Monday, September 20, 2010

How Networking Can Be One of (If Not The) Most Important Modes to Obtain A Nonprofit's Goal (Any Goal)

Volunteers and staff working for any nonprofit are tasked with individual specific positions and have a myriad of tasks to do each week, month, and year for that position.  One of the most important tasks that is often not listed in job descriptions, and not even attempted, but very powerful in achieving organizational success is networking.

Networking is put off too often.  It can really be a powerful tool to move a nonprofit forward in many ways.

If someone is starting a brand new nonprofit, networking among the local region's nonprofit community (in particular among organizations (other nonprofits, businesses, schools, government agencies, etc.) that are doing related or similar work gets the new organization's name out, the person's name who is starting the organization out, and provides the opportunity to say what the organization will do, for whom, how, and where (i.e.a physical address or local campus); and it allows that person to gather information (i.e. they might suggest someone locally that you don't know but should, or they may share lessons learned and experiences from their own organization's start up that wind up being pearls of wisdom), make professional connections, and can lead to some very long lasting and powerful relationships like professional collaborations, making introductions, fundraising, acquiring new board member or other volunteers, and more.

Much of the potential in networking (again, for any one of any nonprofit organization's goals) is the same.  Additionally, an established nonprofit, might have an executive director who regularly gets out of the office just to network.  This is extremely wise as much of how a nonprofit thrives and grows depends upon that organization's relationships with the people and business entities in the community.  Making time weekly or daily to network allows for the organization to disseminate important agency achievements, goals, or needs.  It also allows the nonprofit to acquire pertinent key information regarding its most current work such as perhaps fundraising.  For example, if a colleague has applied to the foundation that your organization is about to apply for a grant to, and they just did it last quarter, they will have some very current and potentially helpful information that could help you put the organization into a better position to get the grant.  Or, if a few local nonprofits have devised some very effective management strategies to get through this down economy with less difficulty, it can be powerful for other organizations to know what is working and share what they've found works.  Personally initiating, maintaining, and enabling professional relationships, face to face, is one of the most (if not the most) powerful ways to do so.  An organization's leadership (its executive director and its board members) are its face, so to speak.  They are the most executive of all people working for it and so there is a "peer to peer" aspect achieved when leaders network among other local businesses', agencies', or nonprofits' leaders.

Networking, of course, is making the acquaintance of someone new or connecting again with someone you've already met that is a colleague working in the same sector (the nonprofit sector, in this case) and sometimes in the same field.  You may meet these professional contacts online, over the phone, or in person.  It helps to be introduced to new contacts but it is often the case that you walk up to someone you don't know, perhaps at a community based meeting, or a professional nonprofit conference and simply say,

"Hello, I don't believe we've met before.  My name is ________ ," extending your hand to shake theirs in a professional and firm handshake, "and I work for X (organization's name).  I am the Y (your professional title) and we "a, b, c" (state what the organization does, for whom, how, and why in a short but clear fashion, sometimes called the "three second speech" or "elevator speech")."

For example, if you and I are both attending our children's holiday choral concert at school and our kids' teacher has just introduced us and we determined that we both work in the nonprofit sector, locally, I might say, "It's good to meet you, Diane.  My name is Arlene Spencer and I am the Development Director at the Multiple Sclerosis Association of King County.  The MSA is a direct services provider for local people who have Multiple Sclerosis and their loved ones, providing assistance and support to enable people; as after a diagnosis one's life is changed.  The MSA exists because resources, effective treatments, and coping strategies are not known if you haven't gone through it before.  No other local organization enables people dealing with MS in these ways."

Ask the person you're just meet to share the same information about themselves with you and then exchange business cards.  If you don't have business cards, exchange names, organization's names, titles, and e-mail addresses.  After the event, the next day back in the office, send and request an e-mail providing one another with the pertinent info.  Having already determined and rehearsed (not too much) an elevator speech is great for just such a situation.

Note that the example elevator speech, above, is informative but concise while making a clear case why the organization is needed, today, by the beneficiaries of the organization (in this case local people with MS and their loved ones).  It's clear and compelling information that explains the organization's relevance, "...as after a diagnosis one's life is changed." and "No other local organization enables people dealing with MS in these ways.""

After each conference I attend, I always round up all of the business cards I gathered at the event and write on the back the name of the event that I met them at, the date of that event, and any other note such as, for example, "...might be a good organization to collaborate for the proposed new early education program..." and then I will follow up with them that week (it is good to get back to people sooner than later so every one's memory is fresh)) or I will note at a later date, in my calendar, to follow up with them if that's appropriate.  Finally, I file the cards into whatever I use to manage business cards (digital or hard copy, such as a Rolodex) and, if you don't, it's good to have something to manage them.

I know it isn't the most comfortable or easy thing for everyone to walk up to strangers, extend one's hand professionally, and introduce oneself but it is a good skill to develop, try, refine, and try again, if you aren't comfortable with doing it.  It's not that you have to become "networker of the year" at all.  The point is to use the skill to your organization's advantage and your advantage.  Do not feel pressure to do or say what doesn't feel natural, doesn't feel like you, to yourself.  Refine what you are inclined to say or do until it does feel comfortable and familiar.  It may not ever get to where it feels "easy" or "natural" but that's O.K.  Networking takes time to develop but is worth the time to do so.

Having a professional signature block pre-set in your e-mail client, for work, helps with networking, as well.  Usually a signature block is placed after the closing ("Sincerely", "Regards", "Best", etc.) and in a left margin flush format.  It lists, line under line, the person's first and last name, their job title, the name of the organization that they are working for (either as a volunteer or staff member and it's not necessary to discern that you're one or the other, as a professional commitment, paid or not, is still a professional commitment; and whether one's being paid or not is irrelevant).  Under that (depending on the organization's protocols usually outlined in a human resources resource) the person's direct business phone number, perhaps their e-mail address, or even the organization's mailing address may be listed, as well.  These kinds of professional touches make networking with you easier for anyone who sees your signature block and wishes to make contact with you or your organization.

Being and actively utilizing a professional affiliation membership (local or national), joining a local and informal group of colleagues who work at other nonprofits for lunch regularly, being on a task force for local government, being an active member as a United Way agency, and any place or mode where you are among others (no matter if they work in the nonprofit sector or not) is an opportunity to at least introduce yourself and give the elevator speech because you never know who you are meeting and it could wind up being your nonprofit's next big donor, a new board member, a new colleague connection, or a link for your nonprofit to partner with theirs' and provide some new innovative and effective project that serves both organizations' missions.  There is no limit to how people meet, so there is no limit to where one can network.

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