Alumni, donors, and other stakeholders in your institution appreciate the benefits of expanding their networks for personal and professional development. As advancement professionals, we create networking opportunities for this reason. But did you ever stop to reflect on why building your own network benefits you? A Google search for “networking advice” returns approximately 279 million results. If you had infinite time and patience, you could glean some useful tips from those search results. But if you want to focus your efforts more immediately, we provide some guidelines to help you improve your networking effectiveness—and your network’s long-term value—in much less time.
Networking’s value to advancement professionals is immeasurable. A trusted network across institutions and outside of your field can help identify upcoming job openings; generate invitations for presentations or speaking engagements at conferences; illuminate new ideas in related fields, which you can adapt to your role; or show novel approaches to similar challenges at other organizations.
An active, global network will educate you on how cultural differences can impact your work. Connecting with people from other sectors and industries can reveal business practices that are more prominent in, say, the private sector, but that could be applied to your work in a nonprofit setting. When possible, we attend conferences not specifically for advancement (e.g., business innovation) and volunteer for nonprofit organizations. These experiences have diversified our networks and actually brought us together—we met at a dinner for international education professionals in 2010 and have been sharing our connections, ideas, and trends, and collaborating on various projects, ever since.
The Basics of Networking
The word “networking” means different things to different people. For some, it’s a systematic, structured approach to finding connections to help solve a specific problem. For others, it’s a flexible concept that may include something as unstructured as chatting with the people next to you at an airport departure gate, on the chance that the conversation will yield a new connection. The disparity in definitions arises when you try defining “networking” according to how you do it. We have a different approach: defining networking by what you are trying to accomplish.
Over the course of our combined 65 years in educational advancement and related fields, where networking has been fundamental for our professional and personal growth, we have come to define networking as “intentionally establishing a trusted, responsive and diverse community of contacts for professional support at any time.”
Intentional. Anything worthwhile begins with intention and networking is no different. In the same way a mission statement describes the reason an organization exists, establishing your intentions for networking (the “why”) will help you identify the best steps for you to take to achieve that intention (the “how”).
Trusted. Your network will be honest with you and keep confidences when you share sensitive information, such as your desire to seek a new job.
Responsive. Your network will reply to your outreach, questions, and requests as soon as they reasonably can and won’t leave your messages unanswered.
Diverse. Your network’s members vary in their personal and professional identity, their geographic location, their industry or professional sector, their amount of experience, and as many other dimensions as you can imagine.
Finally, what do we mean by “professional support”? An old adage says, “Build your network before you need it.” If you wait until you lose your job, or until you decide to relocate to a new region or overseas, you’re already behind. So you want to assemble a group of contacts who will offer advice, personal experiences, and their own trusted contacts (i.e., people who you don’t know but who you should know) when you come to them. Of course, they may also serve as professional or personal references for you, and even communicate with hiring managers where appropriate, to promote your candidacy for an opening.
Following are some snapshots illustrating how this kind of professional support can lead to success in your field.