How to Build Your Multi-Generational Network (from scratch) from #EPIP11

I had the chance to hear Trista Harris (co-author of How to Become a Nonprofit Rockstar) discuss how to build your multi-generational network at the National Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) Conference. This serves as a nice complement to the session by Rosetta Thurman at the YNPN National Conference that we blogged a couple of weeks ago.  Here’s what Trista had to say…

In approaching networking, Trista referred to a saying from a fortune cookie: “You are the average of your 5 closest friends.” This means that it is very important that you think about how you keep close to you, and how they relate to who you want to be.  Also, Trista noted, it is important to not limit yourself to people like you. She suggested that some cross-generational insight will make the guidance you receive much stronger. In order to achieve that, however, you must grow your network.

Growing your network

Trista suggested that you start with the network you already have. Make sure you let people know when you’re going through a transition.  Also, don’t rebuild your network with every new job. Take that contact information with you – those are relationships that you have built, so don’t leave them behind.

Of course, if you do this a couple of time your list of contacts can become pretty large!  To make this manageable, create lists as you build your network.  Then, when you run across information you think will be helpful to a certain segment of your network, you can quickly shoot it off without too much effort. This also creates much more robust relationships – it demonstrates that you are putting thought into who that person is and not just spamming them periodically. You become someone who adds value to your network, as opposed to someone who is always just looking for help.

The Power of Your Network

It’s great that you have folks willing to serve as references when you apply for a new job. However, managers are much more impressed by those people who offer their positive opinions of you unsolicited.  The best way to have these people in your corner is to build a strong network.  By having a number of folks who can speak on your behalf as a nonprofit professional, you create more opportunities for these unsolicited endorsements.

Also, Trista noted that people with strong networks are less likely to get laid off by their organization. When you have a strong network and you get laid off, people ask about you and want to know what happened.  This can get pretty uncomfortable for managers.

What about when you’re at a conference?  Introduce Yourself!

Trista asked us all to participate in a practice exercise: Person 1: Introduce yourself with a 1-2 sentence bio. Person 2:  Listen. What questions do you have for the person? What excited you about what s/he had to say?

After having the opportunity to practice this and share, the group learned the following:  Bios get exciting when people feel as though they have a personal connection to what has been said. (This might be where you are from, or the work you’re involved in – whatever strikes a chord with them.)  What this means is that with a really short introduction, you can create an avenue for a much more robust conversation.  Within just a sentence or two, you are creating an opportunity to folks to “hook in” to your passion and interests and share their own.

Business Cards

Trista argued that personal business cards are a must whether or not your organization provides you with business cards. These help you brand yourself for what you want to be (as opposed to limiting you to your title).  You can make them simple, funny, or aspirational.  Plus, she noted there are low-cost ways to make business cards (including VistaPrint,  One person also suggested that you consider putting your photo on your card – people might forget your name, but they don’t often forget your face.

Other ways to connect… 

Use Social media – “Yes We Can Twitter”

(Barack Obama clearly knew how to use social media well.)

Should it be professional? Personal?  Trista says you should make sure that you maintain professional tone even when you use it for personal reasons.  Even if you lock down your facebook profile, it is too easy for folks to share.  Make sure your online version represents your best self (the you you’d want your grandma to see).

Social media is a place where you can reinvigorate your relationships, and find out more about what folks are passionate about. It also allows people to have a window into you, so they can better understand what makes you tick.  So get out there and start connecting!

Join Associations

Pick out the ones that make the most sense for you, whether based on your professional interest, your background or geography. Since this can get expensive pretty quickly, you should start by getting to know folks who are involved with these organizations to see if it’s a good fit for you (receptions at conferences are a way to do this).  Also, when you negotiate job offers, include payment of the associations you want to belong to as part of your package.

Go to nonprofit conferences

These are clearly great places to hear information, but don’t forget the value of your fellow participants. Often you’ll learn more in a conversation in the hallway than you will at the presentations.

Of course, conferences aren’t cheap either.  Make sure you continuously assess how much value you’re getting at the conferences and use that to decide what you attend next year.  Also, you may be able to volunteer at the conference and get your registration wavied. Bonus – if you work the registration table, you can meet everyone who attends the conference very quickly.

Regularly Conduct Informational Interviews

Talk to people. Make it a part of your continuing development to do informational interviews – don’t wait until you’re tired of your job or getting laid off. Do one or two a month – with people both in and outside of your field. This helps to build your network in a new way and gives you new perspective into your career.

When you ask for an informational interview, be clear about what you are looking for. Making these asks up front help the person you’re meeting with prepare for it and give you better information.

Don’t assume that the person you’re meeting with will be your mentor (this will scare off a lot of people). Acknowledge up-front that this is a one-time conversation. Also, only assume you have 30 minutes – their time is valuable! Make sure to get to the point quickly.

You may not hear what you want during an informational interview, but it may be what you need to hear. Make sure you listen to what is being said, and know when you are getting a reality check.

Find mentors

We don’t typically find “fairy mentors” – the folks who are exactly what you want and meet your every need. By building a strong network, you can build a Frankenmentor – several people in your network can collectively be your mentor. It is not necessary that they know that they are your mentor.

Appointed mentors don’t always work out. You might not click, or they might not be as engaged as you like. Your more likely to find a successful mentoring relationship if you know the person, than by entering some sort of mentoring program.

Also, don’t limit yourself to thinking of mentors as your seniors; your peers can make fabulous mentors.

Find sponsors too

A mentor is someone who helps you along. A sponsor is someone who is willing to put their credibility on the line to move you forward. These folks have a tremendous impact on your career.

Think about who your sponsors are, and who you are a sponsor for. You’re putting your credibility on the line, but you’re also helping to strengthen your own network by advancing them – giving them new connections, which means you’ll have access to new people as well.

Create your own network

Build your own network. It’s great when you can join an organization where there is a ready-made network, but you can also build your own. For example, when Trista was the sole fundraiser at an organization, she would meet with a bunch of other ladies who were the sole fundraisers at their organization for lunch each month. Each time, one person would bring a problem they were wrestling with, and the group would help brainstorm.

Also, create networks where your finding a gap, eg. a multi-generational women’s network. Being able to get very different perspectives and broad support can be extremely beneficial.

Informal networks can be helpful too (e.g. dinner club).  When people feel comfortable with you on a personal level, they are more likely to want to do business with you.

Find allies

When there is a certain network you can’t seem to crack, find someone who can help you navigate your way in. They can help create the introductions and help get you into the right events/in front of the right people.

Overwhlemed yet?

There’s no need to be!  Just start with one tangible thing you can do on Monday to build your network.  Keep adding to that to-do list, and your network will be thriving in no time.

Of course, there is even more great info in the book, so be sure to check it out!!!


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