Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader writes:

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 people are thinking of starting their own similar program (usually in another location, so competition isn't an issue), and their questions are quite broad, like "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."

Are there other leaders out there who set boundaries with pushy brain-pickers, and if so, what are those boundaries, and how do you convey them politely but firmly? I honestly can't see what I or my organization stand 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.

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 or organization--for example, because you're excited about their work, they were referred by someone important to you, or you have a good rapport with them.
  • 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 part 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, 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 people 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. Consider whether it would make sense to start a program that teaches others how to do what you do, if you get these requests frequently enough and it fits in with your organization's mission. 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 being polite when you say no). Take that as a confirmation that you made the right call.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

Published on: Jul 9, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.