CFMC Brief: People Need a Hand Up, Not a Handout

Churches in America provide more dollars and volunteers to offer food, clothing and shelter, but spend less to address why (i.e. addictions) people are in poverty. (Courtesy of Freedom & Virtue Institute)


It’s the time of year when families and friends gather together to celebrate the holidays with food and gifts. For some of us, it’s also when we think about the “less fortunate” and extend a helping hand with a blanket or a bag of food.

It’s the right thing to do, correct? We give to the poor, walk away and feel good about what we’ve done. But, are we really helping them? A week later, after the good deed has been done, we’ll find the same people in their same situation.

We’ve given them a hand-out instead of a hand-up, and that must change for people to be set free from a mindset of entitlement and shame to one of dignity, respect and productivity.

According to Ismael Hernandez, founder and executive director of Freedom & Virtue Institute (Ft. Myers, FL), our belief system about poverty as individuals, communities, agencies, governments, etc. needs to radically change. Why? Because, the “helping hands” we extend enable, rather than empower people to remain in their current situations.

“I dislike the words ‘poverty’ and ‘poor’ because it puts our focus on what’s lacking in that person versus what is their potential and what they can offer society,” said Hernandez. “Having masses of people in line to get stuff is not the road to wholeness. We must respect and treat each other with dignity and believe in them. Everyone has something to give, and starting to give back with their talents is the easiest way to realize they have something to offer others.”

Hernandez was in Martinsville in early October and taught an Effective Compassion Workshop to a group of local community, nonprofit and business leaders. The workshop was sponsored by the Community Foundation of Morgan County (CFMC), which believes “effective compassion” is the right way to address the many needs in Morgan County, and beyond.

Regardless of the situations of the many individuals and families in need, those of us involved in churches, food pantries, and other service organizations must use discernment and have compassion when trying to help someone. A couple of questions we must first ask ourselves are: “Is the situation an emergency or one that will likely continue?” and “Am I empowering or enabling someone?” The right answers will only come when we start building relationships with people.

One of seven principles for effective compassion, bonding with people allows us to discover why they’re having problems and empower them to be part of the solution. (Courtesy of Freedom & Virtue Institute)

We understand there will always be the elderly living on fixed incomes or working families where one parent loses a job or is injured and they’re struggling to make ends meet until the lost income is restored. However, children in poverty don’t have the luxury to make decisions for themselves. Until we have honest conversations with individuals and families capable of working but who refuse to do so while relying on the government or others to take care of them, we can’t empower them to break the cycle and become their own models for a sustainable future. They’ll only continue the downward spiral of generational poverty which is then transferred to their children, grandchildren and beyond. We don’t believe that’s compassion for our fellow man.

Our eyes must be open to see if a person is working to change their circumstance or not. If so, the best thing we can do for them is encourage and empower. Offer resources and tools they can use to get back on their feet. If they refuse to change, wish them well and let them know they can return when they’re ready to do something different.

That sounds harsh, but if we continue to give and give and give without expecting them to sustain themselves, they’ll never experience the consequences of poor choices. How do our children learn about good and poor choices if we never let them fall and fail?

Food pantries and other related organizations can do something to change this scenario by partnering with local agencies (i.e. employment, health, finance) to offer employment, health, legal, financial and other services when people show up for help.

It’s time to rewire our minds and actions on giving and start practicing “effective compassion.”

Effective Compassion enables and empowers people by providing tools and training on how to care and provide for themselves in the future. In doing so, the giver teaches the recipient to be independent rather than dependent on others.

There are seven principles of effective compassion taught by the Freedom & Virtue Institute:

  • Affiliation – Connect with people and help people reconnect. Build relationships and seek to restore/reconcile them with families/friends whenever possible.
  • Bonding – Helping one person at a time. People are not numbers. Bonding goes deeper to meet human needs, rather than “putting out a fire.” It also allows us to challenge and empower.
  • Categorization – Treating each person individually. It’s just the opposite of what happens in welfare. A person is not entitled based simply on need. We must understand people in the same economic situation may have different values/lifestyles and thus, require different treatment (someone willing to work versus someone who only wants a hand out).
  • Discernment – Be a good steward, give responsibly and demand responsibly. Helping others requires mind, heart and muscle (action) – intentionally thinking about why and how we give. We must change our “traditional” methods (heart and muscle) of service by giving a “hand up” instead of a “hand out.”
  • Employment – Demand work. Jobs offer opportunities to end the cycle of dependency. Nonprofits and agencies must focus more on showing the way towards self-reliance. We get more of what we incentivize. If we incentivize poverty, we get more poor people, but if we focus strongly on work, we get more people working. The latter breaks a vicious cycle and lessens the sense of entitlement.
  • Freedom – Reducing boundaries to enterprise. Obstacles are instruments for success. If we impede others the freedom to struggle because we want to “help,” we deprive them of the opportunity to grow and succeed. People must be allowed to fail, if that’s what they choose. Failure is a teacher. Those who persevere can move away from poverty.
  • God – We are not just flesh. The work to end poverty goes beyond the material need. True philanthropy must consider the spiritual needs of people. God created us to be free, with dignity and to flourish. We must give in a way that doesn’t hinder a person’s choice and ability to get out of poverty and stay out.

To break the cycle of poverty, we must demonstrate effective compassion towards at-risk children by teaching them how to become self-reliant. The Freedom & Virtue Institute sponsors Young Entrepreneur Fairs where students can demonstrate and/or sell products they have made.

In 2010, Ismael founded the Freedom & Virtue Institute. “Instead of asking ‘what is poverty,’ we should be asking ‘what is human flourishing,’” Hernandez said. “The Freedom & Virtue Institute promotes human dignity, individual liberty and economic initiative. That dignity emerges when opportunity meets dedication and when the person is placed at the center of our focus and efforts. ‘How may I help you?’ is not the greeting we should offer. ‘We believe in you and we need you’ is the best encouragement we can offer them to be the protagonists of their own lives.”

It’s time for our community, instead of the government, to become more involved in the lives of our neighbors who are struggling and allow them to be part of the solution. Whether it’s mentoring an at-risk student at John R. Wooden Middle School, connecting with a single mom at church, or volunteering at a local nonprofit, we must work together to offer solutions and open doors of opportunity for individuals and families wanting to get out of poverty.

In early 2019, CFMC will host another Effective Compassion Workshop with Ismael Hernandez. For more information about this workshop, send an email to or call (765) 813-0003.

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