Tag Archive: When helping hurts

Sometimes good intentions aren’t enough.

Take the New York Police Department, who in an attempt to foster better relations with the public decided on this great plan:

“Do you have a photo with a member of the NYPD? Tweet us & tag it #myNYPD. It may be featured on our Facebook,” the department posted on its NYPD News Twitter feed, hoping to fuel a feel-good, low-cost public relations campaign.

Or how about that time in 1986 when:

The whole crazy scheme – known as Balloonfest ’86 – was a fundraising effort organised by the United Way, an attempt to break the world record for simultaneous launch. Disneyland’s 30th Birthday, the year before in Anaheim, was the previous champion. 


What could possibly go wrong, right?

Except maybe THIS…

New York police Tuesday were eating extra helpings of humble pie after asking people to post images of themselves and NYPD officers on Twitter – only to face a deluge of pictures of alleged police brutality.[You can read the rest of the article and see some of the unfortunate pictures over here  in what has overnight become a PR nightmare of epic proportions].

Or perhaps THIS…

Then the “asteroid field” of airborne debris clouded the sky, shut down a runway at a local airport, interrupted the Coast Guard attempts to rescue a pair of fisherman, spooked some prize-winning horses, and generally made a mess of un-biodegradable [edit: apparently the balloons were biodegradable, for what it’s worth] garbage on land. [You can read and see more about this one over here,  including video of a news report from the following day].

Great ideas, but possibly not well thought through. This is an area that non-profits and churches involved in short-term mission trips could well learn from.

Books like ‘When Helping Hurts’ [Steve Corbett, Brian Fikkert] and ‘Toxic Charity’ [Bob Lupton] have started to open up the conversation that some of the well-intentioned activities we take part in may not always benefit those we are attempting to help, and at times may even cause more harm than good.

“Give a man to fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for life. But at some point we also need to ask why the fishing licences are so expensive, who owns the fences around the pond and who has been polluting the pond.”

Great words, if lived out. But too often we get caught up in simply giving people fish [why? because it is easier, brings instant gratification and doesn’t require much personal cost and also everyone likes us when we give them fish and so it feels like we’re doing something helpful]

Jesus had some helpful words to say about this one:

28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? 29 For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, 30 saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’

31 “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33 In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.

Something about counting the cost.

Something about sharing ideas with other people because ‘You might not be the one with the most knowledge when it comes to this particular situation’.

Something huge about relationships and the importance of knowing, listening to and having some measure of understanding the people you are going to be working with.

Something about working with those who you might be doing outreach to as opposed to working at.

Something about long term investment, even if you are doing short term trips, possibly choosing an area and group you connect with on a recurring basis so that you can start to know, listen to better and understand the people and the context you are working with.

Something about possibly building relationship first [and possibly for a long period of time] before rushing in with help, assistance, things.

Something about good intentions being a great start, but sometimes, not enough, and sometimes not by a lot…


It started with a #neknomination [well, let’s be honest – it likely started with a drunk Australian feeling like this was something he thought was a good idea for more people to do?]

an online video’d drinking challenge game where you “film themselves drinking a pint of an alcoholic beverage, usually beer, in one gulp and upload the footage to the web” [wikipedia] and then nominate two other people to do the same, paying it forward so to speak [where “it” was a silly drinking game that has caused the death of up to four different people so far] with the resulting nomination needing to take place within 24 hours.

then it hit South Africa and, in particular, a guy named Brent Lindeque who started out his #neknomination driving in his car and then turned the whole thing on his head by driving up to a guy begging on the side of the road and passing out a sandwich and a cooldrink to the man. the challenge was transformed into RAKnominations and South Africa responded in a big way by filming videos of themselves doing Random Acts of Kindness and challenging others to do the same.

inspired by my mate Howard Fyvie who went and sang to a group of senior citizens and handed out cake and had polaroid pics snapped with them and then being nominated myself by Jono van Deventer who Howie had passed it on to [after he paid for some random lady’s shopping and then serenaded her in Spanish at her car] i endured a hectically crazy busy day trying desperately to make my #neknomination happen to no avail until at 11.15pm i stumbled upon an idea that might work, filmed it and got it edited and uploaded by 7.45 the following morning with minutes to spare.

