Networking Through Volunteering

Volunteering is a great way to connect with people.
Working together with people on positive efforts in the community is a great way to build your network.

There are all kinds of great reasons to volunteer. It does good for the community. You can set a good example for your children. It supports causes you care about. Volunteering can also be a great way to build your network if you do it right.

I hope that you are volunteering for more reasons than simply to build your network. You may take on different volunteering opportunities for different reasons. The purpose of this article, however, is to discuss how make volunteerism a part of your networking strategy. This is a win-win because it helps you to build your resources while also doing something positive for the community. I hope that, as your network grows and your resources increase, you will take advantage of those resources to give back in other ways.

A purist may look at this and suggest that I am corrupting the purity of volunteerism by doing something so crass as trying to derive benefit from it. But, as I discussed in a recent Michael’s Motivation video, everyone who volunteers does it to gain something. It may be a good feeling. They may seek the respect of their boss, neighbors, or family. Perhaps they desire exposure. It may be fun or a feeling of importance. Connections could be the goal.

In which I discuss the idea that, while volunteers do not expect money, they do expect to receive a return on their time.

In this article, we’re focusing on the last of these. My hope is that you will learn ways to make the most of your volunteering so that you can do the most good and so that you will want to keep doing it.

Whatever the benefit, nobody does anything that they aren’t getting anything out of, an important lesson for anyone seeking to recruit and retain volunteers, but that’s a discussion for another article.

Volunteering on work time

Volunteering with the Rotary club
Michael Whitehouse, John Silsby, and Dave Brown of the Rotary Club of Groton cleaning up a local road.

There are many wonderful ways you can volunteer that do incredible things for people who need your help that will not help your network. I hope you will do those things as well. They can return dividends far greater than the greatest business success. These are wonderful things to do, and I hope you will dedicate some personal time to helping.

What I’m talking about here is the kind of volunteerism that justifies taking “work time” and dedicating it to volunteer efforts. Your time is very valuable, and if you are to spend it on anything, you should have an expectation of return.

This concept that volunteering is good for your business is well known, but too many people do not stop to think about where will provide the most benefit. They put their efforts into the wrong places. Tragically, the conclude that helping the community does not help their business. In fact, it does, but only if done the right way.

Ultimately, in any networking activity, it is all about whom you might meet in your work. If you are tutoring children, it is very rewarding work, but your time will be spent with children. These children are likely not well connected in the business community.

So, in addition to your tutoring work, how could you help these children and build your network at the same time? You could serve on the board of the organization that supports the tutoring. Your network and other skills could support the organization or help in fundraising efforts.

Here are three key things to consider when allocating your on-the-clock volunteering efforts.

  • Spend time with the people you want to connect with.
  • Make the most efficient use of your time.
  • Support causes that you care about and enjoy working on.

Spend time with those you want to connect with

Just like any networking effort, you want to make sure you are connecting with the right people. If you are looking to connect with business owners and people of influence in the community, you may find that a non-profit board of directors or event committee is an excellent place to be.

Take a look, for example, at the board of the Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition. What an amazing group of people, all donating their time to support this cause. If you are a business owner who is looking to build your business in a community, it is not a question of whether you will join a non profit board, but a question of which one(s) and how many.

If you are still building your business or career, you may not have great financial resources to contribute to a cause. You may not have extensive experience. What you do have is time to contribute. If an attorney whose time bills out at $350/hr can make time to serve, you can too, and your time could be just as valuable to the organization as the attorney’s.

By supporting great causes, you will make connections and build relationships in a non-business context. The more points of contact you have with a person, in other words the more you have done together, the stronger your relationship will be.

Make efficient use of your time

Many people in business would love to make volunteering a part of their networking strategy but feel that they don’t have the time. Chances are that there is something you have to offer which you have a relative advantage in. In other words, there is something you could do in 20 minutes which would take someone else hours of research and planning to do.

Dinner In the Dark

I serve on the event committee of an incredible organization called Sofia Sees Hope. We run Dinner in the Dark which raises over $150,000 in one night to work towards a cure for Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA).

Sofia giving instructions at Dinner in the Dark, a great opportunity for volunteering and doing good.
The Sofia of Sofia Sees Hope, giving tips of eating without sight to the over 300 attendees of Dinner in the Dark.

Like most of you reading this, my time is at a premium, but I am able to leverage my 20 years of event experience and my network for Dinner in the Dark. I attend the event committee meeting and listen for areas of difficulty I might be able to assist with.

As it turns out, my I was able to be most valuable because one my connection to a now defunct company called Such Publicity which created a service which created a live slideshow from an Instagram feed. We were able to use this to create an exciting and unique experience at the dance after the dinner. For anyone else to do this would have taken many hours of research. For me, it took an email.

After Such Publicity shut down, I was able to leverage my technical experience to find an alternate solution that worked just as well without needing the third party service. We kept the party on the big screen, and I had fun doing it.

I worked my network and experience to help bring some fun elements to an event that raises money to help children get their vision back. In the process, I made connections that built my network to give me greater resources to help others in the future. What a great return on investment!

The Renaissance Gala

In another case, which I discuss in my book The Guy Who Knows a Guy, I was working with a local Rotary club who was planning a Renaissance themed gala dinner. They had a great idea, but they had no idea where to find suitable performers. I happened to meet one of the organizers at a networking event. During the course of conversation he mentioned his challenge.

“How many do you need?” I asked.

“What?”

“How many performers do you need? Five? A dozen? I could probably find two dozen, but it would take more work.”

“Um, two. We really need two.”

I connected him with three and they were able to choose the two that worked best. It ended up being an incredible event, made all the better with fantastic entertainment.

The whole effort took me less than half an hour. It saved them countless hours of research and hunting around, probably getting them much higher quality performers in the process.

Support causes that you care about

There is no guarantee that you will ever see a business benefit from volunteering. If you are giving your time and resources, you should give them to a cause you feel good supporting. This prevents the idea that you “wasted your time” if you don’t see a return. If you want to invest, buy a restaurant. While there is likely a benefit to your network, you primary purpose in volunteering should be the work itself.

That said, your payoff could also be your enjoyment of the work. Personally, I love helping run events. It’s fun for me, especially well run events. This is why I work with Dinner in the Dark. LCA is not necessarily a cause that I’m personally passionate about, but allowing children to regain their sight is a great cause, and the team that Laura Manfre has built at Sofia Sees Hope is a joy to work with.

That’s the real key. There are things that you will have to do in business that you don’t like, maybe even dread. If your volunteer work is one of those things, you’re doing it wrong. There may be some hard or unpleasant work, but the overall experience of volunteering should be positive before any business or networking considerations come into the conversation.


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