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 Motivationvideo, 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 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
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.
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.
“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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I was at a networking event last night, and it came up that I had written a book on networking. “OK,” the person I was speaking to said, “then I have a question for you. For someone like me who hates networking events, how do I start a conversation at a networking event?”
This is a very common question, and it is also very reasonable that anyone who would be asking it would hate networking events. They are all about conversations, and if you aren’t comfortable starting them, then it will be a very awkward time.
So, for all you out there who have this same question, here’s the secret.
You’re all there for the same reason
When you’re at a networking event, there are all kinds of people. There are hungry salespeople looking for prospects. Bewildered entrepreneurs are there seeking mentors. Bankers are there because the bank pays for their admission, and more.
But all these people have one thing in common. They are all there to network. That’s why they call it a networking event. The key to networking is making connections, which requires meeting people.
In other words, everyone in that room is there to meet people, and you’re a person, so that’s a good start.
This is not like a middle school dance where you might approach someone and get a snotty reply of “why are you talking to me?” Everyone in that room needs something, and there’s every chance that you have it.
How to start a conversation
So now you are approaching someone to have a conversation. How should it start? “What do you do?” seems pretty cliche. It actually works alright as an icebreaker just to get some conversation going, but it won’t get you to a really rich networking conversation.
How about this instead?
What these two questions have in common is that you are asking how you can serve them. Everyone you ever meet is eternally interested in themselves and what they need. This is entirely fair because you are eternally interested in yourself and what you need.
If you want to make a good impression on someone and start on the right foot, offer to help with that which they care about most: themselves and their problems.
Once they share with you what they are seeking, take it as a challenge to provide them resources. The average person knows 250 people. Even if you are not “well connected,” you have friends, high school buddies, neighbors, coworkers, and more to draw from.
It is amazingly common that I will find that someone has a need which can be addressed by someone else I just met at the same event. How easy is it to say “Oh, I just met someone who can help you. Come with me.”
Even if you are not so lucky, there’s probably someone you can connect them to.
And if you come up completely empty, email me. Maybe I know someone who can help.
Business after hours networking events can be a great opportunity to meet new people, develop relationships, find clients, and build your business. A networking event can also be terrifying for someone coming for the first time who doesn’t know what to do.
The overarching goal of attending any networking event is to make connections that can be of benefit to both you and the person you are connecting with.
Here are 5 quick do’s and don’ts of making great connections at networking events.
1. At networking events, they don’t all know each other
You walk into the networking event, get your name tag, and look around the room. Everyone is already talking. They must already know each other. You’re the outsider looking in. Right?
The first is people who came with people they already know. Most often such people are coming on their employer’s dime. They are just as nervous as you are, but they have friends and coworkers with them. The problem is that talking to their friends and coworkers is doing nothing for them or their employer, and they know it.
In this case, you are doing them a favor to approach and introduce yourself because you are doing the hard part of breaking the ice. They will then be able to report back to the boss on the great connection they made, you.
The other cause of a long conversation is two people meeting for the first time. This is what they are here for, and it’s what you are here for as well. You can drift over to their conversation, and you’ll hear them going through all the getting to know you background. If they are polite, they’ll draw you into the conversation. If not, you can just listen attentively, and, should an opportunity arise, you can join the conversation.
What about people who really do know each other but didn’t come together? They usually talk for a minute or two. “Hi, Bob, how’s business?” “Oh, it’s great, how’s the family?” “Good.” “Ok, talk to you later.”
2. Get business cards, don’t give business cards
Your goal in attending networking events is to connect with people. Handing someone a business card is not connecting. Getting a business card is not connecting either, but it gives you the opportunity to follow up, and that is connecting.
The common newbie mistake is to shove business cards into as many hands as possible thinking that one will get lucky. All that happens in that case is that those hands will drop those business cards into lucky trash barrels.
Be sure to ask for the business card of anyone you are interested in connecting with, but only give them your card if it is requested.
Follow up as soon as possible. It’s not a date. You don’t have to worry about appearing too interested. Following up the next day feels attentive and polite.
You can follow up by phone, email, post card or any other way you like. There’s different theories as to what follow up method is best, but any method is better than none.
3. Give value, don’t take value
Everyone at a networking event is there to gain value in one way or another. Most everyone has something to sell, and they would rather tell you about what they have than listen to what you have.
So let them. Your job is not to hunt prospects. Your job is to make connections, and the best way to make connections is to find out what the other person needs and figure out a way to help fill that need.
Ask people you meet what problems they are trying to solve. Then see what resources you might have to solve them with. A person whose problem you are helping solve is much more interested in you and your business.
After you ask how you can help them, they should ask how they can help you. Whether they will or not depends mostly on their level of manners, but even if they do not, the good things you do have a way of coming back to you.
4. Mingle, don’t cling
Five minutes is about how long you should spend in any conversation at a networking event. You should also get physical exercise for at least 30 minutes every day.
No one should be standing around with a stopwatch at networking events, but the five minute rule is more there to keep you focused on the fact that you are looking to connect with as many people as possible. In the follow up, you can make a meeting to sit down for an hour over coffee or lunch and really get to know each other.
Five minutes is long enough to arouse curiosity. Fifteen minutes is long enough for them to decide that they know all they need to know about you. Meet briefly. Find a common interest. Set a follow up. Connect with someone else, and allow them to do the same.
5. Sip, don’t guzzle
Almost every afterhours networking event has an open bar. People feel more open to meeting new people and going outside their comfort zone when they have a drink or two.
Make sure it’s just a drink or two. Know your limits. No one wants to connect with a drunk. Loosening up a little is good. Loosening up too much makes a bad impression.
While you are meeting these people for the first time, it’s not the last time you’ll interact with them, so keep your wits about you and make a good impression.