in my #neknomination that eventually happened, i had a brief conversation with a mate of mine, Richard Bolland, who had expressed some hesitation, particularly to the random and once-off nature of these acts of kindness, seeing them as a great start, but really feeling like if they just happened and were walked away from that maybe they were not the most helpful thing and how do we encourage people who are stepping up and doing great acts, but challenge them to get more deeply and long term involved to be agents of long-term real change?


this morning i awoke to find two that seemed to have longer term effects at least so it feels like we are getting closer:

Ashton Hayes joined in and his #neknomination stepped it up a gear, inviting the whole of South Africa to get involved in rebuilding the burnt-down roof of a house for a woman who looks after 14 children in a local township.

South African fast food chicken join Nandos joined the #neknomination train by renovating the kitchen and dining area at the Sithandiwe Disabled Day Care Centre just outside the Alexandra township.


My friend Dave Gale shares some of his hesitations with the whole RAKnomination vibe:

My main concern with the RAKnominations that have arisen as morphed versions of the drinking dare Neknominations is about motivation.  I’m not objecting to them or wanting to belittle the effort that people have gone to, just questioning what lies behind and drives the actions.

It’s a reaction to a public dare, so it naturally has elements of pride, fear and guilt as motivating factors. People are not so much called to act as they are driven.

Granted, it does force you out of your comfort zone, make you reach into your wallet, challenge your creativity and cause you to look someone less resourced in the eye while you bless them.  But then, most likely you’re gone, back into your world, apart from ‘theirs’.  If it changes you, causes you to linger in ‘their’ world, to get to know them, begin to share resources between you (who says it has to be only one-way traffic?), reduce that economic isolation gap between you, it is a whole different world.

The filming of it and publishing that film adds another dimension.  You need it to prove you really did do something and have earned the right to dare someone else to keep it going.  I understand that, but it feels a bit chain-letterish. Chain-videoish? There’s a new word for you.  Matthew 2 comes to mind.

It should not be about you or anyone else other than the people you feel God is calling you to bless.  It’s about relationship. It’s about resources God as father has placed in your hands. It’s about living in a manner as close as possible to what you’d imagine God would like his Kingdom to operate like.

So, a question I am asking myself of late is: “What does this kingdom of God look like and what is the commander’s objective in this whole kingdom-building deal?”

Best I stop criticising what others are doing, no matter what motivates them, and look to my own heart and actions.  Common Change for me provides an opportunity to begin changing my world, need by need. [where Common Change is the non-profit organisation i, brett, work for where groups of people share resources to empower people in their groups to walk alongside and assist their friends who are in need]

God bless Brett, and keep challenging us to question our motives and live this kingdom life to the full. 


I asked my mate Richard to write some thoughts on this:

“This week I have been sick with the flu. If I didn’t know any better I would walk to the medicine cabinet, pick 2 or 3 random bottles/pills and swallow them in the hope that it would cure me of my illness. Luckily I am wiser than that and have been taught which medicine to take or to visit a doctor and get a medicine prescribed to me.

We often view the poor in the same way and attempt to solve their problems without any knowledge of the consequences of our actions. We give diarrhea tablets to people with a cough and wonder why they’re not getting better or we give a panado to someone who’s broken an arm. Sometimes we even get offended when people correct us and in return shout: “But I gave them medicine, surely it helps in some small way!”. We don’t realize that sometimes we can be doing more harm than good or not solving the problem at all.

I’m hoping that my metaphor is working here and we see that we need knowledge before giving and if we don’t have that knowledge we need to seek it out. The ‘oath to compassionate service’ has really helped me gain that knowledge before giving out the “medicine”: We should never do for others what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves. We should limit one-way giving to emergency situations. We should seek ways to empower through employment, lending, and investing. We should put the interests of the poor above my own self-interest even when it means setting aside my own agenda. We should listen closely to those we seek to help. My hope is that if we follow this oath we would do no harm to the people we are trying to help. “

Richard then referenced the first South African #neknomination video of the guy handing the food to the man on the corner:

The idea of basically handing out food to anyone who seems poor with absolutely no intention to build relationship or understanding. Its a good example of something being very good on the outside, but potentially damaging with no long term help. It’s such a grey area because it makes me feel good watching that video. But we’ve got to ask ourselves how much good it does.

