How to Network so you can Fundraise, find Volunteers, and Spread Awareness
It's curious to me that I don't see more attention given to networking in the nonprofit sector. I see a lot about fundraising, getting volunteers, and grant writing, but I see very little about how to network effectively. Honestly, I find this a bit bizarre. How are you suppose to fundraise, find volunteers, or spread awareness about your mission if you don't have any connections?
If you have a large network and are consistently growing it you will find almost all the aspects of running a nonprofit easier than if you solely focus on doing the internal work. The thing is networking should be considered a large part of your work, especially if you are a founder, ED, or other nonprofit leader. This is because networking brings opportunities, money, and man power to your cause, and it doesn't cost you a dime.
If you aren't actively networking you aren't doing your job. It's that important.
It's why I took the entire summer just to focus on networking. I had no other projects or goals. The only thing I did was reach out to new people, have coffee meetings, do presentations, and work on PR. That's it. For over three months. And I think it was the smartest thing I could have done for my small organization.
Networking can solve almost all your problems, and I don't mean that with a grain of salt.
I'm sure we can agree that networking is a crucial element of success but that doesn't change the fact that networking is intimidating and hard to do effectively.
Networking champions do a few things differently. They approach any networking opportunity with a giving first mindset, they prepare accordingly, and they practice effective social cues such as a firm handshake and eye contact.
Seems pretty simple right? On paper it is!
Let's break it down into steps so you too can become a master at networking.
Step One - How to find new people to network with
There are really unlimited ways you can find people to network with, but I will touch on some of the most common ones.
1. Networking events or conferences: This one is pretty obvious, I mean it says it right in the name. The only thing is these events can be intimidating. Going into a large room and trying to strike up a meaningful conversation with a stranger, who is more than likely trying to influence you to do something in their favor, isn't easy unless you are extremely extroverted. The key is to focus on only having a handful of deeper, more meaningful conversations. Quality over quantity.
2. Ask friends and family to connect you with people who they think might be interested in your nonprofit/cause. This is how I did all my networking. It's an easy in and you never have the awkward blind introduction because you already have a common friend that you can talk about to break the ice. My one caveat is that you may have to ask your network multiple times before you get any leads. I will also say that an email blast to everyone you know probably isn't going to get you very far. Sometimes you just need to put in the extra effort and call or meet up with your friend or family member before you ask for leads.
3. Go to local events that draw the kind of audience you would like to connect with. If you know that you have a lot of donors who love to go to farmer's markets then go spend a couple weekend mornings shopping for veggies and talking to shop owners. If you are brave you can talk to other shoppers as well, but I have found that stall owners are looking to chat and can sometimes have great connections for you. This won't work if you don't have an idea of where your donors like to go. If you are so new that you don't have a donor base then you can simply go anywhere where people congregate and see where it takes you.
4. Online. Now I know most people are going to roll their eyes at this but we live in an increasingly online world. Why not take advantage of it?! There are countless ways you can network online. It's basically the purpose of social media, especially linkedIn, but there are also apps and even getting in on email chains could even work. This really could be it's own topic and blog post, so I'm just going to leave it short and sweet. ( If you would like to learn more about this leave a comment below!)
Step Two - Striking up a conversation
I'm not naive to the fact that starting a conversation with a stranger is rarely comfortable. No matter which option(s) you choose to find people to network with there is simply going to be an element of discomfort when you go to strike up a conversation. Unfortunately there isn't really any way around it. You just have to suck it up and do it.
Sometimes things won't go well and you will want to crawl into your shell and never talk to anyone every again, but other times it will go well and you will be thrilled with yourself. It's crucial that you commit to it and JUST DO IT not matter how uncomfortable it gets.
With that being said, here are some ways to break the ice:
- Give a compliment
- Ask a question (There are so many options here, have you been here before? What did you think of the presentation? How do you know so-and-so? Are you from this area?)
- Simply introduce yourself (a warm smile and handshake helps)
- A sneakier one that I have used is to go up to someone and say, 'you look really familiar. Do we know each other from somewhere?'
Once you break the ice the hard part is over but there is something very important to remember. Your body language speaks volumes. Acting confident, friendly, and engaged is going to get you farther than anything else. A smile is your best friend and make a point to muster up all the positive energy you can. I saw this quote that said, 'Your energy enters the room before you do', and it's so true!
Step Three - Have an awesome conversation where you are focused on helping the person you are speaking with
This is the secret sauce! Make sure that you are listening intently and really focused in on how you could benefit the person you are talking to. Of course they will want to know about you as well so be prepared to share personal stories and talk about your nonprofit, but don't hog the conversation and do more waiting your turn to speak then listening.
This is a bit of an art and it takes practice so don't get discouraged if you intend on going into a conversation and only talking 40% of the time but you end up talking 60%. It's all good, and it doesn't mean that you can't still find a way to serve them and build a meaningful connection.
I also want to clarify that finding a way to help someone can be small. No need to disservice yourself trying to help someone that you only had one conversation with. Little things like making an introduction for them, sending them a grant writer recommendation because they mentioned they were looking, or simply sending a small thank you card or email after the conversation are all great ways to extend that positive first impression.
Step four - Follow up and treat them like a friend or colleague
Everyone does this differently and you will have to develop your own style of continuing the dialogue after that first meeting. Many times the occasional email is all you need to keep things going. I like to think about going updates if something important happens either in my life or business that I feel my new connection might care about. These correspondence can be very occasional.
After you met in person and shared a few emails (even just one or two) you shouldn't feel uneasy about inviting them to an incoming event, asking for a donation, asking for an introduction to someone in their network, or even asking if they might be interested in being a volunteer. As long as you are okay with being asked to do the same for them there is no reason why, after you have put in the work to include them in your network, you couldn't ask them for help.
Growing your network will provide you with opportunities you never thought existed and will make your life much easier when you are trying to fundraise for a campaign, find volunteers, and spread awareness about your organization. The more people you have on your side the better!
Networking is tough, but I promise you it can be done and it will be a game changer for your entire organization!
Keep impacting the world!