Help Day

The long line of experiments is piling up and Help Day was unpredictable, painfully awkward, rewarding, and revealing.

Without it I would never have known that my house was featured in a Toro snow blower commercial years ago. Or that explaining the concept of Help Day to a seven-year-old girl would be harder than explaining quantum physics to my eighteen-month-old son Grant.

Folks who have been following along will remember the 72 hour continuous creation challenge and how much fun that was.

Help Day had a smaller impact but the upside is it's more repeatable, accessible, and potentially more valuable experience to everyone else.

So here are the notes, stats, lessons learned, and the big takeaway. You'll also learn what not to do on your own Help Day.

If you need a hand making that happen let me know. I'll be happy to help. J

The Experience

The first six hours of the day were spent going door to door in my neighborhood giving this (rough) intro to anyone answering the doorbell:

“Good morning/afternoon neighbor! My name's Joel and I live at 7124 Heatherton Trail. I know this sounds strange but I'm on a quest today to help as many people as possible in ways large and small. No strings attached. Is there something I can help you with today?”

I'm used to people looking at me like I have a third eye growing out of my face, but the expression on some of my neighbor's faces … goodness gracious!

And if people got past being cynical or stunned that I wanted to genuinely help them with anything they could think of, I got some weird responses. One woman told me, “Come back after June 9th after my daughter's wedding. My brain's too fried right now to think.”

One man, after laughing in my face and then realizing this wasn't a prank, invited me into his house. He proceeded to tell me about his multiple sclerosis, that he's in a “complicated” relationship with the woman he lives with, and revealed the warm person behind the skeptic from a moment earlier.

But five people actually took me up on my offer to help. So I ended up:

  1. Walking a dog
  2. Emailing contact information of people on my block
  3. Lending out a sprinkler
  4. Cleaning gutters
  5. Digging holes in a garden to plant flowers

In between helping, I experienced people talking to me through doors and systems set up to eliminate the chance for spontaneous help.

I waltzed into the local grade school, the nearby senior living community, and the public library with each one giving me a similar explanation for why I couldn't just be handed something to do.

I get that they want to protect the safety of the school children. I understand that I need to contact the volunteer coordinator first. I also grasp that I need to be registered and trained before I can volunteer.

After all, I used to work in a highly structured work place with our own set of rigid policies and procedures.

What I couldn't get them to understand was that I didn't want to volunteer. I just wanted to help.

After six hours of walking around the neighborhood – picking up trash along the way – I decided it was time for some virtual helping.

The great news was people online are much more receptive to unsolicited or unexpected help.

The rest of Help Day was spent in online forums and communities of people eager and much more prepared to be helped. The curious and almost laughable stats definitely reflect that.


I thought I would try a spreadsheet to give the overview of the Help Day stats.

Help Day

Overall, I'm not seeing anything remarkable here. If anything, the stats hide the true impact of Help Day. As much as I love numbers, I don't think any of them do the experience justice.

The Biggest Obstacles

I believe that most people are conditioned to expect a negative or worthless interaction with someone who rings their doorbell (at least in the U.S.). No amount of context, logic, or appealing to emotions will change that any time soon.

It's just plain hard for many people to believe that someone wants to genuinely help them without expectation or “owing you one” in the future.

I also didn't do myself any favors by having Help Day on a week day. Many people were at work so I spent a lot of time waiting for doorbells that nobody was going to answer. And a number of the people who did answer were working from home and not in a position to be helped.

If you want to help in person you also have to be conscious of interrupting a meal, catching someone before they're dressed, or finding someone mentally checked out for the day.

But the biggest obstacle of all was also the biggest takeaway of all.

The Big Takeaway

The world is not set up or prepared to be spontaneously helped.

When you figuratively, or in my case literally, show up unannounced on someone's doorstep to help, most people simply don't know what to make of it.

In general, the experience taught me unsolicited in-person help is simply not welcome.

Contrast that with the millions of people on the Internet who are desperate for your spur-of-the-moment assistance. I discovered some of them on Help Day and their challenges were just the thing I was looking for. It was micro-volunteering at its finest with the ability to zero in on the challenges best suited for my help.

I'm all about helping people make huge changes but sometimes I just have time for a quick hand. It's great to see Sparked and other online communities making the quick help experience rewarding and easy.

In the end, I didn't have to worry so much about idle chit-chat, people abusing my time, or whether to help people versus “things” (a.k.a. non-humans). I'll focus more next time on helping “things” as they don't question your motives or reject a helping hand.

Bottom line: The experiment was a partial success and I plan to do it again. Next time I'll have to plan ahead more so my unannounced help will be better received and have a bigger impact.

Sometimes you just gotta put more prep work into being spontaneous.

Do you have a way I should modify Help Day #1 so that #2 is better? Or maybe you have an idea for the next experiment I should run in the test lab that is my life?

Photo credit: Gabriela Ruellan