Do you offer to help…or help to offer?

I have come across a number of professionals recently who complain that their efforts to help others have not been “paying off” – that, despite their willingness to help, those on the receiving end do not seem appreciative.

Upon learning more, it appears their idea of “help” is to give a prospective client free advice or a referral, for example, in the hopes that said prospect will hire them as a result. This is not help. It’s a sales strategy.

I’m not saying that giving free advice for the purpose of business development is a bad idea. It can be effective when done properly. If your real goal is to generate business, you should set clear expectations upfront. Let the potential client know that you will help them address part of their problem, and discuss how your help might be mutually beneficial, rather than making any assumptions. My good friend Ian Altman of Grow My Revenue touches on this here.

My point is that there is an important difference between offering to help as a business strategy and helping out of pure altruism. You truly help someone, whether by offering feedback or making a mutually beneficial connection, when you provide assistance that is intended to further that person’s professional or personal advancement (and likely someone else’s) – without expecting anything in return. A “payoff” is not the primary motivation.

Acting out of generosity should result in a more positive and/or productive outcome for the recipient than if you had not acted. People who approach helping in this way tend to attract one another, and almost always see their generosity repaid, even though this is not their intent.

When you help someone with the expectation of getting something in return, you may not see a return on your investment for a variety of reasons. The recipient might realize that your offer comes with strings attached and simply be put off. However, I believe the main reason for a lack of reciprocity in these situations is that people who expect something in return when they give are, ironically, not really open to reciprocity. They are naturally skeptical when someone offers to help them, assuming that accepting a favor will put them in debt to this person (since this is what they expect when they are “helping”).

Being in a position to truly help people is a great spot to be in, and your ability to deliver is invaluable. I just hope that anyone out there who thinks they’re helping and not getting the results they’re hoping for does not give up on helping altogether. Anytime you want to offer help, think about the true definition of this word, and make sure your approach – and your expectations – are in line with it.

What are your thoughts on this?



  1. by jeremy on April 24, 2012 at 9:06 am

    I love this. It’s like the book “Love is the Killer App”

    I think it requires long-term vision and, like diet and exercise, if you don’t see the immediate value of it (and have the wrong perspective), you are likely to give up and declare it worthless.

  2. by Derek Coburn on April 24, 2012 at 5:09 pm

    Thanks Jeremy. LOVE the diet analogy! Especially since most diets don’t work (and thus people give up on them) because they are taking the wrong approach. Eating fat-free foods without realizing they are loaded with sugar (also see fruit), not getting enough protein, etc…

  3. by Debbie Weil on April 24, 2012 at 10:27 am

    Derek, the kind of help you are describing is second nature – so easy to give and so rewarding – when you feel a connection to the person or colleague you are offering feedback or tips or useful advice to. You have to feel some kind of connection along with sensing a mutual respect. Without that, you can’t offer help as a gift. I know that is true for me – and I expect – many others.

  4. by Derek Coburn on April 24, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    Thanks Debbie! I think that you and most of the readers here feel this is second nature because we are attracting others who are like-minded. However, I do think that we are in the minority (unfortunately). Too many people out there seem to be looking for a quick fix and have a hard time taking a long-term approach IMO.

  5. by Matt Leedham on April 25, 2012 at 10:46 am

    Derek – well said. I don’t read many blogs/newsletters, but I really appreciate your messages. Thank you. On a related note to this concept, I wrote a post last year called Pay it Backward. It’s not a business strategy, but a life strategy that has paid huge dividends to me personally. Would love to share it, but I want to respect your blog here and not post links. Shoot me a note if you are interested…you’re welcome to use the content however you like.

  6. by Derek on April 26, 2012 at 12:50 am

    Matt- Thanks so much for reading and for chiming in. I’d love to see your post and please feel free to post it here if you think it is relevant. Thanks again!

  7. by Jeff Martello on May 2, 2012 at 4:59 pm

    Derek – I absolutely believe that your approach is the correct one, however we may be in the minority! I have been told by several people that unless I ask for a ROI of my time donated to others, I will not recieve any. To date I still haven’t asked becasue that’s not why I do it!

  8. by Derek Coburn on May 3, 2012 at 11:06 pm

    Thanks, Jeff. I agree about being in the minority. Worst case scenario, if we do it mainly as a way to add value to existing client relationships it’s still a big win (even if it can’t be directly measured).

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