Is struggling to come up with pertinent small talk not your idea of fun? Helena Sharpstone’s survival guide will take you from networking no-show to chit-chat pro
Mention networking to a fundraiser and they‘ll confirm it’s a vital part of the role. Suggest actually going to a networking event and you start to sniff the fear. Across the page is my survival guide to get you through those inevitably toe curling moments – but before you dive in, it’s important to consider why we do and what we want to achieve.
We all know the world of fundraising is not an easy one right now. There are cuts in funding, everyone pulling back on activities, corporates wanting low-risk or no-risk investments, double-dip recessions and so on. But the truth is that no matter how tough things are, fundraising has never been an easy option or a lone-cowboy profession. Its heart is in team work and the development of relationships and alliances. To do it well, you need to engage in more than a smidgen of targeted and well thought out networking.
Commit to being both interesting to be with and interested in what others have to say, this reciprocity prevents anyone fleecing, or feeling fleeced by, others as part of the networking experience. It also ensures you gain the long-term benefits of networking: raising awareness for your organisation, receiving targeted leads and referrals, sharing ideas and solving problems with other fundraisers and becoming more influential in the sector, to mention a few.
This article focuses on face-to-face networking because that is the scariest type. These days, however, you don’t need to leave your desk to network, the wonder or horror (delete as appropriate) that is social networking has seen to that.
Personally I rate LinkedIn as an excellent professional networking site but it is only ever a way to start a conversation. If you want to take things further, nothing beats a face-to-face meeting. Treat social networking sites as a starting point and a great way to break the ice. When you want to pursue the conversation, find another medium. Facebook is marmite – you either engage with it or you don’t. Many organisations accept its value but prefer to limit its use which is fair enough, as most people use it for social rather than business networking. If this is the case for you, once again, use it as a start point but remember you are trying to develop professional networks, so it makes sense to move things away from Facebook to continue them on a more business-like footing.
Before any networking activity, you need to do some research. As a teenager during the 80s, with appalling taste in films, one of my favourites was, and still is, ‘Working Girl’ in which a secretary impersonates her boss to help her climb the corporate ladder. I’m not advocating this as a career strategy, however, I was struck by her lack of preparation before attending a networking event where she wants to meet one particular man. Melanie Griffith meets her networking target, Harrison Ford, but he doesn’t disclose who he is and she knows no different. Admittedly there was no Google in 1988 but still, she could have done some preparation. Nowadays it is much easier to do some online research on people and groups before you go, so there is no sensible reason to walk into a room full of total strangers. You will feel so much better if you have an idea about who will be there and whom you would like to meet.
In the fundraising world there are tailor-made opportunities in the form of special interest groups who meet regularly to share challenges and ideas and learn from each other and expert speakers. If you are not part of one of these groups, it is well worth finding out what is available to you and joining one you can benefit from and contribute to. If none exist that fit your particular needs you might consider setting one up of your own. It’s nice to be there in at the beginning – the networking somehow seems less daunting to founder members.
Helena Sharpstone is director at Sharpstone Skinner
This article first appeared in The Fundraiser magazine, Issue 10, October 2011
The Fundraiser’s ten-point survival guide for notable networking
1. Know what you’re getting yourself into
The dictionary definition is “a supportive system of sharing information and services among individuals and groups having a common interest”. In other words, develop links where you can share knowledge, contacts and good practice.
2. Break the stereotypes
We’ve all been to networking soirees full of impenetrable cliques who, if they do deign to talk to you, spend most of the time looking for someone more interesting so they can dump you faster than you can say mushroom vol au vent. Those people have got networking all wrong. It is about meeting people you don’t know, not having a giggle with your mates. So make it your mission to get to know new people. Genuine interest in others and approachability goes a long way.
3. Do your research
Cue Google. Nowadays there’s no excuse for wandering around aimlessly, hoping someone will befriend you. Most event organisers have a list of who’s attending so you can think about who you want to meet and look them up. Find out about them and develop some areas of common ground. Do not take it too far and sound borderline creepy. If a list is not available, ask the organiser to point out, or better still introduce you to, the people you want to meet. Focused networking makes you feel better about being there and means you get much more from the time invested.
4. Know yourself
If you wear everything on the outside – facial expression, flamboyant body language and emotions – and you enter rooms talking, the chances are you’re extraverted in the way you show your energy. If you wear it all on the inside – you’re contained, inscrutable and cautious when it comes to social situations – chances are you’re introverted in the way you show your energy. Both introverts and extraverts make fantastic networkers, but you have to play to your strengths. Introverts do better in smaller groups. Pick a couple of people and get to know them really well, but beware getting cornered by someone and not being able to get away. Extraverts do better in large groups and are able to have a number of conversations on the go at once – but beware poor listening. If you have a foot in both camps there are no excuses, a bit of introversion mixed with a bit of extraversion means you’ll be an ace networker.
5. Breaking in
Get there on time; it’s far easier to meet people before the room gets too full. It helps if you look approachable (not desperate) and wear your name badge to the right – apparently that is where the eye falls when you shake hands. Accept that small talk is part of the process and remember that you can enter a group without necessarily joining the conversation straight away. Wait long enough to get the gist of what’s being said but not so long as to look like you’re lurking without intent and then try to add something valuable to the discussion. After that you have a legitimate opportunity to introduce yourself and your organisation and take it from there.
6. Present yourself and your organisation
This should be familiar territory as fundraisers all but invented the concept of the elevator pitch. You only have a few sentences to hook their interest so keep your introduction of self and organisation succinct and natural. Once you have done so, ask them about theirs. That way you can start to find common ground.
7. Hone your skills
The art of conversation involves asking questions and building on what others say, rather than playing bat and ball with anecdotes, otherwise you start to have ‘my dad’s car is better than your dad’s car’ type conversations. Make sure you converse and show interest in others’ views as well as conveying your own.
8. Getting away
Swapping business cards is a perfectly legitimate way of bringing things to an end. It is good manners to ask for theirs first, rather than thrusting yours in their face. Excusing yourself because you are keen to meet someone else (they may know them and be able to introduce you) is also fine and as a last resort, you can use desire to get some food and drink to get away – just check there are refreshments on offer before you go waltzing off. You may want to introduce the person you are leaving to a colleague before you exit, but only if there is value in their meeting each other, not because you got stuck with Mr/Ms Beige and you fancy getting back at your colleague who showed you up at a meeting the previous week.
9. After the experience
If like me you get your buzz from moving quickly from one activity to the next (that’s me putting a positive spin to the fact that I’m sometimes badly organised), you need to work hard to get the most out of your networking experience. This means taking action quickly, getting people’s details into your system and where appropriate, making contact to talk more. You’ll find they’re much warmer to you if they can remember who you are, so build follow-up time in to your networking activities.
10. Onwards and upwards
Networking can result in useful long-term contacts and colleagues but it doesn’t always work out that way. If some of the contacts you made seem less than thrilled to hear from you again, ask yourself if there was more you could have done when you first met them to create a positive impression, then review your networking skills, refine them for next time, learn from the experience and move on to the next event. Networking requires more than a wee bit of resilience. But then again, fundraisers have never been lacking in that.