networking for nonprofits

Building a nonprofit from the ground up is a challenge. Newness creates a certain level of liability, which is evidenced by the fact that nonprofits—like startups—are more likely to fail closer to their founding.

Staffing is another common concern; most nonprofits don’t have the budget to match salaries in the for-profit sector. It can be challenging to get a good enough handle on your cash flow to feel confident that you can afford to add a new hire salary to your budget to begin with. And then there are government regulations, strategic planning challenges, changing tax codes, organizational growth, membership, revenue, and other barriers.

Of all those obstacles, funding may be one of the biggest challenges. A new nonprofit must develop a strong and comprehensive fundraising strategy to have any chance of securing the funds it needs to operate. It also must build a sustainable and scalable donor engagement program and an active board of directors. For these reasons (along with many others), networking is one of the most important tasks for new nonprofits.

Trouble connecting

My biggest challenge when starting a nonprofit was finding projects that made an impact with a reasonable amount of funding—networking was critical to its success. As you begin to build up a network, you can partner with other early-stage programs that are encountering similar challenges.

Creating a nonprofit network, however, can be just as challenging as building a nonprofit. For one, few people understand how to build and sustain a group of organizations focused on a shared social goal. They often see each other as competitors vying for the same funds, leading these partnerships to become one-off affairs.

If they were to look at the bigger picture, they’d realize how conducive an organizational network is to the nonprofit sector. Most nonprofits work on relatively large and complex issues that could benefit from a pool of common resources.

Coming together also provides an opportunity to learn from one another and tap into a more diverse breadth of knowledge. If one organization lacks a specific skill set, the odds are likely that another nonprofit has that expertise in spades. Nonprofits can ease a lot of the uncertainty that accompanies launching new programs or initiatives by lending each other a helping hand.

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Getting to know you

Chances are you feel that your time would be better spent cultivating donors than building a network. Fundraising and networking go hand in hand, however, and the following are a few of the best places to begin your networking efforts:

1. Develop a fundraising strategy

It’s one thing to invite people to share in your mission—it’s something else entirely to inspire them to donate to your cause. This often begins with a fundraising strategy. Define the specific issues you’ll be addressing and how you intend to address them. Determine what kind of value you’ll provide, what outcomes you want to achieve, and what success looks like.

Better yet, identify community need. When you understand the needs of your community, you can adjust your mission to address these needs. Local businesses can then fall in line, as most business owners want to enrich and strengthen the same community. Only after you understand what’s actually driving your mission should you invite others to join forces and share in your organizational vision.

Another aspect of any strong fundraising strategy is community presence. Look for ways to build a presence for your organization within your community. Some nonprofit leaders join their respective city councils while others become part of a local rotary. A rotary club usually brings together representatives from a cross-section of businesses, so it provides substantial exposure and a great opportunity to flex those networking muscles.

2. Host an event

Events are common fundraising efforts in the nonprofit sector, but they also provide an opportunity to connect with other community members. Focus on the social aspects of the occasion and get to know more about the people in attendance—their interests could provide a chance to talk about your organization, its mission, and its initiatives.

Avoid going for the hard sell, though. Even if some attendees can contribute significant funds, focus more on cultivating and strengthening relationships with potential partners and donors. Ask questions and develop personal connections with attendees. When people feel like you’re interested in them—and not simply what they can do for you—the chances of continued support increase exponentially.

What’s more, consider attending their events. If a local nonprofit is hosting an auction or a similar benefit, get on the guest list. It’s not just another opportunity to network with other like-minded professionals—it’s a show of support. Considering that support often begets support; your attendance could also boost the crowd for your next event.

3. Join a nonprofit network

Linking up with a group of like-minded people is an essential part of building a strong network. As with any event, nonprofit groups provide an opportunity to connect with others in your industry, with an added bonus: advice. These people know what you’re going through, and can offer valuable insights.

Take, for example, Habitat for Humanity in Egypt. This nonprofit’s activities are similar to your local chapter, with volunteers building homes and revitalizing neighborhoods. But they have also taken steps to build a network with community-based organizations to address other aspects of homelessness.

Try to take these relationships beyond the traditional “partnering up” for a single program; develop an actual network of nonprofits committed to a single cause. Think of it as pooling your resources for greater, more sustainable success. Networked nonprofits often achieve their missions more efficiently and effectively than those that go it alone.

4. Use board members’ networks

Board members bring a wide array of skills and insights to nonprofits. If, for example, you lack public relations expertise, a PR professional could be a great candidate for your advisory board. But pro bono expertise isn’t the only reason for board recruitment—all board members also become organizational stewards.

While stewardship takes many forms, it has unmatched potential to help you connect with people you don’t already know. From there, it’s up to you to cultivate relationships with these new connections and encourage them to get involved—whether it’s attending an event, volunteering their time, or making a monetary contribution. This rapid network expansion is one of the most effective ways that board members can add value to your nonprofit.

There is no shortage of challenges in the nonprofit space. Why add to the mix by alienating others who want to achieve the same goals as your organization? Put yourself out there, mingle with like-minded folks, and get to know other leaders on a personal level. It could be the key to your fledgling nonprofit’s success.

AvatarKevin Xu

Kevin Xu is the CEO of MEBO International, a California- and Beijing-based intellectual property management company specializing in applied health systems. He also leads Skingenix, which specializes in skin organ regeneration and the research and development of botanical drug products. Kevin is the co-founder of the Human Heritage Project.