how to set boundaries with people who want to pick your brain

A reader writes:

I have follow up question to a February 2010 post, “When Does Advice Become Consulting.” I’m relatively new to nonprofit leadership and often find myself in a situation where, as the head of a reputable organization in a specific field, I get requests from people who want to “pick my brain” about some aspect of our work. Often, these individuals are thinking of starting their own similar program (usually in another location, so competition isn’t an issue), and their questions are quite broad, as in, “how did you get started” and asking me in detail how all of our programs work. I used to be a teacher, so my natural inclination is to help them out. On the other hand, I feel proprietary about the expertise we’ve developed and refined over the years and I balk at giving it out for free. In addition, my time and resources are already stretched pretty thin with managing more fruitful partnerships. When I’ve rejected these requests, however gently, the advice seeker often turns a little huffy, lamenting what could’ve been a great “collaboration.” Most recently, someone told me I was the first person in 20 years ever to deny a request for this type of “chat.”

Are there other nonprofit leaders out there who set boundaries with pushy brain-pickers, and if so, what are they, and how to convey them politely but firmly? I honestly can’t see what I or my organization stands to gain from these one-sided conversations, but I don’t want to harm our reputation or burn potential bridges. For what it’s worth, we already do a fair amount of consulting, collaborating, and partnership building.

I think there are three key questions when you’re trying to decide whether or how to grant these requests:

* Do you want to help? Sometimes you’ll find that you just really want to help the person/organization, either because you’re excited about what they’re trying to do (and believe that they have the ability to do it — a key element that doesn’t always accompany the first), or they were referred to you by someone important to you, or you have chemistry with them personally, or whatever.

* Do you stand to gain something by helping? It might be strategic in some way for you to develop a reputation as the go-to person on this topic, or just a reputation for being a really helpful person/organization.

* Do you have the time to help, relative to your other priorities? That second clause is really key, because the time you spend on this will be time that you’re not spending on something else. So in a situation where you’re already stretched thin, you need to ask if this is a smart use of your time compared to the thing that you’re bumping out of the way to do it.

Assuming you’ve decided that you don’t want to have long conversations in most of the cases you’re talking about, then here are some options for handling it:

1. Simply say no: “I’m so sorry, but my calendar is flooded over the next few months with fundraising/travel/fill-in-the-blank. It sounds like a great project though, and I wish you all the best with it.”

2. Say yes in a limited way: “My schedule is pretty tight right now, but I could talk for 15 minutes on Tuesday at 3:00.”  Then at the start of the call, reiterate that time limit: “I’m sorry I don’t have more time, but things are hectic for us right now. But how can I help?”

3. Offer them something other than a brain-picking session with you:  Write up a web page with the answers to the questions you most frequently receive or the information that you think would be most helpful to people. Then when you get these requests, say, “We actually have some information for people interested in starting this type of program. Here’s a link to it.”  If you want, you can add, “If you have any specific questions after reading it, feel free to shoot me an email, but that’s the best place to start.”

4. If you get these requests frequently enough and it fits in with your organization’s mission, consider whether it would make sense to start a program that teaches others how to do what you do. If you ran a one-day workshop or sold a how-to guide, you’d have the perfect place to funnel these requests and you’d generate revenue too. You’d also send the message that your expertise costs something. Of course, you should only do this if it’s a priority for your organization, but in some circumstances it could be worth considering.

I’d also add that people who get huffy when you turn down their request for a favor aren’t people you want to spend your time helping anyway (assuming that you’re not being rude when you say no).

{ 43 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    This was a great question and answer!

    I know somebody who is in a position where they bill/charge time and they have run into issues where people they know, but are not great friends with, reach out for questions/advice which in any normal circumstance would be charged. They tend to answer the questions because they feel like they should to be helpful/nice.

    I do feel like at some point, you need to draw the line and make sure you’re not being taken advantage of.

    Your suggestions are very helpful – I will have to share this article.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      In that situation, it can be helpful to say, “Let me give you some general advice, and then if you want to talk further, we can talk about rates and so forth.”

