At workshops we ran recently, participants flagged up how important networking is to anyone who wants to influence or create change – especially those who are new to campaigning or want to up their game.
Who better to speak with than others who feel as passionately about their issue as you do about yours?
When I mentioned this to someone, they were horrified and said: "No one uses the term networking any more." So just to be clear, I am referring to face-to-face and online opportunities to connect with others that are useful to both parties in some way.
Connecting with others helps you to share learning – about success and failure – and gain new ideas and perspectives. Different parts of the third sector are seen to have different styles – you could say that environmental groups tend to take a more visible, direct-action approach, whereas housing or homelessness groups tend to prefer a behind-the-scenes track. Yet these and other sub-sectors can learn from each other.
Networking can reduce the sense of isolation that many campaigners experience. It can reassure you that you're not alone, and can increase your voice and reach by finding allies you might not normally meet. This can widen your pool beyond the usual suspects, and you might meet someone who knows that person you really want to meet or need to influence.
The internet and social media make online networking straightforward, so long as everyone has access. But it is important to get people together if you can for some good old face-to-face interaction.
Networks can increase in importance in line with your location or approach. For example, Action with Communities in Rural England, which is made up of rural community councils across England, focuses on helping rural communities to help themselves. By working together as a network, the councils can play a greater role in influencing. And UK Uncut is an example of how social media helped a new anti-cuts campaign to spread quickly across the country (and beyond) and gain wide media coverage. It did this by getting people to tap into their existing networks, which then grew like spider webs. It has since developed into a longer-term campaign network.
Making a networking event worthwhile requires skills and planning. An informal version of an elevator pitch can come into its own at an event full of people you want to meet, and there is no harm in being able to sum up quickly your issue, solution and ask.
Networking can be time-consuming and can throw up differences as well as common ground. But the potential benefits of new contacts, pooled resources and greater strength in numbers can make it a wise investment of your time.
Linda Butcher is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation