Little ways you can make a big difference from Bottom Line founder Martin Edelston

When I learned that the husband of a business associate had pancreatic cancer, I did more than express my concern. I contacted a company that compiled up-to-date research from medical journals and other authoritative sources, and requested its report on pancreatic cancer. I forwarded the report to my associate and her husband, and they called me from The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore a few days later. Based on information in the report, they had chosen a doctor at Johns Hopkins who specialized in a particular surgical procedure for pancreatic cancer. The husband’s surgery was successful, and he lived a rich, full cancer-free life for nearly 20 more years.

Commissioning and paying for that report was a simple thing for me to do, but it made a profound difference to someone else. Not every offer of help is potentially lifesaving, but I believe that when you see a person in need, a small effort can have dramatic results. It makes you, the giver, feel good as well.

Many people have the urge to help but do not take action. They don’t know what to do, or they are busy, or they think that they have to make a grand gesture. Once you start looking around, you will see countless simple ways to be of assistance. Here, help that most of us easily can provide…


The young son of an acquaintance had severe attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He had trouble controlling his reactions and outbursts, and both he and his family often were frustrated and upset. For more than five years, I sent the boy a little present every day—an eraser, a pencil, a windup toy. I would enclose a note with each gift that said, “Marty loves you” or “Do well. Love, Marty.”

His father told me that the gifts and notes cheered up the whole family—they all looked forward to seeing what surprise was in the package each day. Over time, this young man learned to manage his condition. He did very well in high school and went on to attend one of the most exclusive colleges in the country. He has shown a gift for filmmaking and travels the country encouraging young people to vote. I can’t take credit for his achievements, but I like to think that my caring and encouragement contributed to his success.


I am always impressed by how many good ideas employees have if you just ask them. So I developed the I-Power system with the help of management consultant Peter Drucker. I-Power is a simple way for companies to keep improving by drawing on employee suggestions. I have given my book, I-Power, to many colleagues, friends and acquaintances. One of these people was executive director of a large, influential nonprofit that provides social services. He started using the system. Every staff member was asked to give two suggestions for improvement at a special idea meeting held every other month. When an idea was implemented, the employee who contributed the idea got $50. The executive credits I-Power for more than 100 successful ideas that his nonprofit put into practice—from ways to increase cooperation between departments to expanding the organization’s mentoring role in the community.

You don’t have to be a business executive to use I-Power. Any time you have a problem at home or at work, you can invite suggestions from others—and be open to giving those suggestions a try.


Sometimes the way to make a difference is to be completely honest about a person’s shortcomings—and then soften the blow by offering a suggestion on how to improve. A speech therapist I know happened to mention that her boyfriend had become boring. After some thought, I told her, “He’s not boring—you are. To change that, go through the newspaper every day, and tear out ads and articles about things you would like to do on the weekend. Give those to your boyfriend, and ask him to buy two tickets to each event.” It quickly turned the relationship around. They began living together and now are married.


A distinguished, longtime contributor to our publications told me that his daughter—a bright young woman—had a chronic illness that left her too weak to leave the house and go to work. She had a strong interest in the medical world and a talent for writing, so I assigned her some short articles for Boardroom publications. I didn’t have to change a word of what she submitted, and she became one of our valued contributors.

At lunch with her, I learned that the assignments meant even more than I realized—they had helped give her a sense of purpose and self-esteem during a difficult time in her life. “It’s important that when people ask me what I do, I can tell them, ‘I am a writer for Bottom Line/Personal,'” she said. She now is in remission, married and has four wonderful children.

You may not be able to offer writing assignments, but if you know someone who needs a self-esteem boost, you could remind him/her of his successes or possibly offer to pay him for help you need that you know he could do well.

Examples: Sell items for you on eBay, or put in a vegetable garden for you.


For many years, I have hosted dinners for experts in a variety of areas, offering them the chance to network and exchange ideas with leading thinkers in other fields. I started these events because I love attending dinner parties, but I wasn’t getting invited to very many. I decided to host the kind of party that I would like to attend, and the first Boardroom dinner took place in my office with a dozen guests.

The tradition has grown into a series of monthly dinners at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City. I send invitations at the beginning of each year to several thousand people, asking them to choose the date that they would like to attend. At the dinners, I greet each guest personally and seat him/her near someone I think he will find especially interesting. After the meal, a microphone is passed around so that everyone at the table can share a unique perspective on his activities.

As a result of these dinners, people have formed business partnerships, found clients, discovered speakers for events, learned about trends in business, health care and the arts, and made friends. You can have these types of dinners in your home by inviting interesting people who don’t know one another.


I learned from some old friends that a mutual acquaintance was in emotional and financial distress. Life had thrown some painful circumstances her way, and now her landlord was about to raise her rent by $200 a month, an amount she could not afford. The $200 that loomed so large in her life was an amount that I could spare. I told her that I would take care of it. I sent the amount of the increase directly to the landlord, every month for several years, until my friend’s financial situation changed. I still send her notes and magazine subscriptions because I want her to know that she can count on me for emotional support even if she no longer needs financial help.

I understand that helping someone pay rent is not something everyone can do. If a friend is in a difficult financial situation, maybe you can offer to pick up the check at dinner or invite him/her to your home for an evening.


One of my former employees, a single mother, was being treated for cancer. After sending flowers and putting her in touch with the right experts, I mailed her a card that included a list of three things I thought she might need help with—food, child care and transportation. Each possibility had a box next to it. I asked her to check the box that would help her the most and to send the card back to me.

She checked transportation, so I hired a car service to drive her to chemotherapy treatments, grocery shopping and anywhere else she needed to go. Because I wanted the experience to be effortless for her, I made arrangements directly with the service. She didn’t have to handle payment or fill out vouchers or give an account number—she just called the company whenever she needed a car, and a driver would pick her up, wait for her during the appointment and take her home. She is in great health now and still remembers how my help made life much easier and tolerable for her.

You don’t need to hire a car service. Just driving a friend to a doctor’s appointment or picking up groceries for him/her can make life much easier.

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