During my three years as a professional campaigner for a large community organization, I noticed that many of my co-workers, although amazing at relationship building, were reluctant when it came to networking.
They weren’t unique in this. Many people hate networking, but do it anyway because a strong network is such a powerful asset. For non profit professionals in particular, a broad and robust network represents a source of support for the organizations they represent: more donors, more volunteers, more collaborators, etc.
So how can a person go from a reluctant mingler to a master network builder?
Start by identifying your goals
As with any activity, it’s hard to get motivated to network if you don’t know specifically why you’re doing it. It’s worth spending some time thinking about your goals before putting time and energy into networking events.
Start by asking yourself:
“What am I looking for? What do I need? What does my organization need?”
Some possible answers:
- Potential collaborators
- Service providers
- Increased awareness of the work you do
You don’t have to narrow it down to just one, but having at least one or two of these in mind will help guide your choices and conversations.
Use a good awareness of your goals to choose your venue for networking by considering where the kinds of people you’re seeking might gather. For example: if you need volunteers with a particular skillset, such as accounting, an accounting conference might be the best place for you.
This goal-focused approach to networking makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Let’s take a moment to address that.
Is networking icky?
According to a recent study, one of the reasons so many of us fear networking is that it makes us feel dirty. This stems from a perception that it’s a self serving, greedy, basically immoral thing to do.
To overcome this feeling, a shift in our attitude about networking is required. Rather than seeing it as something we do just to get what we want, we can view it as an opportunity to create mutually beneficial relationships.
Ideally, every donor, volunteer, or other stakeholder becomes involved with your organization because of a need on their part. It might be a desire to make a difference, it might be a need to fill time and make friends, it might be something else, or a combination. In any case, there are people out there who are looking for what you can give them. The key is to find a fit. When networking, we should be looking not only for someone who has what we need, but for someone who needs what we have. That mutual benefit is the sweet spot, and the solution to the problem of feeling like self serving jerks when we network.
If we apply this mutual benefit lens to our example of looking for a volunteer with accounting experience, the goal becomes to find not just an accountant, but one who cares about the kind of issues your organization deals with. You can help that person as much as they can help you.
Use the Host Mentality
Having put some thought into your goals and used them to choose a place to network, it’s time to actually attend a networking event and mingle.
One of my favourite mingling techniques is known as “The Host Mentality”. It’s a great way to make a good impression while taking the pressure off of yourself.
To use the Host Mentality, you take on the role of the ‘host’ of the event. As the host, you want your guests to meet one another and have great conversations. To help that happen, you make it your business to learn as much as you can about them so that you can introduce people with things in common.
The Host Mentality takes the pressure off you to explain what you do, or to find something to talk about. In fact, you try to talk as little as possible about yourself. Your job becomes that of encouraging and interested listener. As Dale Carnegie famously said, “To be interesting, be interested”.
Once you’ve talked to two or three people in this way, you’ll start to see opportunities to bring them together, introducing them and getting their conversation started by letting them know what they share.
When you create connections for others, something magical happens. Although your involvement might be minimal, you get some of the credit for whatever good ends up coming from any connection you facilitate. You gain credibility and trust from the people you’ve introduced to one another, which can serve you very well in the future.
The Host Mentality also facilitates the mutual benefit approach. As you listen and learn about others, keep your goal in the back of your mind. Ask questions designed to help you find out if the person you’re talking to is looking for what you’re offering, If you can help it, avoid talking about what you do unless you find that point of mutual interest. When you do hear it, you can bring up what you have to offer, and/or are looking for.
For example, if your organization works on environmental issues, listen for the other person to mention something related. You might even bring it up in a casual way by asking their opinion about, say, the disposable plates being used at the event. If they don’t seem to care much about it, don’t pursue it and simply focus on learning enough about them to introduce them to someone else. But if their answer reveals shared values with your organization, you can dig deeper to eventually find out if they are interested in the opportunity to take action on it that you can offer them, and make the offer to become involved.
Conclusion: You can do it!
Networking is a challenge for many people, but we all need supportive and mutually beneficial networks in order to achieve our fullest potential. By seeing it not only as an opportunity to get what we need, but also an opportunity to serve and benefit others, we can get more out of our networking, both for ourselves, for our organizations, and in service of the important work nonprofit professionals do every day.
If you’d like more really concrete tips for working a room, check out The Art of Mingling by Jeanne Martinet.
For a fuller explanation of the host mentality, take a look at this post from the National Louis University.
Nadine Riopel is a facilitator and connector who helps events, organizations, and individuals use social capital to succeed. Read more articles and visit her at www.nadineriopel.com.