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7 Tips for Authentic Networking at Conferences

Craig Zelizer

September 3, 2020

Hi there, do-gooders! We know that your heart and mind are in the right place, but how are you leveraging your innate human skills to intuitively develop authentic connections? The social sector is a field challenged with scarce resources and further complicated by competition for critical funding needed for your organization to deliver on its mission. As a leader, you wear many hats and it’s likely the role requires you not only to manage the strategy and operations of your organization, but also demands you participate in key convenings.

There is no shortage of articles, blogs, and books on network- and relationship-building. While most of them provide invaluable context and advice on developing these critical skills necessary for workplace success, we wanted to focus on some of our favorite tips based on learnings from the convenings hosted and/or attended by our two organizations.

  1. Know why you’re here (or there?). We often get caught up in the ‘zombie zone’; a place where we focus so much on the ‘work’ needing to get done that we forget WHY we are in the social sector in the first place. What drives you? What was the catalytic moment when you realized you were a social change agent? What’s your firsthand experience with inequality or injustice? How have you navigated power and privilege? What are the intellectual assumptions, emotional triggers and cultural competencies that you carry with you into the sector? Or, are you just here/there to listen to another “expert,” to disseminate as many business cards as possible, to polish your two-minute elevator pitch? If we can center around our own purpose amongst peers, if the reason(s) why were there becomes the foundational linkage with those in the room, then we can more readily achieve the work, more readily share ideas, resources and best practices, more readily forge all the more effective partnerships and collaborations toward impact.
  2. Be at the right place at the right time. This one can be tough, but it’s important for you to know what type of convenings are right for you – in service of your organization and your own professional development. Take the time to do the research, contact the conference organizers, ask your peers for recommendations on which conferences to attend, and use organizations like Conveners.org to more effectively navigate the increasingly complex impact convening landscape.
  3. Listen more. We’ve all learned the essentials of communication in our younger years. It’s time to sit in a circle, practice good listenership, and share well with others. It’s time to leave your ego at the door and approach time with your peers with as much humility as possible.
  4. Be open even when you don’t know where it will take you. Be Yourself. Be Authentic. Be Evocative. Share your passion with personal stories – the highs and the lows of your work. Make it personal. Make it real.
  5. Mean what you say. Follow through on your commitments. Carve out time after the convening to send those emails you promised, schedule calls with the folks you met, make yourself accountable to continue the conversations.
  6. Don’t force it. Working well with others is not just a matter of playing nicely with people. It is an element of structural reform which can reduce organizational dysfunction. Institutional silos (such as entrepreneurs vs. nonprofits, governments vs. foundations, funders vs. grantees) block pragmatic problem-solving. Pack your ideas and solutions, but leave your institutional baggage behind.
  7. Ask, “How can I help you? How can we help each other?” In impactful convenings like Opportunity Collaboration, these questions are the foundation of the on-site culture. All too often, we approach professional networking opportunities prepared with an arsenal of ways others can help us. We bombard our peers with requests, with asks, prioritizing our own organizational health potentially to the detriment of the larger mission. We thereby create a culture rooted in transaction, extraction and one-sided relationships. But it’s simple…the more you give, the more you get. And in the end, are we not striving for a world where everyone is a contributor, where everyone has a piece of the puzzle, where we all considered equals able and willing to assist one another in pursuit of social good?

Have something to add to the list? Find us on LinkedIn and feel free to share: Topher Wilkins and Zohra Zori Ready to test drive the tips above? Want to further develop your professional skills? Check out GrantSpace , Foundation Center’s gateway to learning - offering anytime, anywhere access to tools, trainings, and special events. Crossposted from The Foundation Center NY Blog

About Opportunity Collaboration Our 4-day collaborative summits convene poverty alleviation leaders, including grant makers, impact investors, social entrepreneurs, innovative nonprofit executives, corporate & academic field leaders, and media working around the world to solve common challenges and spark new opportunities. Our gatherings are uniquely designed to help Delegates build a foundation of trust, to more effectively share ideas, resources and best practices, to forge alliances that advance their organization’s social impact initiatives, and ultimately to build more sustainable solutions to poverty. About Foundation Center Foundation Center is the leading source of information about philanthropy and social sector capacity building worldwide. Through data, analysis, and training, it connects people who want to change the world to the resources they need to succeed. For more information, please visit foundationcenter.org, call (212) 620-4230, or tweet us at @fdncenter. Find your local Foundation Center affiliate location at foundationcenter.org/findus.

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