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June 27, 2018

Good help, bad help

Throughout our lives we are conditioned to seek help for all sorts of reasons – from the very minor things that touch our daily lives to the life changing stuff. If we’re given help we’re also conditioned to assume it’s well intentioned and so we express our gratitude accordingly. But while it may be well intentioned there is no guarantee that it will be of any constructive use. In fact some new research from NESTA suggests that a great deal of help achieves precisely the opposite of what was intended. There is good help and there is bad help.



How we help each other matters. Some help supports people to feel hopeful, identify their own purpose and confidently take action. Other help does the opposite, undermining people’s confidence, sense of purpose and independence

How we help each other matters. Some help – what we call ‘good help’ – supports people to feel hopeful, identify their own purpose and confidently take action. Other help – which we call ‘bad help’ – does the opposite, undermining people’s confidence, sense of purpose and independence.

In this publication we aim to make a practical contribution. We have drawn on a well-established evidence base and worked with practitioners to understand how ‘good help’ is applied in practice. We outline the key drivers of action and list seven key characteristics of ‘good help’.

Key findings

‘Good help’ is all about helping people to identify and achieve their own sense of purpose. It recognises that when a programme’s purpose is aligned with a person’s purpose both parties are more engaged and motivated to work together to take action.

‘Good help’ is focussed on helping people develop their confidence. It recognises that individuals will find different sources more or less helpful at different times and in different contexts.

‘Good help’ can support people to create a positive cycle of action that helps them move towards their goals. In time, this can lead to transformational changes in their life circumstances.

We highlight seven characteristics of ‘good help’ that can be built into public services and social programmes: power sharing; enabling conversations; tailoring; scaffolding; role modelling and peer support; opportunity making; and transparency

Ryan’s story demonstrates the difference that ‘good help’ can make. He was on and off the streets for 12 years and felt misunderstood by the people trying to help him. He explains how people “always tried to rush me. Telling me what I’ve got to do.” Ryan experienced ‘bad help’. He was given advice and solutions that felt impersonal and irrelevant. He wasn’t asked about his own motivations or what else was going on in his life.

It wasn’t until Ryan met Aisha from Mayday Trust that he started to understand what ‘good help’ was. Aisha found out what motivated Ryan, what he cared about and what he felt confident doing.

Whether people want to find work, improve their health or get the most out of education, ‘good help’ involves understanding what matters to each person. It is about supporting people to build the confidence they need to take action. This kind of work is core to many community and voluntary organisations. Yet despite decades of research and good practice, remains absent from many mainstream services.

The simple truth is that we can not afford to keep providing ‘bad help’. Too much is at stake. Too many people are unnecessarily trapped in negative cycles and lost opportunities perpetuated by ‘bad help’. These negative cycles have acute and obvious consequences, such as homelessness or addiction, but also chronic and subtle effects which erode confidence and mental health, making activities, such as parenting and healthy eating, much harder, and sometimes impossible.

This publication provides a practical contribution to breaking out of these cycles. It is not the only solution, but we cannot ignore it any longer. We urgently need to make ‘good help’ a priority in how we design and deliver mainstream services and social programmes.

Download the report