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It's Who You Know: Networking for Nonprofit Jobseekers

By Dana Hagenbuch

In jobseeking, there is an old adage: "It's not what you know; it's who you know." Making connections with a targeted set of people can result in the acquisition of new information about a specific type of work, organization, or job opportunity.

This is especially true in the nonprofit sector, where an estimated 60% of open positions are filled through referrals and networking.

To many, especially those who are just starting out in their careers, networking can be a daunting activity. However, there are a number of easy ways to tap into the people you already know to grow your network.

Building Your Network

Networking is a social skill. Luckily, we are constantly in social settings that promote networking opportunities. As a general rule, make yourself as visible as possible. Go to every social or professional gathering you can, such as conferences, career fairs, alumni activities, professional association meetings, and fundraisers. Participate in volunteer opportunities at organizations that interest you. You never know when a hiring manager will be volunteering next to you.

When it comes to building your network, begin with your inner circle and move outwards. Make a list of your family and friends who work in particular fields, organizations, or roles that interest you. Initiate conversations with these immediate connections, and at the end of every meeting, request introductions to at least three of their colleagues. This is how your network grows by degrees--by connecting with the people who know the people you know.

Beyond your immediate network, conduct research to identify people in positions and/or organizations that interest you. Online resources such as Idealist, Guidestar, and The Foundation Center may be helpful to this end. After you conduct your research, create a comprehensive list of people with whom you plan to conduct outreach.

Networking 2.0: Leveraging the Internet

It's no secret that web sites like MySpace and Facebook are incredibly popular. In the recent years, online social networking tools have exploded. What started as a way for former classmates to find each other has grown into a widespread forum for anyone to connect with people they already know and people they want to know. Today, there are over 200 social networking sites, many of them devoted to connecting professionals to each other.

Professional social networking sites provide great opportunities to make connections. On these sites, members create profiles that summarize their professional accomplishments, which can then be used to find and be found by "connections," such as current and former colleagues, clients, partners, and schoolmates. Your online network consists of your connections, your connections' connections, and the people they know. This is especially helpful when trying to connect with someone to whom you may not have a direct connection, as it eliminates the need to know someone in common.

Some good professional social networking sites are LinkedIn, Ecademy, and Ryze. A few sites that serve individuals interested in the social sector include Rethos, Care2,, and JustMeans.

Cultivating Your Network

Once you've identified and started to build your network, it's time to cultivate those relationships. Reach out to people by e-mail, provide a brief introduction to your background and interests, attach your resume, and request fifteen to thirty minutes by phone or in person to discuss your search. Make it clear that you are looking forward to your contact with them for information and advice (NOT for a job, in which case they may just try to route you through human resources). You will be surprised by how many people are willing to take a quick call to help a jobseeker, especially in the nonprofit sector.

In preparing for each informational interview, develop a list of ten questions that you could not have answered on your own. A few good examples may be: What are the largest challenges currently facing organizations like yours?  How do you see macro-level changes in the sector and the economy impacting your work?  What do you find to be the most and least enjoyable aspects of your work?  Additionally, remember that these meetings are also an opportunity for others to get to know you, so be prepared to talk about your own interests and experience.

After you've had a meeting or informational interview with anyone in your network--whether it's your Aunt Sally or the head of an organization you're hoping to join--remember to send a personalized thank you note immediately. In addition to your gratitude, offer your assistance to the people in your network. Networking is all about fostering goodwill and shared knowledge; be prepared to reciprocate in any way possible.

Remember, networking is an ongoing activity. Smart professionals are constantly developing networks throughout their careers. This can lead to additional employment opportunities as well as making you more effective in your job by providing you with professional associates, mentors, partners and resources. If you invest in building relationships to gain information about work that interests you and to connect with others, you may network your way into an ideal position sooner than you think.

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