Many of us devote time to causes that are near and dear to our hearts, but not everyone considers translating such activities into career opportunities. Still, networking through philanthropy (or organic networking) is a long-term strategy with lifetime benefits.
The key is to put the cause first and networking second. A salesperson might join a charitable organization with a noted CEO on its board in hopes of scoring some face time during a fundraising event. But such superficial interactions won't generate any traction. However, sincere involvement with an organization you care about can help you build solid, long-lasting relationships with your fellow volunteers.
"Without question, working side by side with a diverse group of accomplished professionals who are passionate about giving back helps to form significantly stronger long-term bonds," says Dave Ballai, CIO and vice president of content operations at Reed Technology, a provider of electronic content management services. "I have never ventured into the nonprofit arena with the notion that it will help my career by expanding my network. But, ironically, that's precisely what happens over time, organically. I've met some truly inspiring and amazing individuals who likely would never return a cold call in the absence of such a relationship. The binding element is the like-minded respect and caring for others -- that has to be first."
The trust that grows among people who share a commitment to a cause is essential. "I want to do business with people I trust and value," says RJ Juliano, CIO of Parkway Corp., a parking management and real estate development company. "Genuine, active service to others can be a major factor in identifying trustworthiness."
Mary Sobiechowski, CIO for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), notes that this premise holds when evaluating vendors as well: "I have been able to bring greater value to the ASPCA by making connections in the technology world with vendors and other partners with a strong tie to philanthropy." And giving back to the community leads to visibility. Citing Salesforce's Salesforce.org charitable operation and Box's Box.org, Sobiechowski says, "vendors with strong philanthropic arms... connect many CIOs in the nonprofit world to share experiences working in very complex business organizations with limited resources."
Make connections naturally
For shy types, networking through philanthropy provides a more natural way to get to know people because you have something in common. The key is authenticity. Many IT leaders don't separate personal and professional networks. "I am the same person at home, work or volunteering," Juliano says. "Clearly, there are different levels and quality of relationships in every network, but I strive to be substantially the same person in all of them."
With organic networking, employment opportunities flow both ways -- candidates can meet future bosses, and leaders can find their replacements. "I have hired and been hired by fellow board members and philanthropic contacts. The shared interest and relationship opened the door for opportunities," says Juliano. "It's still up to any candidate to show competence and capability, but the shared experience goes far in answering less tangible questions about trust and character."
Organic networking takes time, but it won't kill your calendar. Juliano and Ballai both say they spend about two days a month on philanthropy. And hours spent volunteering pay off, whether you network or not.
"Along the journey in working with nonprofits, you will definitely find growth and uncover resources for your business," says Ballai, "But my focus in collaborating with others is on making a difference to those in need. When you know your work is impacting lives, you've accomplished something irreplaceable."