is figuring out what will help people change and make them realize they are capable of much more than they believe — maybe through a book, maybe through a movie or maybe through nothing. But if you don’t try to help, you will never know if you could change someone’s life.

What are you doing to help this holiday season, and what ideas do you have to change someone’s life, not just provide them short-term comfort?  

Let’s help each other do good this holiday season with some great tips in the comments section below!

About Author

Mark Ferguson

Mark is Real Estate Broker and investor in Greeley, Colorado. Mark invests in long-term SFR rental homes and also does 8-15 fix and flips a year. Mark started a blog this year that focuses on investing in long term single family rentals.

21 Comments

  1. Suzette Lefort on

    Well said Mark. Let’s make 2015 the year where we care a bit more about what is happening around us. Time and effort doesn’t cost anything…maybe it is our thinking that needs changing. Bless you and you family!!! Merry Xmas!!

  2. Melanie Smith

    Great article! I’ve had very similar experience with the holiday outreach giving, and it can be wonderful, eye opening, and a little frustrating all at the same time. That discomfort has worked for me to find other ways to get more involved. I has to ask myself where I could add value to people’s lives. For me that arena is personal financial planning (something many of those adults need to learn) so I became a leader at our churches financial workshop (that was also open to the public). So I was connecting with people who were open to taking that step, though many of them aren’t entirely ready. But I felt like I was finally Doug some lasting good through the relationships I was forming. I think that’s the key – finding ways to come alongside people on a regular basis so you catch them in an open place. Not to say the holiday outreach isn’t good, too, but since it’s a one time thing and feels so much like charity, I think peoples defenses are just up more. I’m very curious to hear what has worked for other people!

      • Deanna Opgenort

        I have lived in an all-roommate household for 15 years. I can say that in that time I have seen that money MANAGEMENT is far, far more important that income in predicting who will be paying their bills early vs who will try to be “just a few days late”. I have had a roommate on disability ($890/month in Southern CA.) who faithfully paid every single bill on-time 100% of the time, while at the other extreme another roommate was making $50k/year who would run regularly run out of lunch money by the end of the week (though did pay bills on time).

  3. I can feel your frustration. But I think it fair to say that you aren’t really seeing the father who is going to any length to gain a goal. You may actually be seeing people who are getting a tremendous degree of assistance from many programs and don’t realize how much they have already because of a society that truly has a hard time recognizing the difference between homeless and publicly funded.

  4. Cordell Martin

    I’ve had similar experiences with giving to others who want to ‘accept’ the gift, then leave or close the door as quickly as possible. You might like the book ‘Toxic Charity’ by Robert D. Lupton. Discusses what you mentioned of ‘helping others help themselves.’ Thanks for the article & all your contributions!

  5. I concur with you that monetary giving only provides a short term relief. Often, the recipient expects more and may get disappointed or mad if you stop giving. The best in my opinion is to help someone get on their feet and motivate them by spending time and teaching them the rope of how to achieve them. Thank you.

  6. Scott Trench

    Really enjoyed this article. This is one of the reasons why I love working at BiggerPockets. The people on this site have already decided to help themselves, and I think that this community empowers and encourages them in continuing that growth.

    The problem is this – how do we reach the people that aren’t motivated, that don’t want to try, aren’t willing to work, do their share, and participate? That’s a much harder problem to solve, as your article so insightfully illuminates. I’ve also spent some time on that one, and for the time being I prefer to work towards helping those that are willing to help themselves. Motivating those that lack ambition has proved beyond me… for now.

  7. vicki gleitz

    One of the many things we have done [in addition to the things you are opposed to] We have an ice cream shop and used to be allowed to sell other items as well [when the club found out how much we were selling they started selling themselves, so we are no longer allowed to do this. We used to find beautiful stones, tools, findings, etc. on sale and bring them to a womans day shelter. While there, we would teach a few about jewelry design [though most of them were better at it than I am] give them supplies that they would need to make the jewelry [ yes, many of them we never saw again, oh well] We would then sell their jewelry at the shop and at a few other nudist resorts. ALL profits went to the jewelry maker. Did we change lives? I know of 2 who went on to become totally self sufficient. Many others, unable to work a “real” job, made a few extra bucks a week and totally turned their self-esteem around.

    My sister used to be active in the Big Sister/ Little Sister programs. I do not know if that program even exists anymore but she went to 2 college graduations. Even if that program is no longer in existence, there are still SO many ways to mentor.

    We have fed tens of thousands over the years [NOT crappy balogna sandwiches] and a few have actively searched for us to let us know that the caring and hope we gave them was the inpetus they needed to turn their lives around. The others? Knowing that we were easing their pain, even for a few minutes was more than worth it [ if you do this, please bring clean, used socks]

    I cannot remember the name of the place, but there is a HUGE charity group that assists homeless women looking for work. They are given one high quality outfit for looking for work. That is clothing, shoes, bag, makeup everything…all donated by the community. They are given free hair styling and work hand in hand with groups that help them with applications, resumes, computer skills,and practice interviews. After being hired, they are given 3 additional outfits. This is a great place to donate nice clothing, money, and time.

    At the same womens’ day shelter I mentioned,[ The Gathering Place, in Denver] there are financial and goal planning classes, computer classes, and GED classes [ in addition to food, referral services, clothing, etc]

    There are so many ways to help others help themselves. [ please keep in mind that many cannot] Please remember that they really have no motivation for long-term goals if their stomachs are growling in hunger, or they wonder if they are going to be raped [yet again] or worse,under the bridge where they will sleep that night.

    I am not a christian, but I try to follow Jesus’ teachings about the poor. I believe that all-in-all, his teachings were loving, compassionate, and wise.

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