Another good analogy I can think of is the starfish metaphor. Often people think ‘giving’ is like throwing a starfish back into the water. “but its making a difference to that one” When in actual fact all you’re doing to throwing a glass of water onto the starfish and saying that you’ve saved it.


i don’t think Dave or Richard or myself are trying to slam people who have taken part in #neknominations [well except the drinking game people – stop being STUPID – you might be fine at it, but somewhere along the line you are going to challenge someone who isn’t and they will try and up yours and another person will be seriously injured or worse!] or at least the RAKnomination ones… but what we are saying is examine the motivation of the videos and the effect. even with something as amazing as helping rebuild a roof or fixing up the kitchen for a home – stay in contact, build relationship, look for where that person can help you , share stories, get invested and do whatever you do for a longer period of time.

let’s face it, at Common Change, which Dave referenced, we have a saying which goes something like this: It’s not that the rich and the poor don’t like each other, it’s that they don’t know each other. Get to know someone, hear their story and then suddenly you are not faced with random homeless guy, but Peter who is your friend. I tend to want to help my friends and walk journeys with them. Then we will start to see real change.

let’s face it – i am extremely proud that South Africans took a stupid drinking game and added life to it – the acts of kindness have been great, BUT it would be even so much greater if we were able to shift the momentum that has been grown through the RAKnominations and transform it into longer term acts of change that will benefit individuals, families and even whole communities… instead of a 24 hour timeline for creating a video, what if people started committing themselves to get involved volunteering for six months at a place of need in the community… and what if that spread?

i VFSMnominate you South Africa, let’s show the world one more time, that we can lead the way…

[i just watched this clip today which seems to be a lot closer to how these things can look – evidence of relationship already plus also partnering with an organisation that has long-term involvement and knowledge of the community and is made up of people living in the community – more of this please: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MfpfEgJQ_s]

updated 21 Feb: Here is an incredible clip by Shane Vermooten which gets to the heart of what I’m speaking about in terms of inspiring to long-term change and transformation – come on:

i preached a sermon in church last night about how to “correctly handle the word of truth” in terms of reading and knowing and trying to understand the Bible well and not just simply grabbing a verse here and there and using it to back up something we are trying to say.

that is not usthe example i used as an extreme form of example was the Westboro Baptist church who i imagine most of us have heard or seen something of in the media – the ones who pitch up at gay pride marches with “God hates fags” on their signs [often with young children holding these signs and spewing the same kind of hatred their parents do] and who protest veterans funerals and all sorts of crazy things like that.

what i didn’t know when i asked Uncle Google to direct me to their website is that the church website is actually called Godhatesfags and can be found at Godhatesfags.com – that is their church website – it is unbelievable and makes me embarrassed to think that a lot of people might view them and me as pretty much the same because we both fall under some christian banner… [which is why personally i prefer to go under the Jesus-following banner if i need any kind of label ever because as christians it seems to have been pretty easy through the ages to get up to all kinds of crazy stuff, but as people who are truly seeking to follow Jesus it is impossible to end up as part of a group that uses “God hates fags” as a slogan, or a website address].

i mean Westboro makes it easy. there is not a lot of debate, or any, needed when looking at them and their actions and coming to the conclusion that this is not of God. Certainly not the God i am following. Or would want to follow.

…and i’m pretty sure the Bible commands us to call out that kind of garbage… and bring it to the light for what it is.

i imagine that ‘church’ and a lot of their actions make Jesus sad.


as i sat outside our apartment earlier thinking about life and the kingdom of God and things that make Jesus sad while drinking coffee out of my Marvin the Martian mug [could that be one of them? i hope not. i wonder who made the mug. uh-oh.] i pondered to myself [while inviting the Holy Spirit to ponder back] what could be worse than someone living actively not-Christ? [although not in those words – them are just fancy blog words]

could the answer be someone not actively living Christ?