    2. M-C*

      Very good answer, in terms of both what to think about and what to say.
      I’d add one possibility: publish a paper about it. Putting the info on your own web page is great if you really want the info disseminated as widely as possible, but your work will then certainly be paraphrased without credit, and may get severely distorted in the process. But publishing it formally first will give you ownership of your approach to the issue. And then teaching workshops to expand on the webpage reinforces that concept, that you’re an expert on the topic.
      This is not just good for your own reputation, but for your organization’s as well.

  2. KayDay*

    Do you have any colleagues who could speak in your place? (e.g. if the person wants to know about fundraising, send them to the development director). In addition to spreading out the work load of talking to these people, you have a good way to get them to disclose ahead of time what, specifically, they want to know. I understand your difficulty since on the one hand being seen as a “resource” is good for you and your organizations reputation (and it’s good to help people in general), on the other hand it takes up your valuable time and there is a fine line between advice and consulting.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’m a big fan of saying “tell me a little about what types of things you’re hoping to talk about and I’ll be able to figure out the best person to help you.” Very often, the person hasn’t even sorted out what they want to know, and doing this will reveal that.

      1. saro*

        I think this is key, and also asking them to send an email with specific questions so you can be prepared. I get requests from people who want information but don’t know exactly what they want. Also, sometimes they’re just curious and don’t really want to do anything with that information. Placing the initiative on them really helps matters…

  3. Mary*

    “Most recently, someone told me I was the first person in 20 years ever to deny a request for this type of ‘chat.'”

    Has that person been asking for free advice for 20 years? Reason enough to say no…

    1. Original Poster*

      Good point. :) I had the sense she was changing fields, and that’s why she wanted advice, so maybe the past 20 years of networking weren’t relevant to what she was wanting from our conversation. Who knows the story behind it, but that was definitely the incident to make me consider whether it might be ME who’s off base here.

  4. NonProfiter*

    Ugh. I’m in development get this all the time, and it really drives me nuts, too, because I feel like there’s no legit way to tell people to buzz off and figure it out themselves. I had one week when three different people from around the country called me up to get my expertise on starting [very specific project] for fundraising. I took great pleasure in wishing them luck but that I had no advice to offer since my org was suspending [very specific project] because it no longer even broke even, let alone raised money.

  5. Liz*

    The OP seems to be making some assumptions that beg the question she or he is asking of AAM.

    Some people ask for advice when they just want to connect – it is a way to get insight and to develop a professional relationship without being too pushy or forcing a friendship. A very general question like “How did this all come together?” actually sounds like a polite interest in accomplishments, rather than a request for detailed and proprietary secrets.

    Fwiw, the leaders who are nicest to the least powerful members of the community often seem to be the strongest and most powerful. Even a nobody can enhance your reputation with repeated positive comments about your knowledge and expertise, so why not buy a newcomer a cup of coffee and set some boundaries, rather than go into this swoon of “Oh no I couldn’t share all my expertise so I will wait to talk to only people who can do more for me.” I’m obviously not a hugely powerful person, but that attitude isn’t one I’ve seen in the powerful people I have known. It is possible to set limits a
    In relationships without having to choose between giving everyone unpaid expertise or never talking to anyone who is jut starting out.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Except that when you’re very busy and getting a lot of these requests, you have to be disciplined about figuring out the best way to use your time. Most nonprofit leaders, in particular, are swamped, and they have a duty to their organizations to be strategic about how they use their time. That doesn’t mean you never help anyone out, but it does mean that you have to say no to some things so that you can be effective at achieving your mission. 

      1. Anonymous*

        I agree with AAM… In my particular non-profit field (research), 98.9% of the time meetings of this nature only benefit the other person. I do try to limit these types of conversations to the phone or email. That way you have control over the time spent and what’s said.

        I also firmly believe that anyone willing to let you give them ideas of what they should be doing to further their agenda(s) are lazy and generally a waste of time.

        People who truly want to “collaborate” or “partner with” will generally begin a conversation with an idea that they’ve already come up with and have some understanding of how you and your org can get involved.

