GiveFirst: I Feel Like I Don’t Know How To Help You

Periodically, at the end of a conversation, someone will ask me, “Is there something I can do for you?” I used to answer with “Do something that is helpful to something or someone in my world.” I usually get a pause and occasionally get a response similar to “I’m not really sure what to do to help you.” Over time, I modified my response to “Do whatever you think is useful to grow your startup community.”

I thought this was a good answer until someone paused, looked at me directly, and said “I’ve been listening to you talk about GiveFirst. I think I get it, but I feel like I don’t know how to help you.”

I realized that for many people, the vague answer I was giving wasn’t helpful. I was trying to create a lot of space for them to do whatever they wanted to be helpful. But the person, like many of us, was looking for something tangible to grab on to, in order to start with something specific that could cause them to feel like there was no question about them helping.

I now try to respond with something specific the person can do. I try to incorporate it into the person’s work. I’ll ask some questions to try to identify something that I know will be helpful to me, but also helpful to them. This is particularly easy for me, since doing something that helps with my global goals around entrepreneurship, rather than a specific, narrow task, helps me.

The magic trick is that if it’s helpful to them, they’ll realize that GiveFirst isn’t altruism. By helping me, they are helping themselves, and the flywheel of GiveFirst begins to turn.


Also published on Medium.

  • Being specific also helps the listener think that the action and resultant outcome matter- primal motivation for actually doing something. Being generic is one of those things which are good if done, fine if not done

  • James Todd

    Love this approach. I’ve totally been guilty of the same thing. Thanks for the reminder to offer specific ways that people can continue to keep the GiveFirst flywheel spinning.

  • I was told from an early age that you can’t help somebody else without also helping yourself. Turned out to have been true for me thus far. We’re all connected, IMO, and I don’t think it’s as far fetched as it might appear to some on the surface. Karma might seem to be a “mystic reality” to many, although tangible enough; but what if it had its roots in — or at least shared characteristics with — Quantum Mechanics; for example the “spooky action at a distance”, aka “entanglement”?

    In short, when you finally have a meeting with Einstein in a parallel universe, please invite me over for at least the second half of the meeting.

  • Sam

    So I’ve been wondering about #GiveFirst… Did it start out as a coherent philosophy, or did it evolve into one? I can imagine a path where it started mostly out of necessity (we need mentors for Techstars, for example, but we can’t pay them) but then surprised everyone that it was actually self-reinforcing.

    • It evolved. The first time I started thinking about it / talking about it was in my book Startup Communities in 2012.

  • Rich Weisberger

    Great advice, but be prepared for people giving less than they promise. Still feels like most giving has at its core an expected financial win / win but when that financial connection runs it course so goes the giving.

    • Good point – I think there’s something different about giving when there’s no obvious return. The information about being a human, doing your part, etc. that you get when you give, that’s worth a lot.

      I’m no philanthropic giant by any means, but I give a significant percentage of my time and money. Most of that’s not public and won’t ever be, because of #1 above.

  • rbrke

    Sorry Brad. All this rings hollow the way that your portfolio company Pogoplug treated the shut down of their cloud drive. I was never notified and even those who did had less than 10 days notice. Support was no where to be found. DMs went unanswered.

    Take a look and the comments on Twitter and please explain to me how you can defend Foundry’s actions.

    Baby pictures were lost. Precious documents vanished.

    https://twitter.com/search?src=typd&q=pogoplug

    You can talk all you want about GiveFirst but another corollary is doing right by your customers. Foundry, in my view, has a big, big black eye here and your silence is really disappointing.

    I hope you enjoyed your sabbatical while all this went up in flames.

    • I apologize that this wasn’t handled well.

  • Give first is definitely a habit that you have to flex over time to get good at.

    When people ask what they can do to help, I try to be specific…and I also often suggest that they think up something that matters to them, so they’re ready to pass that along to the next person as well.

  • Brian Spielmann

    In that respect, Brad why are you funding Open Boulder which wants out of control growth for Boulder and trying to kick out the one City Council member who fights for neighborhoods with Proposition 302 to limit terms. Traffic is already horrible in Boulder, trails are way crowded, and Google has not even arrived. Do you really think we need 30,000 more jobs in Boulder when we already have 10,000s commuting in every morning? Please consider how this ultra growth frenzy is ultimately destroying neighborhoods in Boulder, killing the quality of life, and forcing many elders on fixed incomes who can no longer afford property taxes to leave the homes they have lived in for 50 years. Is that the legacy you want to leave behind?

  • Good advice. Be that as it may, be set up for individuals giving short of what they promise. Still feels like most giving has at its center a normal monetary win yet when that budgetary association runs it course so goes the giving.