There’s something about the word “networking” that just turns people off. It sounds so clinical; so cold. Many people think of it as asking for a favor before they’ve gotten to know a person.
But really, when people say “networking,” they’re talking about meeting new people who work in the same industry that they do. In normal parlance, this could be called “making friends.”
Although networking is essential for every career path, as someone working in nonprofits, I’ve relied heavily on my circle of friends. I have not only gotten jobs through my connections; I’ve also been able to get feedback on strategy, insight into donors, and critical introductions to program partners. Likewise, I have shared job opportunities, referred consultants, and offered advice to others. By prioritizing networking, I’ve been able to establish myself as an industry expert.
This doesn’t mean that I spend all my free time at staid “networking events” and happy hours. Instead, I try to take advantage of natural opportunities to connect with people in my field and develop more meaningful relationships. Here are a few fresh networking ideas that I’ve found most successful.
1. Start Internally
If you’re like me, you work with a lot of smart people—but if you’re like me, you’re the only one who performs certain functions at your job. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t network with colleagues. Sure, they may not be able to provide insight and advice about how you can improve in your specific role, but they likely have skills and contacts that you could benefit from.
For example, as a fundraiser, I can learn a lot about relationship management and cultivating partners from my policy and lobbying cohorts. So, I make sure to attend any trainings they have and schedule time to grab coffee or lunch whenever our schedules allow. Along the same lines, I’ve learned the most valuable information about strategic planning and evaluation methods from my program colleagues.
And to make sure things don’t get one-sided, I repay the favor by hosting fundraising trainings and prepping staff for donor meetings.
2. Rethink Conferences
Summer is jam-packed with conferences and annual meetings. But rather than think about these events as opportunities to learn, also consider what you can teach. While I’m attending a workshop or panel, for example, I try to think about how I can help each attendee in the room. Either I can ask a smart question during the Q&A time, or I can follow up with individuals afterward and offer my resources.
Just last week, I attended a seminar. When it ended, I approached one woman and offered to put her in touch with nonprofit writing opportunities. I offered to help another attendee put together a social media plan that would particularly target young activists. I was able to make some great contacts in organizations with which I would love to work someday, and I immediately positioned myself as a problem solver rather than a time waster.
3. Introduce Yourself to Your Heroes
OK, I’m not suggesting that Bill Gates is going to return your calls (trust me, I’ve tried). But your peer at that organization with the program you really admire? He or she just might.
I recently reached out to an organization that my nonprofit works with very closely. I attended its annual event and thought it was a great model for what I’m hoping to establish at my organization. Rather than being concerned about competition, my fellow fundraiser was flattered to hear from me and spent a good 60 minutes graciously explaining the evolution of the event and the resources she needed from her leadership team to make it happen.
In fact, I’ve had these meetings fairly regularly and have only encountered extreme generosity and a desire to help (and yes, it’s resulted in a couple of great job opportunities as well!).
I hope these ideas help you break out of your networking rut and make some connections that can truly transform your career. Relationships can make our lives and our careers fulfilling, so don’t be scared to reach out and establish a real connection.