How to win friends and influence people

Events are a good opportunity to make useful connections, but some find the process difficult. Four sector figures tell Annette Rawstrone how it's done


Networking is a great way to promote your charity and advance your career, but it's something that many people fear or find difficult. It's much easier to clutch a drink and chat to colleagues at events, after all; but pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and talking to people you don't know can be more rewarding.

Lesley-Anne Alexander, chief executive of the RNIB, advises that you muster the courage and just do it. "Go into the situation knowing that the first 10 minutes might be awkward," she says. "It is daunting, but grab a glass of wine and insert yourself into a conversation."

Remember that the charity sector is friendly, she says. Don't forget to smile, and break the ice simply by making small talk - commenting on the weather or the venue - and you'll soon be able to work the room like a pro.

"A hallmark of the sector is that everyone is generous with their knowledge and time and is happy to share information," Alexander says. "I don't like to see people stood on their own, so if I'm in a circle I'm happy to open it and wave people in. If anyone sees me at an event, they are welcome to talk to me."

The more you push yourself to network, the more confident you will be and the easier it becomes, says Stephen George, a freelance management and fundraising consultant. "The sector is a relatively small and cooperative community where people are open to sharing," he says. "A quest for learning and being better drives a lot of networking in the sector. You're never going to advance yourself or your cause if you're shy about networking."

One approach is to start a conversation with somebody you know and use it to gain an introduction to someone else.

Sir Tony Hawkhead, chief executive of Action for Children, advises preparation: "If you're nervous, have a clear elevator pitch in mind so you can immediately tell somebody what your charity does by capturing the magic of the organisation in a few words."

Anna Bezodis, legal services officer at Wales Council for Voluntary Action, suggests setting small targets when attending an event. "For example, aim to speak to two new people while you're there," she says. "And when you do, make sure you've got business cards with you so that you can exchange contact details if you want to follow up."

Networking can help you to gain further support and inspiration for your work, so don't be afraid of attending events with an issue in mind that you might be struggling with. "People are looking for like-minded people to share information with and solve problems, so be open and listen for that," says George. "In a previous job I went to a conference with the mindset to explore how to pull together an investment case. I found that a couple of strangers had faced a similar challenge and I got insights into how to unlock it. But try not to be pushy and dominate the conversation; remember that networking should be an exchange." After an event, he adds, it is a good idea to make a note of who you have met and what they do.

Check out delegate lists before attending events to identify people or organisations you would like to connect with, then do your best to find them. But bear in mind, says Alexander, that networking is informal and is about introductions and making contacts rather than serious conversation. "Don't be too worthy," she says. "I believe we do the best work when we're having fun, so don't take yourself too seriously and keep networking light-hearted."

Hawkhead agrees: "It's people's relaxing time, so if you make it too much about work you are likely to lose your audience quickly." He warns against drinking too much at events - "there's nothing worse than someone thinking they are clever when they are three sheets to the wind", he says. Remember always to follow up with someone if you have said you would, he adds. Linked-In and Twitter can be good ways of keeping in touch informally.

Through networking, Alexander has assembled a small group of people working across the wider sector whom she meets informally every three months. "They have huge experience and I trust them implicitly," she says. "We meet for pizza and wine, we talk through things and they help me shape my thinking."

Bezodis says she has made useful connections simply by chatting to people in the queue for coffee or lunch at conferences. She says: "Networking has helped me to meet some great, like-minded people in the sector who I've been fortunate to go on and work with in a number of ways, such as asking them to speak at events, sitting with them on steering groups or delivering training for their organisations."

Chatting to a range of people at events can also be a good way of finding out about job opportunities by subtly asking what organisations are like to work for and making it known that you're open to new opportunities. "I've hired a lot of staff through networks with people who suggest candidates," says George. "Fifty per cent of my jobs have been because someone I know has rung up and suggested a role or asked to put my name forward."

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