people whose christianity consists of believing the right thing, and going to the right place [church every sunday and maybe home group or cell on a wednesday night] and trying to not be too bad, but otherwise living for themselves.

i’m just not sure that’s enough.

at the same time, i’m not completely sure what the solution is because we can’t all stop human-trafficking or reach out to all of the homeless or visit everyone in hospital and prison and we can’t all be taking on racism at an institutional level or fighting sexism in the workplace or reaching out to victims of sexual abuse and rape and trying to find ways of addressing those two things that don’t make the victors feel like the guilty parties… we can’t do it all. absolutely sure about that one.

but i do strongly feel that we can all do something, or maybe somethings.

with our money. whether tithing it into a church where we know the money is going to greater things than simply buildings and salaries or putting it in programs like Common Change that help us to meet needs of people we know or committing to an organisation or a specific project like my photographer friends Bex and Bruce who came up with a plan to fund some wells in Africa with some of the money they bring in or assisting the woman who cleans your house or the man who takes care of your garden to find ways to get their children through school and into university. and  hundred thousand other great ideas.

volunteerwith our time. whether baking some goodies or making a meal for a new family that moves into your street or complex or for the couple that have just had a new baby, or writing a postcard to someone in prison and building a relationship with them or visiting someone in hospital. volunteering at the local homeless shelter or seniors home. offering to babysit for a couple you know who have been finding it tough being parents of young children and just giving them a night [or a weekend] off. grabbing some friends and some gardening equipment and arriving at someone’s house who is too sick, tired, or old to get to the work that needs to be done and volunteer to do it for them.

with our creativity, education, knowledge, transport, cameras… the list goes on – there is someone who doesn’t have what we have and is not able to do what we can do and so drawing alongside them

[oh and yes books like ‘Toxic Charity’ and ‘When Helping Hurts’ and others have made the idea of helping other people very scary in many ways because what if we harm the very people we are trying to help because we are doing it the wrong way? You know what i think? Start with building some kind of significant relationship with the person you are trying to help and it will probably be a lot harder to get it horribly wrong. don’t let the fear of doing it wrong paralyse you from doing anything. just be better prepared maybe.]

so while the Godhatesfags ‘church’ makes God very sad, i imagine the people who profess Jesus with their mouths but don’t follow it up with their actions make Him sad too. [there is a lot of stuff about plants producing fruit and salt losing its saltiness in Matthew 7 and other places around the Bible, i’m not making this up]


which brings me to the third category and maybe the most significant one for me to be pondering on. because i doubt i can do a whole lot about the Westboro Baptist church and pretty much the majority of the people in the second category are not going to be the people who are going to be reading this and nodding and heading off to change anything [a quick ‘we’re not supposed to judge’ note in the comments section below perhaps] and so i will still continue to speak into and preach into that group of people when given the opportunities…

but it’s me. i mean that’s the answer right? the only person i can really change is myself, brett fish anderson [where fish seems to be proved more and more to be something i’m desperately aiming at as opposed to anything i hit regularly enough] and so that is really where i have to look.

and i do and i have and i am and a lot of it just leaves me with questions that i am struggling to answer.

and that is really the purpose of this post [and posts, cos i imagine there will be more, this is already getting a bit long] – not to point the finger or judge other people who are not getting it right. but to stand before the mirror [as i will stand before God one day] and really genuinely ask, what is the shape of your faith at the moment? of your life? where are you living out the message? where else do you need to be?

with the hope that there is someone else out there who maybe needed a little prod like this to sit alongside me and ask themselves the same question.

what i do know is that the end point of this exercise if not condemnation. i believe there is a very thin line between condemnation and conviction and for me the difference is in where you end up. condemnation leaves you in a weeping mess on the floor. whereas conviction inspires you and lifts you and propels you to action. the problem is that they can both feel the same. but only one is helpful. and i believe that only one is from God [if you’re not sure, it’s the second one!]

it is important though that we take and make times to look in the mirror, prepared to deal honestly and effectively with whatever we see when we look there. that is the place where i am trying to be right now. there is space on the floor next to me if anyone wants to join me.



[For more thoughts of a more me-focused nature in the post ‘What makes Jesus sadder too, click here]

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