By Meg Busse.
As you take your personal mission statement out for a test drive, you will inevitably (hopefully!) find yourself about to begin a conversation with someone. This is often the moment that causes folks (like me) to dread networking events—the awkward small talk, the fumbling to find some common interest to talk about, the mumbled excuse that you need to go refill your beverage….
Here are a few ways to make networking events a more successful, less stressful part of your schedule.
1. Set goals.
I recognize the importance of networking events. Really, I do. But many nights, given the options of heading home to play with my new puppy, grabbing dinner with friends, or just relaxing with a good book, a networking event may not be my top choice. So to make sure I make networking a priority, I’ve set a goal for myself to attend three networking events a month. If I do that in the first three days of the month, great—I’m done. Usually, though, I end up waiting until the last week of the month and then have to look around to find something to attend.
2. Have great questions.
I recently saw David Sedaris on his book tour. After the show, there was a two-hour line for a book signing. As I got closer in the line, I got to hear some of the fantastic questions he asked people who silently handed him their book to sign. By asking interesting questions, listening to the answers, and often responding with something witty, everyone left the table smiling and feeling good about themselves.
One of my favorite questions to ask people is, “What are you working on?” This is different from “What do you do?” because it broadens the scope of possible answers to beyond just a current job. People can talk about the scarf they’re knitting, the blog post they’re mulling over, the bike they’re learning to fix, or any of the projects they’re engaged with at work. Give this or one of your favorite questions a try at your next networking event and see how much easier it is to get the conversation going when you begin with great questions.
3. Know what you want.
My first impression of networking was an uncomfortable, orchestrated process where slimy guys in suits tried to find ways to get what they wanted. I have since become aware of the nuanced and collaborative nature of good networking. But even when there is an emphasis on reciprocation and relationship building, it’s still a great idea to go into a networking event with an awareness of what you’re looking for.
Depending on where you are in your job search or career and what kind of networking event you’re attending, be open to interesting conversation but also have a few specific goals. For example, perhaps you’ve been working as an IT consultant in the nonprofit sector for several years but are interested in learning more about nonprofits that focus on wind or sustainable energy. If you attend one of the international Green Drinks networking events, you may want to set your sights on finding people who will provide informational interviews, advice, and resources to learn more about organizations in the green energy arena. Whereas if you go to one of the local tech-focused nonprofit networking nights like PDX Net Tuesdays in Portland, Oregon, you may be seeking contacts, opportunities for collaboration, or even a mentor because your knowledge of and connections within this field are much better established.
While none of these tips will make networking an effortless process, they can help provide some structure and goals so that you can get out there, meet people, and make the connections that that will get you a great nonprofit job and allow you to find new and innovative ways to collaborate within the sector.
For more information on networking, check out Chapter Four of The Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers: “Networking: Is it really all about who you know? Yes.”
[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]