Why I Refuse to ‘Just Help Out’


If I try to explain “community sensitization” and “needs & asset assessment“, I watch eyes glaze over. As interesting as being an accountant I suppose ..

Many people ask me what I actually do when I show up in a new country. Do I pick up the tools and help out in a garden project, do I build the walls or hire people to build? Am I training people on how to start a new business? Handing out food, water, clothing and blankets from the back of a truck?

What does it look like?

Some wonder why I don’t “just start helping people out!?” I have one really important reason why:

I want the projects that I am involved in to last beyond me

I want someone other than me to own the project. I leave.  I always leave and so will you. If you like the idea of starting a sustainable partnership, then how you think about a project will make it succeed or fail.

  • Whoever starts a project owns the project.
  • Whoever pays for the project owns the project
  • Whoever manages the project owns the project
  • Whoever problem-solves the project.   Owns. The. Project.

Just like here. 

So what’s the problem? Some people ask, why not just own the project?



Whoever owns the project, owns the future problems of that project.

hug the world
Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks via Compfight cc

Have you heard those horror stories of wells that were put in and fell apart in a year, or buildings that are falling down and no one maintains them?

Of course you have, we tell those stories of international development all the time.

I don’t want to own projects.

I want to help the dreams of communities.  I can’t do that if I am the one who decides how that community develops.

Sustainability is a tough practice. People say that they want to be involved in locally owned and sustainable projects, yadda, yadda, but wishing won’t make it happen





Here is what I will do.

  1. I spend way more time into the beginning of a project than the project itself – sometimes years. The more time you put into pre-project, the greater the chance that the project will last
  2.  Unless people are going to die today or tomorrow, I ignore immediate needs and inquire about peoples dreams = the real local priorities
  3. I listen
  4. I look for people in the community who are already successful. I highlight what they are doing. And I point to them as a possible model for others
  5. I am inspired and learn
  6. I find tools and resources to help people discover and put voice to the kind of future they hope for their children and grandchildren
  7. I am offered meals and rides
  8. I offer tools for people to use (or not)
  9. I share examples of other communities who are successful and invite others to be inspired by the stories
  10. I am taught even better ideas from people as they explore and share new innovative ways to deal with old problems
  11. I walk alongside and share my own experiences and resources to help people fulfill their dream
  12. I receive new ways of seeing the world, new skills and abilities, new places on the planet to visit, and an incredible story to live

If I come up with my own dream, people will often welcome them, but they won’t own them. They are my dreams after all. My work is with community development and great community development takes time.

How much time should we take to start a project?

Mark Crocker

October 5, 2017

9 responses on "Why I Refuse to 'Just Help Out'"

  1. I enjoyed this, it lays out exactly what I’ve been trying to get a hold on. I will be quoting you in the future to help me explain this concept to others regarding long and short term mission… especially short term!

  2. hey Marilyn
    failure is always an option!

  3. We have seen the results – or lack of results – of projects that have been started without the knowledge of the ‘rules of ownership’ for the project. It is a guaranteed failure.
    -Marilyn F

  4. I love this…thank you for putting words to what I believe about “helping”. I agree with your comments on short term missions as well…the timing is so impeccable right now. Thank you.

  5. Hey Mark,
    I LOVE this idea, and I think it’s so important. But one issue I struggle with is how short/mid term mission fits into this whole picture. If I’m going somewhere for a week, up to three months, how can I ensure sustainability in what is done? Any thoughts?


    • hey Taylore, so glad that this article resonated with you. Great follow up question too! The key for any outsider, regardless of length of trip (2 weeks or 20 years) is to pay attention to who owns a project. If it is owned by an outsider, the project leaves with the outsider. If it is owned by a person from the community (they invest their time, money and effort into it) it lasts beyond your visit. As outsiders coming alongside friends around the world it is easy for us to forget and take ownership. Dependency is always created by outsiders.

      For short-termers the principle is the same. Just add this.

      Short-termers should always be part of someones long term goals. Short trips are helpful if they offer support or assistance to whomever owns the long term goals of the community. The key is to ask what those activities are, and join in, don’t make up new ones based on your desires or skills, instead, use your skills to fulfill the desired goals of the local owner of the vision

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