Think Beyond The Fish

We’ve all heard the adage, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime” and nonprofits need to keep this in mind as they do their work. The Christian church has learned this lesson that they can’t go and try to convert people in an area if the people are starving to death.

On the other hand, if you simply hand food to people and don’t teach them to produce their own food, they will remain dependent on us. We need to make sure to teach them how to survive on their own.

There seems to be tension between the 2 camps regarding giving fish or teaching to fish.

Unfortunately, there are other considerations that many organizations miss. Certainly, if someone is starving, you need to give him a fish so they can concentrate on the lessons you are teaching about how to fish.

But that is not nearly enough.

If there is nowhere to buy a rod and reel, line or hooks, then their knowledge of fishing is not useful. What if they have no money to buy the equipment or skills to build it? Or what if the person is allergic to fish? What if there is no body of water nearby to fish?

Sure, this may sound esoteric when you are thinking about helping people, but the point is you need to think about everything a person needs to implement or use what you are giving them.

If you are seeking to help people get housing, what else do they need? A way to retain the housing. Skills to take care of the housing. A vacuum cleaner and furniture. Financial literacy. What else do they need?

A great example is human trafficking and drug addiction. Many groups have learned over the years that simply getting people out of these situations is not sufficient. If they don’t have a way to make money and develop a stable life, if they don’t develop ties to a new community, they have a high likelihood of returning to the only life they know. If they can’t get a job because of low/no skills or a criminal record, how can they remain in “normal” society?

More organizations need to get on the wagon of talking to the community they serve to understand what it is that the community needs, and everything the community needs. For example, Tom’s Shoes is a great company. They donate a pair of shoes for every pair purchased at full price. It was later learned, though, that this has put many local artisans out of business. Maybe a better solution would be to fund local artisan to make extra pairs of shoes.

So, while it is clear that teaching a man to fish has value, we need to make sure that the man doesn’t starve to death during the education, and the community has need of fish and the resources available to use the fishing skills.


Michael Barnes
Michael Barnes
Michael Barnes is founder and CEO of Awakened Innovations, Inc. Awakened Innovations helps nonprofits to save time and money by connecting them with high-quality, vetted, service providers. Previously, Michael has been a business coach; Director of Lab Operations at, Assurex Health (a genetic testing laboratory); and built the Cincinnati Biobank and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Michael’s overarching passion is to help others succeed and fulfill their mission in life.

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  1. Great article. It can suggest a broader question. Assume a nonprofit is dedicated to helping the homeless, should it be content to proivde temporary housing or should it also use some resources to join with others in building permanent housing? A tough question.

  2. What a brilliant and insight article, Michael! I agree wholeheartedly that there is much more involved in supporting people and setting them up for success. May we come to recognize that we are interdependent and when the least among us struggles we all are impacted. We are in this together. Each of us brings unique skills, talents, insights, perspectives to challenging situations. Listening to what people actually need for them to eat and thrive is key. I love how educating and empowering women has made such a positive difference. Heifer International comes to mind also. When people are starving it’s difficult for learning to take place. Powerful words. Thank you so much for writing this!