When it comes to advancing our careers, one topic seems to come up again and again: how hard it is to network for opportunities and find job leads. Networking can feel hardest to do when it’s most urgent — when we’re in a job search. That’s why it’s so valuable to build a reserve of goodwill among our networking contacts, before we need help. It’s like karma: help others, and others will help you.
But how do you build up your career karma? There is no better way than getting involved in community service, through volunteering and charitable giving. One of the great things about community service is that it shows you care about helping others. That reputation will be useful if you ever need to approach others for help.
Here is a story about someone I know, and how community service helped him in his career. A few years ago, a local nonprofit organization’s annual fundraiser — a run/walk/bike-type event with participants raising pledges — caught the attention of a Madison, WI-area professional. It looked like a fun event and a worthy cause, so he decided to participate. He enjoyed it, and the next year his participation increased. He raised more in pledges and got a few coworkers and friends to form a team in the event.
At some point, he read an “executives of the year” article in a regional business magazine, and he noticed something: Three of the five executives profiled were former chairs of the local United Way’s annual fundraising campaign. It dawned on him that the United Way was a major business networking node in the greater Madison region.
His company had always been active in the United Way campaign, and he had contributed, but never really gotten involved personally. He started attending the occasional United Way event, and discovered that some of his important clients and business contacts were attending as well. He set aside an annual budget for charitable giving. He found that giving consistently to local charities — the United Way, a few other organizations, and friends who approached him to contribute to causes they were supporting — got him involved in other social and community events that were also valuable business networking opportunities. He also found that sticking to a budget, with certain amounts set aside for certain charities, helped him say no to some fundraising appeals.
Meanwhile, he kept doing the local nonprofit organization’s run/walk/bike-type event every year. As he learned more and became more passionate about the organization’s mission of service to the community, he found it easier to recruit team members and approach donors. His team grew into one of the biggest teams in the event. He joined the event’s planning committee. As he came into greater contact with organizers and leaders of the event and the nonprofit organization, he found that, as with the United Way, some of them were valuable business contacts. Some were clients, some referred clients, and some became clients.
Now, you may be thinking, this sounds crass. Using community service as a way to hobnob with networking contacts and advance your social standing and your career? But don’t be cynical. Ask any nonprofit executive director or development officer, and you’ll find that they understand the connection between charitable giving and social networking. It’s a virtuous circle that they foster to help fund and fulfill their mission. Nonprofit organizations design their fundraising events to be fun social gatherings for just this reason.
You also may be thinking, this is pay-to-play. You need to give a lot of money to play this game. Again, don’t be cynical. The wonderful thing about community service is that you can make a big difference with your passion for an organization’s mission and your willingness to engage others. If you can mobilize others to volunteer and give, that contribution is more valuable than your dollars.
So go ahead and make community service a bigger part of your life. Find an organization whose mission resonates with you, get involved, and connect with people who share your passion for it. Set an annual budget for charitable giving at a level that feels right, and be thoughtful and selective about your giving. Make a difference for others. You’ll find it rewarding. And down the road, if you need help — with a job search, for example — you just might find others are more willing to make a difference for you.
By the way, the “someone I know” in this story, as you may have guessed, is me. The nonprofit organization is the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, and its annual fundraising event is the Bike For Boys & Girls Club ride.
Peter Gray ’97 is the head of executive recruiting at QTI Professional Staffing in Madison, WI. Do you have a community service networking story to share? Write him at email@example.com.