Networking with a purpose: Volunteer!
By Guest Blogger: Lindsay Thom
I don’t know about you but not too long ago, the idea of showing up at a “networking event” on my own terrified me. It was not uncommon for me to drag a work colleague, friend or even my mom (yes my mom) to an event with me. (FYI– my mom has been in the media/communications industry for almost 30 years, is a pro at networking and much more connected than me).
But by bringing someone with me to an event, it really limited the amount of actual networking I did. In some cases I got so caught up in my own conversations or felt intimidated to cut in on another person’s conversation and would leave without meeting anyone new at all – it was as if I were never there.
I recently attended the annual YWCA Metro Vancouver Women of Distinction Awards, an incredibly inspiring event honouring women “whose outstanding achievements contribute to the well-being and future of our community”. (I love this event for many reasons. Not only does it make women the stars while bringing together more than 1,000 members of the business community, including some men, it raises awareness and support of the valuable programs run by the YWCA.) Click here to learn about this year’s recipients.
For an event of this size, it was incredibly well run. Volunteers were everywhere. And this brings me to my main point:
Whether you’re starting out, considering a change of career or industry or simply looking to give back to the business community; think of volunteering as networking – with a purpose and role.
A few years back I had the privilege of serving as a member of the event organizing committee for the YWCA Women of Distinction Awards. I attended bi-weekly meetings and worked alongside the other members of the group (comprised of Y staff and about 15 members of the business community, including a couple former honourees) for several months and it was an amazing networking opportunity in itself!
Also, having a role at a networking event makes it easier to break the ice and enter into conversations with strangers and often times, by virtue of being identified as someone with knowledge; people will seek you out and engage with conversation with you! You never know what doors will open up to you or what connections you will make as a result.
From the many incredible experiences I have dedicated time to over the years, I’ve made valuable connections including peers, mentors and reference, and let’s not forgot – they make an impressive “Volunteer Experience” section of my resume and on LinkedIn.
Now volunteering, of course, takes time. So before you commit (or over commit):
1. Determine at what capacity you want to become involved
Whether it’s something short-term or a one-time event, as a member of an event organizing committee (longer term), as a member of a board of directors (usually years in length) or as an expert within a company, you will get out of it what you put in. And what better way to be a part of something from the inside!
2. Clearly define your goal. If it is to:
- Give back to society or your community: Seek out non-profit groups or societies dedicated to issues you are passionate about and offer your support in a desired area (i.e. fundraising) or at an event.
- Gain experience in a specific area or business function (i.e. marketing, human resources, etc): Research local professional associations or groups, attend events and inquire into ways you can get involved. Many will have information on volunteer opportunities right on their website.
- Learn more about an industry: Get involved with one of the numerous industry associations or sector specific networking groups. Most of these groups offering regular seminars and larger annual events or conferences are small and rely on the support of volunteers to help in the organization, planning and execution.
- Work at a specific company, like a tech startup: In larger corporations, decisions often flow from the top down through multiple layers and it can be hard to get the attention of a decision maker. If you’re looking to gain real hands-on experience where the results of your efforts cannot go unnoticed, look to a smaller company, like a tech startup and go straight to the source: the entrepreneur.
Entrepreneurs often have limited (or no) budget to hire in the early stages of building their company and often rely on the expertise of interns or volunteers. So if your goal is to transition into a certain industry but you lack relevant work experience, interning part-time at a startup can be a mutually beneficial – you will gain hands on experience that you can add to your resume while making industry contacts, and the startup gets you for free. Learn the ins and outs of a company in its infancy and you never know where you’ll end up when it’s gained a bit of traction. The possibilities are endless!
(A student in attendance at one of the BCIC-New Ventures Competition business seminars – for free – offered to work as an unpaid intern at a tech company and received responses from more than startups wanting help!)
3. Don’t be afraid to reach out
Sometimes emails and phone calls are not enough. Do your research, follow the appropriate social media channels to learn more about what the company, organization or association is doing and find a way to meet face to face. Be prepared to pitch yourself and the value your involvement will bring. Opportunities are not always advertised. Sometimes one doesn’t know what they need until it is presented to them.
4. Make sure the opportunity you pursue is fulfilling and meets your goal (see #2 above)
We are all busy and volunteering is a time commitment. So before you take on an opportunity, you want to ensure that it will help you to meet the above goals that you have set for yourself. There is no sense in offering help to an individual or group only to let them down or leave without having gained the experience and connections you set out to. Your ultimate goal is to enter into a relationship that will provide a sense of fulfillment.
5. When the event or volunteer opportunity is over, ask for a reference.
A reference is a reference. When your volunteer role or internship is all said and done, request a letter of reference or “recommendation” on LinkedIn.
So with that, what are you waiting for?