I once attended a speed networking event. We set a Guinness world record that day for the largest speed networking event in the world. It was exhilarating! It helped me overcome some networking fears. I met a bunch of interesting people and even followed up with few. But ultimately nothing came of the event except some experience gained.
But seriously, how many networking events have you been to that ended up just being a waste of time. I’ve been to so many mixers, round tables, conferences, tabling events, and professional meet-ups that I can’t even count them let alone remember who I met.
If you’re randomly attending networking events hoping to connect with the right people, then you’re doing it wrong!
There’s a reason you can’t just keep going to networking events and create an infinitely expanding professional network. According to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, your brain simply doesn’t have the capacity to manage more than 150 meaningful connections. Dunbar has been studying human social interaction for decades now, but the breakthrough occurred while studying the grooming patterns of primates.
“I was working on the arcane question of why primates spend so much time grooming one another, and I tested another hypothesis – which says the reason why primates have big brains is because they live in complex social worlds. Because grooming is social, all these things ought to map together, so I started plotting brain size and group size and grooming time against one another. You get a nice set of relationships.
It was about 3am, and I thought, hmm, what happens if you plug humans into this? And you get this number of 150. This looked implausibly small, given that we all live in cities now, but it turned out that this was the size of a typical community in hunter-gatherer societies.” (The Guardian)
And this number, or really a range, 100-200, seems to hold true throughout history. Early villages averaged 150 people and the company size in Roman armies averaged about 150 people. Even Jesus had 12 close friends and only 70 more casual friends.
Dunbar and others have also done studies on current human behavior through tracking Christmas Cards, aggregating phone call data, and analyzing Twitter datasets. All of which continue to support the theory.
Know Your Limits
The reason my speed networking attempt and much of the other networking events I’ve attended haven’t been successful is because I’ve run upon my limits. And, we would be hard pressed to find anyone in the nonprofit world who isn’t also tapped out. Let’s be honest, there are only so many hours in a day, and nothing you can do is going to change that. The only way you’re going to add more people to your network is if you kick some people off. You will need to let some relationships fade if you want to add new relationships. So those new connections better be valuable.
How To Choose Your Next Networking Event
Does this mean networking events and mixers are nothing but evil time sucking vacuum cleaners? Absolutely not! While I have wasted plenty of time on in-effective networking events, I’ve also made some incredibly rewarding and enriching friendships through networking events and programs. Here’s how to make your next networking event a winner:
- Be Purposeful. General networking events that invite everyone are not often effective. You might run into someone you want to get to know better, but odds are all you will meet is the oriental rug salesman, and unless your nonprofit is the Oriental Rug Retailers of America, it’s probably not going to be very helpful. (Unless he’s a donor, then go gaga over the rugs.)This is where you need to focus on your objective. What are you trying to accomplish? Are you trying to connect with other nonprofit professionals for support, then you might try something like the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, if you’re looking to find a fundraising consultant you could try your local chapter of the Assocation of Fundraising Professionals, and if you’re looking for potential donors and volunteers you might try your local Rotary, Soroptimist, or 20/30 Club, all organizations that actively engage in their local community.
- Be Consistent. If you want to build a meaningful relationship you need to interact on a regular basis. It doesn’t matter how well you hit-it-off with someone, if you only see them once, you’re going to lose that connection. Some of the most valuable relationships that I have developed have been through networking events that meet regularly. It takes time and mental energy to learn who someone is and build a meaningful relationship. But, when you find people who share a passion for your mission the results are volunteers, donors, and mission evangelists. It’s so worth it.
- Bring Value. You must bring value and sincerity if you want to make friends. Please, please, please don’t go to mixers and events with the sole purpose of being that evil time sucking vacuum cleaner. People will see right through you. If you want to make friends you must bring something worth peoples time. Bring a super short but powerful impact story from your organization to tell when asked where you work, try to help connect people that you think could benefit each other professionally, and just be a good listener. You’re looking for people who share your passion for the mission and offering them a chance to be a part of it.
Now get out there, have fun, and meet some kindred spirits!
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