        1. Liz*

          I liked the response to the question as always. Maybe I am reading something into the question that isn’t there. It just came off as conclusionary, summed up as, “Must I talk to people who only waste my time?” Maybe the requests are out of line, but the examples used sounded more like,”I am new and I admire your work and hope to connect in a general way.”

          1. Original Poster*

            I see what you’re saying, but let’s distinguish between an earnest, genuine request for an actual conversation, say from a slightly less experienced colleague in the field who wants to brainstorm possible partnerships. That’s totally legit and not the type of request that prompted me to write. I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of that type of conversation and am grateful for it. Plus, I totally get that these requests are well-intentioned, which is why my post was aimed at finding nice ways to point them in the right direction while still managing a high workload. I genuinely do wish them luck. But I do find it disrespectful to not even do any research first, and admittedly I do grow impatient with it.

            1. Liz*

              That does make sense – no one can do everything! I am sorry some people were so rude on encountering a “no” too. That isn’t fair to you at all.

        2. fposte*

          Thirding here. I get a lot of requests, often from very nice people, who want to talk to me because of my knowledge in the field. Unfortunately, it’s mostly in a context outside my mandate, so it means, functionally, I’m talking to them on my own time. Which is okay, in that it’s something I’m happy to choose to do sometimes, but that choice means choosing to say no a lot in order to meet my actual obligations.

          And I suspect my field isn’t unusual in having more orthodox tracks for development and this not being it, so somebody who’s calling me out of the blue is usually somebody who’s already somewhat wrongfooted and will quite likely require special (time-consuming) handling.

        3. Ellen M.*

          Right. A true collaboration benefits both parties. These folks have no intention of giving anything in return, ever.

          One thing that I have done is quote a ridiculous fee to the scammer. They vanish in an instant like a snowflake in water.

      2. Original Poster*

        Exactly. In an ideal world I think many non-profit leaders would love to be more magnanimous in that way — if you believe in your mission, why not empower others to achieve similar results, etc etc — but in reality, there’s no time! (Or if there is, I haven’t figured it out yet…)

    2. Emily*

      There’s a difference between a mentorship relationship and a professional consult, though. When veteran and a newcomer connect, I think that has a different connotation than the inquiries the OP is describing.

      1. Ellen M.*

        Re: mentoring – the mentor has to be asked, and must agree to be a mentor. The protegee doesn’t just appoint someone as their mentor without that person’s approval.

        I had someone try to do something like that to me once, sort of. He had attended one of my resume writing classes (not the first one of mine he had attended) and came up to me during a break to announce that he had taken my advice and was going to start a blog. He then announced to me that I was the “muse” of this blog and he would be putting my name and picture on it. Then he took out a camera and took my picture! And informed me that I was “welcome to write for the blog” anytime I wanted to.

        At no time did he ask me if I was interested or willing to do any of this, or for my permission. I told him verbally (and later in writing) that he was not to use my name or picture, for anything, ever, and I would not be involved in his blog in any way. I disconnected from him on LinkedIn.

        I see him occasionally at networking events and he always tries to talk with me, as if the “blog muse” thing never happened. Just a few months ago he asked if he could hire me to coach him on his job hunt. That time I didn’t even quote a crazy-high fee, I just said “No.” His behavior was already incredibly inappropriate and pushy and desperate, and I knew if he paid me a penny he’d expect me to completely take over his job hunt and it would be a never-ending nightmare.

        What strikes me is that if he had handled things differently, he might have gotten me at least to write something for the blog, maybe. I would have considered it at least, once the blog had been created, if he had *asked*, respectfully. Now he will never get a thing from me.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I’d be a little creeped out by someone walking up to me and snapping my photo and announcing it was going on their blog as their “muse.”

  6. Anonymous*

    The city I work in has a volunteer resource organization that does monthly workshops. Non-profits can sign up to do a presentation on a specific topic or initiative they have experience with and the volunteer organization then sends out invitations to all of their member organizations.

