When Helping Doesn’t Help

“I get the jitters asserting that helping can be harmful,” says Maurice Lim Miller, founder and CEO of the Family Independence Initiative, in his Huffington Post blog post When Helping Doesn’t Help.

Lim Miller takes John McKnight’s well-known position that helpers can do more harm than good because those being helped are automatically defined solely by their deficits, not their gifts.

Lim Miller’s approach to economic mobility is akin to John’s on community building: to recognize how resourceful and resilient low-income people are, to acknowledge their strengths, and trust them to “lead their own change.” FII has done exactly that for more than a decade. “When we respect families to lead their own change and give them access to resources the way middle and upper class people access them,” Lim Miller says, “they begin to transform their lives.” As he explains in his blog post:

Doing this effectively means curbing the “helping” impulse and changing interventionist practices. It means giving people the time to make mistakes and figure out their own lives. FII staff are trained to stand back and let families lead. To allow people to develop their ideas and to look for answers in their own communities. This approach shifts power, putting the control in the hands of the families. It also communicates trust and respect. We tell families, “You know your family and your skills better than we can ever know them. We know you can figure it out and then we will be able to learn from you.” 

The staff is forbidden to counsel, direct, or lead. If they do, they are fired, which has happened a few times when someone could not help but be “helpful.” Instead, we train our staff to ask questions: “What do you think should be done?” and “Do you know of anyone that successfully did what you want to do? Can you ask them for help?” The best and most culturally relevant solutions are imbedded in community and people build and strengthen their social networks when they look to friends and neighbors who have successfully faced similar challenges.

Boston Globe writer Yvonne Abraham tells the story of a staff member of the Oakland FII whom Lim Miller forbade to “help” a family by preventing them from getting into a mortgage from a predatory lender. After the family got the loan, other families helped to fix up the house so it could be refinanced on better terms. “Then, seeing what was possible,” Abraham reports, “they bought homes, too.” None of that would have happened if his people had intervened, Lim Miller believes.

The FII approach shows how families and neighborhoods are the best source of culturally relevant answers to challenges in the community and how people create and strengthen their relationships when they look to friends and neighbors who have successfully faced similar issues. “Every person and every family has its strengths and weaknesses,” Lim Miller says. “By changing how we ‘help’ we send a strong affirmative message of trust and respect.”

Not to mention making it possible for people to transform their communities and their lives.


Maurice Lim Miller received the MacArthur Fellowship “Genius  Award” in October 2012 for his work based on the premise that families with strong social networks and access to resources based on their initiative can and do create their own paths of economic mobility. He is the CEO of the national Family Independence Initiative, which he founded in 2001. More . . .

For more on FII’s work check out:

When Helping Doesn’t Help, Huffington Post blog post by Maurice Lim Miller

Program Helps Families Create Their Own Solutions, Boston Globe article by Yvonne Abraham

Family Independence Initiative website

Taking the Initiative, PBS/WNET Need to Know segment by Mona Iskander

Thanks to Molly Lohr, executive director of ReSource, for suggesting this article.





Photos: Ladder by Naama; Maurice Lim Miller Family Independence Initiative

About the Lead Author

Leslie Stephen
Leslie Stephen
Leslie Stephen is the editor of The Abundant Community book and website.

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