In this season of goodwill, we at PI would like to share a valuable, albeit humbling, lesson we once learned about charitable giving:

Good intentions and thoughtful actions, although necessary, are not enough for people to benefit from generosity.

Years ago, as PI was taking shape, a teacher from inner-city Pittsburgh told me a story. His students were struggling. They were surrounded by hunger, drugs, dangerous neighborhoods, and collapsing schools.

For these kids, graduating from high school would be a major achievement and a critical step towards a better future. “If you could help them,” he told me, “you would really be doing something.”

With a deep-seated passion for education, I absolutely wanted to be doing something to take one this challenge. From my original assessment, the goal seemed obvious: help the students get to their high school diploma.

I spent a fair amount of time brainstorming and figuring out what I could contribute to this unfortunately pervasive problem. In college, a friend and I had the idea of putting a wide range of classes onto portable computers. The idea wasn’t feasible when we first thought of it, but the world of technology had advanced rapidly, and after a few years, tablet computers and public WiFi became commonplace.

Even with the improvements to technology, our mobile classroom idea would still need support from teachers, private companies, and the state government. It would be a major undertaking. However, the solution would put years of accessible schooling directly into the students’ hands (literally).

The engineer in me was pumped. I thought to myself, “I could build this!”

I took the idea to the teacher, excitedly explaining how this – these mobile classrooms – could be a solution to the problems his students were facing. And, I COULD BUILD THIS!

At the end of my story, he paused thoughtfully for a moment, gave a wince, and told me, “That might help 4% of my kids.”

“4%? What?! Why?”

“Well, for half of my students, that tablet would either be stolen or sold by the end of the day. The rest of them aren’t going to have the time or focus to study. These kids are worried about getting safely through a school day. They might not know where their next meal is coming from. When they get home, a lot of them have to take care of a parent, or little sisters and brothers, or a baby of their own…

You’re going to waste a lot of time and energy and do nobody any good.

Even though it still aches a little bit when it rains, I have come to appreciate the stinging criticism I received that day. It was genuine, informed, and, I think, accurate.

He was right. My solution only treated the surface of the problem. To be able to provide people with an education, they first need a secure environment in which they can thrive.

For young students, they need a stable home, food in their belly, and safe places to learn. The “diploma” problem was only part of a much larger context that I had failed to account for.

There were many good lessons here, but one in particular stood out:

The true measure of your contributions is in the real, long-term changes you create for people.

That lesson teaches that you should often start small with an experiment, and only proceed once you figure out what works for the people you’re trying to help. It’s not enough to seem like you’re helping or feel like you’re doing good. You have to be objective; there’s no room for ego here.

It’s important to keep asking yourself: Are we actually helping the people we set out to help?

Real, purposeful change doesn’t have to make a global impact to be effective, but it does have to meaningfully help someone else.

So, go and be generous with a willing heart that is guided by truth and purpose.

Practical Inventions wishes you a generous holiday season, filled with genuine change for the better.