    I’ve found these events to be a great way to network with others in the non-profit community and have learned a lot from them. All presentations are done on a volunteer basis (you contact the volunteer resource organization with a presentation proposal) and I’ve found them to be a great, pressure-free environment to share ideas without worrying about someone monopolizing your time.

    My city is lucky to have a third party organize these events, but I’m sure a similar result could be achieved by contacting colleagues from other organizations and establishing a committee to organize such events.

  7. Anonymous*

    I think the key to this question is when the OP states “their questions are quite broad, as in, “how did you get started” and asking me in detail how all of our programs work”. There’s a pretty big jump happening between the “So, how did you get involved in this field?” to “Tell me all about how you guys do all of your fundraising”. That’s where I think the OP should think about how to change their response.

    I personally would never say “No” outright to a request for information. You can always gear your responses to a simple “These are the steps that most people do to get started” level if you truly don’t want to get involved, and just point them to a resource, website, or school program that you think is a good starting point. If they ask for more details than that, you can always defer by saying things like “Well, I’m not at liberty to share details on our specific programs, but in general, the idea is that you want to develop partnerships with the local community.” Another good tactic is to push back the hard work on them. “It’s kind of hard to give you solid advice in general, because there are a lot of different ways you can make something succeed, but if you have a specific plan, I’ll gladly take a look at it, and let you know what I think.” The mere act of asking them to put something together for you will weed out the people who aren’t very serious. There’s no need for these types of conversations to take longer than 15 minutes or so, unless you are enjoying the discussion and don’t mind chatting longer.

    1. Liz*

      I love that suggestion! It rewards the honest networkers and discourages anyone who wants to be spoon fed a solution!

    2. jmkenrick*

      I used to be an admin for a trade organization, and we would often have people call and ask for advice about starting their business in the industry. I’m always happy to help, but often those phone calls can be a big time-suck, and it’s hard to guage at the beginning of the call who is serious and who is just trying to figure things out.

      I ended up creating a template e-mail that I would send to callers, reviewing some of the basic starting steps, with a few links to other resources that would be helpful. I then said if they had any specific questions about something that wasn’t covered above, they could e-mail it over.

      I found that to be pretty effective. Creating a template doesn’t take more than 20-30 minutes, and then you can respond to people’s requests quickly, and without feeling like a grinch.

      Incidentally, I was there a year, and only one person ever followed-up and then they did create their own business.

    3. fposte*

      I like the general answer there, especially as a social-occasion response. However, there’s no way I would look at their specific plan. That really would be consulting.

      I also think that there’s a volume element to this. In a lot of positions these kind of queries can really pour in. (For instance, if anything you do ties into student assignments anywhere on earth at any education level, you *will* hear from students who want you do their homework, and the cannier of them won’t admit that’s what’s happening.) I can’t network with all the honest networkers–it’s no reflection on them. So, following principles akin to the ones outlined in Alison’s response, I pick and choose.

      That’s why conferences and speaking engagements, as discussed in an earlier AAM post, are often excellent times to talk to people–they’re likely to factor in networking as part of the deal, they’re away from their usual schedule, and you’re not interrupting them at the office.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Seconding the volume element here. At a certain level of prominence, you will get a ton of these requests and there’s just no way you can take them all.

  8. Phyllis*

    From a non-profit standpoint, I think every state has a professional non-profit association that it might be worth your while to refer these folks to. The association in South Carolina has a ‘knowledge network’ and hosts an annual training conference. With pick-your-brainers who want to get more details from you, this might be a way to make a referral to a useful group that also puts you in a good professional light.

    1. Original Poster*

      Excellent — a practical way to actually help them, without spoon-feeding. We have a few such organizations here, and if the requests happen to come from out of state, I can still point them in the direction of finding a similar association.

  9. ThomasT*

    Lots of good discussion here. As the IT Director for an association of nonprofit organizations, I get a decent number of requests for advice on tech projects that our members are working on. While it’s absolutely on-mission for the organization for me to help them out, it’s not part of my already-full job description – we don’t have a technology consulting program, per se.

