I’ve never been very good at networking. And as someone who usually enjoys meeting new people, I’ve had a hard time understanding why.
It’s certainly not for lack of experience. As a college student, I went to more career fairs than I could count. I knew how to exchange pleasantries, but I preferred to ask the ‘below-the-surface’ questions that would get colleagues to talk about their work in ways that were personal and meaningful. Why do this work? Why now?
Most of the time, these inquiries were met with a half-hearted response from recruiters who seemed only a little irritated that I hadn’t asked a simpler question about workplace culture or salary. So each time that I attended a networking event, I came away with the same things: a handful of business cards and a slight, inexplicable sense of dissatisfaction.
Now that I’m nearly four months into my fellowship at the Foundation, I can confidently say that I am no better at networking than I was at the start of my year. And that’s a good thing.
Earlier this fall, Mo Green of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation visited Raleigh as part of his #MoWantsToKnow tour. I tagged along with Damon to the event, half-expecting to find myself in another typical networking environment. I already knew what to say; I would introduce myself as Yemi, the 2016-17 Fletcher Fellow and when asked about my work, I would recite a brief summary of my current projects, rinse, repeat.
But this particular evening, I noticed something very different about the energy in the room. When I talked about a project I was working on, I found that people were genuinely interested in hearing about it. They even offered contact information for colleagues who specialized in the work I was doing and pointed me towards resources that could be helpful. And when I asked those ‘below-the-surface’ questions, folks were more than willing to engage them. I wasn’t just learning about the work that these professionals were engaging in; I was learning about the people behind the work.
And this has been my main takeaway–that in the world of nonprofits, community makes all the difference. In my role as the Fletcher Fellow, one of my responsibilities is to amplify grantee voices in the public sphere. But it’s hard to amplify someone’s voice if you aren’t close enough to hear what they are saying. So I’m incredibly grateful to the folks at the Foundation for showing me what community listening looks like. For encouraging me to take risks with the ways that we tell community stories, like our podcast series. For pushing me to interrogate existing community relations and consider how they affect the work that we do. For connecting me to nonprofit leaders and public servants who are dedicated to making North Carolina a better place for all.
The central problem with networking is its inherently selfish nature. We show up to events with resumes and business cards, ostensibly to connect with people who are doing work that we care about. But we do it in a way that is remarkably self-aggrandizing. Networking tends to ask the question, “How can you be helpful to me?” It’s a mindset that folks would like to think they are immune to, but I’ve seen it even in the most charitable corners of the working world. Even among nonprofits, there can be a tendency to view one another as competitors, whether it be for grants, programs, or human capital.
When we move away from a networking mindset towards a community-building mindset, we start to ask a different question–“How do we help one another?” Ultimately, we are all working towards the same goal: to improve the lives and well-being of all people. But to do that, we have to be intentional about building a village of people who are deeply invested in their communities.
To be honest, I’m still trying to figure out what that actually looks like. I’m fortunate enough to have the folks at the Fletcher Foundation investing in me as I try to parse through these observations about the world. But at the very least, I do think that authentic community-building is knowing the difference between showing up and being fully present. It’s the difference between hearing community voices and listening to them. It requires a recognition of the power dynamics that exist between those with and without privilege. And, perhaps most importantly, it demands our undivided empathy as we try to discern our community’s most pressing needs.