Have you noticed someone needed help, and quickly provided it, only to feel taken advantage of in the end? Maybe you helped an employee out of a financial jam, only to see them continue to make bad decisions. Perhaps you spent hours coaching a colleague who ultimately ignored your advice. Possibly you’ve stepped in to rescue an unprepared teammate and later realized from now on you’re expected to save the day.
In a time of need, almost everyone feels the pull of generosity. Yet at the same time, we can’t help but worry that our generosity won’t help in the long run—or worse, that it will have negative consequences personally or professionally.
“Not knowing how to balance these impulses can create inner turmoil,” says Gary Harpst, author of Built to Beat Chaos: Biblical Wisdom for Leading Yourself and Others. “We want to help other people, but are stuck wondering, ‘Does this person even deserve my help?’ or ‘Am I being taken advantage of?’ or even ‘Is giving this person a fish keeping them from learning to fish themselves?’”
These are very human feelings and valid concerns, asserts Harpst. And they pose a real dilemma for would-be givers and helpers. We shouldn’t let these concerns harden our hearts to generosity. On the other hand, constantly giving to people who do not maximize their own time and resources might invite them to squander ours.
“To navigate this, we need to embrace a mindset that I call ‘responsible generosity,’” says Harpst. “It requires us to examine our own motives and to really think about what the other person needs long-term. It is not a ‘get out of giving free’ card; in fact, it may require us to give more of ourselves, which is much harder but more meaningful than writing a check.”
Here are a few tips to practice responsible generosity:
1. Take a hard look at why you give.
Are you a co-dependent giver? Do you help others because you have a deep need to feel good about yourself, to be loved and appreciated, or to be seen as the smarter, stronger, or more capable person? Are you doing it as a manipulation technique to get the other person to do something for you in return? Your focus should be on how the gift will impact the other person’s life, not on what you’re getting out of it, says Harpst.
“Your focus should be on how the gift will impact the other person’s life, not on what you’re getting out of it.”
“For example, while we’d all like for our generosity to be met with gratitude, do you find yourself thinking, ‘Is this person acting grateful enough?’” he advises. “This only sets us up for resentment when people don’t react the way we think they should. Or, have you started thinking of yourself as a ‘savior’ whose role is to swoop in and save the day?
“Keep your ego out of the equation and stop worrying about whether the other person ‘deserves’ it,” he adds. “Very few of us, if any, deserve the grace and good fortune that comes our way. Try to stay focused on the other person’s needs and how you can truly help them.”
2. Consider if short-term help will set someone up for long-term failure.
When we are constantly saving others from the natural consequences of their actions, we rob them of an opportunity to experience accountability. Because they’re not motivated to do better, they don’t improve and grow. By perpetually helping them, we keep them from ever becoming self-reliant. Sometimes the most loving thing to do is to say no.
“Sometimes the most loving thing to do is to say no.”
“If your teammate has a pattern of coming to meetings unprepared, and you consistently pick up her slack, what you’re teaching her is that you’ll always be there to cover for her,” he says. “This sets up a dangerous long-term pattern of reliance and makes it harder for her to learn responsibility. Better to let her experience the natural consequences of not doing the work. Constantly saving the day might feel good to you, but it’s not helping her in the long run.”
3. Think beyond financial giving – time and wisdom can be far more powerful.
There are many times when simply writing a check is not the best way to be generous. Instead, we should think critically about how to be generous with all our resources, including time and wisdom/knowledge. If you know someone who is constantly in need of financial rescuing, the best way to help might be to guide them to a better way of living.
“If an employee, coworker, or friend is frequently in trouble, we may have the time or money to offer immediate assistance, but guidance, coaching, and accountability are often more valuable,” says Harpst. “You might offer to help with budgeting or time management, for example. Just be sure not to do it in a judgmental way; always come from a place of love. You might even ask them if they’d like you to be their accountability partner in the future to help them stay on track.”
4. Set reasonable conditions for gifts.
If it’s clear to you that a person is trapped in a self-destructive pattern, you can often help them break out of it by asking them to make small, incremental behavior changes in exchange for your assistance. Tell them up front that if they don’t follow through, there will be no more help. Just be sure to use this tough love not as a club or punishment but as a motivation to change. Helping people win by taking steps to improve their life is good for them and good for you too.
“Helping people win by taking steps to improve their life is good for them and good for you too.”
“I once had a friend who would frequently get into financial jams and ask for a ‘loan,’ which never got paid back,” Harpst relays. “He was constantly job-hopping for an extra 50 cents an hour. Those jobs often looked better to him but turned out to be temporary; he would get laid off and come back asking for more. Finally, after yet another request, I agreed to help if he would agree to stay at his current job for a full year, regardless of how much more he could make elsewhere. He stuck to this agreement and learned the value of steady income that he could depend on.”
5. Amplify the impact of your generosity.
Giving money directly to people who need it is not always the best way to help. A classic example is when someone struggling with addiction uses a donation to buy drugs rather than food—perpetuating the destructive cycle they’re trapped in. Community networks are designed to help people through tough times. If you feel called to give but lack the time and energy to make sure your gift is used responsibly, find a partner in your community who can.
“In most communities, there are amazing groups like churches, non-profits, and charity groups who stay hyper-focused on improving people’s lives long-term,” says Harpst. “Supporting their work, and then helping connect them with those in need, might be the best way to help.
“Before giving money, our church gets to know the family, their needs, and what is causing the issue—and then gives strategically to help people address the root cause,” he adds.
“None of us have unlimited money, time, or energy. That’s true of individuals, and it’s true of companies. We must be good stewards of our resources, or they will quickly be depleted.”
Think about it this way, says Harpst: None of us have unlimited money, time, or energy. That’s true of individuals, and it’s true of companies. We must be good stewards of our resources, or they will quickly be depleted.
“The more responsible we are with our giving, the more we can give,” he asserts. “It’s that simple. And giving, when it’s done with the right spirit, feels great to everyone involved.
Gary Harpst is the author of Built to Beat Chaos: Biblical Wisdom for Leading Yourself and Others. He is the founder and CEO of LeadFirst. LeadFirst was founded in 2000 (as Six Disciplines) with a mission of building effective leaders and helping small and mid-size companies manage change, grow, and execute. Having been a CEO for 40 years, Gary has experienced the challenges of every aspect of business ownership, from start-up to rapid growth to acquiring other companies to being acquired. (Solomon Software, which he co-founded, was purchased by Great Plains and ultimately sold to Microsoft.) He is a keynote speaker, writer, and teacher whose areas of focus include leadership, business, and the integration of faith at work. He has been recognized as one of the Top 100 of the nation’s top thought-leaders in management and leadership by Leadership Excellence magazine. In addition to Built to Beat Chaos, he has written two other books: Six Disciplines for Excellence and Execution Revolution. Learn more at leadfirst.ai.
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