I used to hate networking events. And I couldn’t help but think that those people that love ‘em are kind of weird.
The truth is, the introvert in me still doesn’t particularly look forward to them…but I’ve learned over time to manage and motivate myself. I’ve had to. Networking is an essential part of a fundraiser’s role. They open doors to companies and communities and individuals that will happily partner with or fundraise for or donate to you. They improve your communication skills (and isn’t fundraising all about communication?). They help progress your career. And once in a while you’ll meet someone at a networking event who will blow your mind, bring some magic into your life, or throw your career on a wonderful new course.
So how do you make networking events bearable? Productive? Even…dare I say it…enjoyable? Here are a few networking tips to help:
1. Firstly, remember everyone is a human like you. No matter what they look like, they’re as nervous as you, as uncomfortable as you, and as delightful as you. Be yourself, be open and be human. Don’t worry about appearing too professional or putting on all manner of airs and graces. One of my favorite opening lines is, “Don’t you hate networking events?” People will be relieved to talk to a charming, ‘normal’ human like you.
2. Also remember that you are probably the solution to every person’s problem. That’s one of the great things about representing a nonprofit. You’re talking to businessmen and women who are trying to improve their brand’s reputation, find a new audience, meet connected people, motivate their staff, and change the world. The good news is you can help them with any or all of those! Ask people lots of questions and find out what their goal is. What are they trying to achieve? And how can you help? It can be uncomfortable when you feel like you have to ‘pitch,’ but treat these networking events as a fact-finding mission instead. Learning about people and their motivations and quirks is fun!
3. Find networking events that suit you. Sites like Eventbrite and Meetup generally list loads of local events going on. Contact your local chamber of commerce. Ask others for recommendations. I’ve seen networking events on trains, networking events that walk around town, and other weird ones. Some free, some paid. Some are seated and some are standing. Some are structured and others less so. Try different ones and find what suits your personality.
And mix up your audience. Fundraiser network events are great, but you’re probably not going to pull any donors or corporate partners out of them. Switch between events for professional fundraisers, events for business people, and community events.
4. Make it a habit. Whether it’s one a week or one a month, it should be part of your routine. Feed that fundraising funnel of leads! Relationships with corporate, communities and major donors take time to cultivate. So we have to continually attend networking events to make that initial contact before we follow-up with a more friendly one-on-one meeting, coffee or chat.
5. Arrive early. Better yet, arrive first! I used to turn up fashionably late, and I’d end up feeling like an outsider….like everyone knew everyone! Fundraiser and networker-extraordinaire Nikki Bell taught me you should always turn up early! It’s less daunting and you can almost act as a welcoming committee. People will love you for approaching them as they enter, relieving their awkwardness!
6. Get to know the host. Contact the organizer beforehand or spend some time with them when you arrive early. Ask them for tips and recommendations. Tell them what you’re hoping to get out of it or if there’s anyone you specifically want to meet. They are in a perfect position to make introductions. They’re there to help and their whole purpose in life is to make sure you leave happy.
7. Talk to the loners. Spot the people standing by themselves or looking like a third or fifth wheel in a group. It’s much easier to start a conversation with them and they’ll be relieved you did so. The tea/coffee station or anywhere you have to wait in line is another great place to grab people. If it’s a seated event then sit down next to someone! Cinema rules don’t apply…don’t leave a space between you and them!
8. Move on and leave them with something memorable. You don’t want to move around too fast, and don’t expect to talk to everyone…but you do want to make sure you get a few different conversations. So don’t be afraid to tell people, “I don’t want to take up all your time,” and move on. You can even help them by introducing them to someone you’ve already spoken to.
Get their business card so you can follow-up to deepen the relationship. Give them your business card and try to leave them with something memorable. I have space on my business cards to write down a resource or note related to what we’ve spoken about. When they get back and look at the cards they’ve collected I wanted them to remember something distinctive about me.
9. Finally, stock up on pastries and snacks. Anything goes at the snack station. Where else are you going to get unlimited pain-au-chocolat? Not every networking event is going to be beneficial or productive…that’s OK. But you can stuff your face with delicious free pastries and reflect on what you might do differently at the next one.
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