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Networking in volunteer, social settings

Dave Archer

When we think about networking opportunities, the most familiar, traditional venues typically spring to mind: chamber of commerce mixers, Rotary club meetings and industry association luncheons. We go through the same motions, introducing ourselves, exchanging pleasantries and business cards and moving along to the next group of people.

Today, social media has changed not only the way we network, but the way we perceive the act of networking. It’s no longer taboo to discuss work in social and volunteer settings in fact, it’s encouraged! Church picnics, family reunions, kids’ soccer games these are excellent venues for business networking. Here’s why:

1. People tend to be more relaxed in social settings. They don’t go to their child’s school play looking to network, but when the conversation turns from little Sally’s solo to the state of the local economy, it’s perfectly logical to segue into who you are and what you do for a living.

2. People are naturally more comfortable doing business with people they know and trust. Social relationships that morph into business opportunities are built on a personal knowledge of an individual rather than a resume or a business card.

3. Networking within volunteer groups is a good opportunity to connect with people who share similar interests and work ethics. If you see the time someone is willing to devote to supporting a good cause for free, imagine how much effort they’ll expend when they’re working for a financial incentive. (My work as a member of the Reno-Tahoe American Marketing Association led to my getting my current job at NCET.)

A few other ways to put yourself out there:

Volunteer your services

If you’re a graphic designer, offer to design and print the annual membership directory; if you own a catering company, donate a continental breakfast to a morning meeting. This approach gives others a first-hand look at who you are and what you do.

Become a sponsor

Another way to take advantage of social and volunteer opportunities to further your business objectives is to become a sponsor or a donor. Little League jerseys that read “Hank’s Plumbing” across the backs will be front-and-center of parents and grandparents who show up for games. Introducing yourself by saying, “Nice to meet you, I’m Hank,” is a lighthearted conversation starter that will get you moving in a different type of networking direction.

Volunteer to be a guest speaker

Clubs, groups and organizations are frequently looking for a knowledgeable, entertaining or interesting speaker for meetings and special events. Consider joining a speaker’s bureau or offer your speaking skills to colleagues and associates. When you serve in this capacity, you establish yourself as an expert in your field. Pass out brochures or logo-ed give-aways following your presentation and make time available to talk with people interested in learning more about what you have to say.

Don’t just show up – show up and participate

If you want to make a positive, professional impression in social and volunteer groups, don’t just add your name to the roster – make an effort to be involved. Flitting in and out of volunteer commitments and proving yourself unreliable in a volunteer capacity can backfire and leave others with a negative impression of you and your business.

Of course, there is one caveat to this advice: don’t overdo it. You don’t want to get the reputation for being the annoying guy who stands outside of karate class or church passing out cards and trying to hard sell everyone on the spot with high pressure tactics. That being said, successful networking in today’s business climate is directly linked to innovation, tempered by discretion. Don’t be content to follow the same old routines. Put yourself out and there and make the most of every business-building opportunity.

Dave Archer is chief executive officer of Nevada’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology. Contact him through http://www.NCET.org.