When clients tell me they need to do a better job of networking, there are two things I want to know:
As it happens, how they define networking is often what’s stopping them. That may sound strange, so let me explain.
If your idea of networking is to find and attend a networking meeting, that probably doesn’t sound very inspiring. And it isn’t. The prospect of walking around in a roomful of strangers hoping to find someone who might be able to help isn’t a possibility that excites me, either. Although there are some terrific groups that get together to help each other, all groups are not created equal. Despite the exceptions, I’ve never been a big believer in this approach for one simple reason: N etworking meetings tend to attract people who don’t consider themselves well-connected.
How helpful is that?
While there are many ways to expand your network, one of the most powerful is to get involved with philanthropy. It’s a great opportunity to help other people while you help yourself. To appreciate how philanthropy can be a better way to increase your network, let’s first look at three of the primary goals of networking:
Sometimes you can achieve these goals at networking meetings, but the circumstances are less than ideal. Philanthropy can be a better way to achieve all three goals because the primary goal is helping an organization or people in need. You achieve your other goals seamlessly because the activity puts you in contact with other people who share similar interests.
This strategy is even more effective if you find a way to create or get involved in a wide-scale project. For example, when I worked at Chicago advertising agency Leo Burnett, I was shocked by the volume of waste generated by graphic- arts studios. For example, once the ads were mounted and trimmed, large scraps of foam core and paper were regularly discarded. It also made me cringe to see art directors throw out giant sets of not-quite-new but perfectly usable markers. As a long-time volunteer in the Child Life Department at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, I had a feeling that much of what we were throwing out could be put to good use. So I organized an effort where the various studios began collecting materials. On an almost weekly basis, we shipped boxes of foam core and art supplies to the hospital.
At first, the Child Life staff wasn’t sure what to do with the foam core. But being quite resourceful, it wasn’t long before they couldn’t get enough of it. Our primary goal was to recycle what would have been waste and give the patients at Children’s access to great art supplies. None of us did it to build our networks or increase our visibility. But that’s exactly what happened when we all started working together. I met countless people throughout the agency and hospital I would otherwise never have met.
There are other ways to get involved . For example, an attorney I know who specializes in mergers and acquisitions joined the board of a local community health center that caters to the uninsured. At first glance, that might not seem like an ideal place for him to expand his network . But consider this: A s a board member and head of the finance committee, he now has contact with some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies that actively support the center and donate product to the on-site pharmacy.
As you look for opportunities to get involved, here are a few questions and tips to consider:
What people or organizations would value the expertise you’ve gained through work or personal interests?
Philanthropic organizations, like their for-profit counterparts, have needs in every conceivable area including finance, marketing, public relations, event planning and fundraising . Of the organizations that could potentially benefit from your involvement, which possibilities do you find most energizing? To paraphrase educator and speaker Marsha Sinetar : Do what you love, and the contacts will follow.
In which organizations are you most likely to find the people you’d like to meet?
If you have a particular goal from a networking perspective, there is nothing wrong with being strategic about your involvement. For example, if you know certain people are actively involved in a particular organization, it’s perfectly acceptable to get involved as well — as long as you are genuinely interested in the organization. If it looks like your primarily goal is to meet a particular person, this approach will backfire. And for good reason. For a philanthropic approach to work, the organization has to benefit in some way. It can’t be all about you.
Make it easy for people to help.
If you are coordinating the efforts of others, be sure to make it as easy as possible for them to be involved. I almost learned this the hard way. When we were working on the art-supply donations, one studio was particularly active in collecting foam core. Unfortunately, the more quickly they collected it, the more quickly it piled up and created an eyesore. To keep the studio and staff interested and supportive, we had to arrange more frequent pick-ups from the hospital so we could get the scraps out of the studio.