    I do what I can, and do a lot of referring to other resources for details.

    I do think that this question touches on a side-benefit of running your organization is as transparent a fashion as possible – writing about your successes *and failures*, giving insight to your organization’s function. This will build support among your constituents but also gives you a library of material that you can refer people to if they’re trying to figure out how to replicate some part of your success.

  10. AD*

    Is there an actual, legally proprietary element? Even a non-for-profit organization can have materials that are considered “trade secrets”. I don’t know what she is being asked, here, but she could just use the “policy doesn’t allow me to talk about that” excuse.

    1. Phyllis*

      This is a tricky path. Many non-profits, particularly if they receive federal or state money, fall under Freedom of Information Act laws. If it formally exists on paper, it’s a requestable public document (depending on HIPPA, FERPA, other client/customer confidentiality laws of course).

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Certain documents are required to be public (990s, for instance), but definitely not “anything that exists on paper.” The Freedom of Information Act is for accessing documents from the government.

    2. Original Poster*

      I recently tried the “our policy doesn’t allow me to talk about that” excuse and that is where I received a negative reaction. I think with non-profits some people have the preconception that you’re more or less at everyone’s service, whatever their request. If I have to let them down, I’d rather do it without leaving a bad taste in their mouth about my organization.

  11. Ellen M.*

    Oh, man this happens to me, in fact it happened today. Someone I have never met sent me his resume and asked me to review it and let him know if I heard of any jobs he might be qualified for. He also indicated he wanted to do a certain kind of work (related to what he does) but he has no direct experience doing that kind of work. Ugh.

    Another thing to keep in mind – with some people, if you help them or respond in any way, you will NEVER get rid of them. Extremely desperate, needy and greedy and these are the same ones who don’t say “thanks”!

  12. JT*

    One comment – it’s natural to feel proprietary. But in the context of nonprofit (ie, public-serving) work we should try to put those feelings aside. If we truly want the problem/need our organization works on addressed well, it’s great if more people and more organizations do the same thing. It’s important to keep this in mind.

    Lack of time/resources to address these requests is a good reason to set boundaries. Risks of donor/supporter poaching, or even “reputation poaching” is another. But if those are not issues (rare I know, and not what the OP was asking about), nonprofits generally should be sharing everything what they know in terms of how to conduct their programs.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Thanks for saying this. It’s absolutely right. Nonprofits should evaluate everything in terms of how it will help achieve their missions.

      1. Original Poster*

        Of course, everything should be aimed at advancing the mission of the organization. As stated in my original post, my org does a lot of meaningful outreach, and in some cases provides a valuable service to organizations whose mission complements ours and vice versa. This is a very fulfilling part of the work. My issue is that with some people who call to request advice, I sense that they haven’t even thought things through to the point of ascertaining whether there is even a need for this type of work in their community. In those cases I think it’s fair to say I’m doing more to advance my cause by focusing on my own goals and benchmarks.

  13. Heidi*

    I work as a consultant and early in my career, a fellow consultant requested a brainstorming session about “how we could work together.” He was established and successful in the field and I thought it would be helpful to me as I was getting started. We sat down over lunch and he had a pad of paper and a pencil in hand. What happened was he took my ideas and made money on them – without me. When we run into each other at conferences, he awkwardly tries to give me “credit” but really, he stole the ideas and, because he was in a better position to get them funded…well, you know the rest. What makes me sad, at this point, is that because he didn’t really have the background knowledge to pull it off well, but that doesn’t stop him from touting the half-baked results all over the country. Interestingly enough, in the ten years that have passed, no one else has ever asked me for the same kind of meeting. I agree with a poster above that usually, these kind of meetings benefit them, not you, and if it is truly sharing, they will come prepared with their own ideas.

  14. Tracy Brisson*

    A great book on this topic is “No, You Can’t Pick My Brain” by Adrienne Graham at Empower Me, based on a Forbes post on the same topic. I found it very useful in helping me learn to say no when I needed to as a self-employed person.

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