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The Talent Agenda: Why funders should support nonprofit networking

The Talent Agenda is a monthly column where Rusty Stahl—Idealist board member and joint fellow at the Tides Foundation and the Research Center for Leadership in Action at NYU Wagnerwill share his thoughts on how organizations and foundations can do more to support the careers and development of nonprofit professionals.

Photo credit: Matti Matilla, Creative Commons/Flickr

Photo credit: Matti Matilla, Creative Commons/Flickr

by Rusty Stahl

While we often talk about how networking is key to career development and job seeking, we tend to gloss over the importance of networking in the development of a strong social sector. Networks are central to cultivating a talented, healthy, and diverse workforce for nonprofit organizations and social movements. But how do we create and support these networks? This post makes the case for why and how funders should support you and your organization in developing high-impact networks.

In a world overrun with schmoozing, why would funders allocate precious resources to help nonprofit leaders network?!

From an organizational standpoint, networks are hands-down the most effective tools for recruiting new talent. A recent survey on nonprofit human resources shows that formal and informal networking remain the most popular and effective recruiting methods: 84% of respondents were very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with recruitment advertising through informal networks; 82% felt similarly about marketing jobs through formal networks.

(As a proud board member here, I would be remiss if I did not note that Idealist.org is rated third, with a 69% satisfaction rating, ranking above LinkedIn, Craigslist, Facebook, PhilanthropyCareers, Monster, Twitter, and all others. Of course, Idealist is itself a vast network of individuals and organizations; it is your participation that makes it so valuable, so thank you for being part of it!)

The power of networks doesn’t just apply to professional staff. The social capital of formal and informal networks also enables nonprofits to identify and recruit high-performing volunteers, donors, and board members, all of whom are extremely important for most successful nonprofits.

And while supporting network-building in the nonprofit sector may seem costly, the imperative to do so is compelling: in the resource-limited environment of the nonprofit workplace, getting excellent, committed, and skilled people into the organization must be a strategic management priority. And the best way to find these people—or enable them to find you and be attracted to your mission—is through networks. (If you really want to learn the natural laws that govern networks of all types, check out the incredible book Linked: How Everything is Connected to Everything Else and What it Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life, a book written for a general audience by a brilliant young scientist named Albert-Lásló Barabási.)

Of course, there is another edge to this sword: people too often network with people in whom they see a reflection of themselves. This leads to a lack of diversity within networks and, hence, the boards and staff of organizations. But much like ecosystems, investment portfolios, and fundraising plans that seek small, medium, and large donations, networks with high levels of diversification are those that are most durable.

So let me revise the statement above: It takes great people to become a great organization. And the best way for nonprofits to find great people is by building up, engaging in, and recruiting through diverse networks.

If network-building is so important, what can funders do to support it?

Once foundation professionals and donors understand the benefits of network-building for the organizations they support, there is a lot they can do to help—from simply having ongoing conversations with nonprofits, to fully integrating a Talent Philanthropy framework. Here are a few additional actions funders can take:

  • Enable and encourage grantees to include network-building in grant objectives and budgets. Significant resources are needed to convene events, develop and lead coalitions, and establish network structures within an organization (such as membership or chapter structures, which are time and staff intensive). It also takes financial resources to attend conferences and to take colleagues out to lunch to deepen relationships. Consider a more structural approach to integrating these activities into the programs and activities of the organization itself.
  • Convene grantees. Create networking, peer-sharing, and skill-building opportunities amongst grantees that share some common purpose, characteristic, or challenge. This works best if the same people or groups meet repeatedly over time (I recommend annually). Funders shouldn’t be overly prescriptive about specific relationships or organizational partnerships; instead they should work closely with their nonprofit colleagues to create a space and let folks share content and build relationships as they themselves see fit. Note: If three foundations are convening a largely-overlapping set of nonprofits, it is way more efficient to hold one meeting and share the costs, rather than force the same people to travel a three-ringed foundation circuit.
  • Include extra funds in grant budgets to enable nonprofit staff to attend conferences. This includes CEOs, mid-level managers, and emerging leaders. Such a diversified delegation can bring different voices to the event, meet one another’s contacts, and bring back unique networks to the different levels at their organization. This is also a great way to boost morale and build community across the staff. And let me add one important note about conferences: You know how people always say the hallway conversations are the best part, not the formal sessions? That is because it is the hallways and hotel lobbies where the real networking happens; so let’s not push attending sessions too hard. And the networking only gets better when employees go to the same conference consistently for years; they start to become part of the community, and can reconnect with their networks as well as make new contacts. This approach offers terrific visibility, personal branding, and organization-building all at once.
  • Underwrite the member dues of grantees in relevant professional associations or other relevant networks. When I was E.D. of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, the membership association for young and new foundation professionals, I sought out and paid for our organization to join the American Society of Association Executives. (Yes. I know. And yes, it really exists. I agree, it’s meta: an association for association people. Can we move on now?) Two of us attended their conference. I bought their publications and I paid for several staff to take their online courses. This was a great way to meet our peers, learn best practices, and access knowledge from across the association world. I never thought to ask my funders to pay for any of this, and they rarely asked what I was doing for professional learning. These expenses were a serious budget consideration for me. But none of these costs would have been significant for our funders.
  • Support grantees’ participation in cohort-based leadership development programs. Such programs often offer multiple benefits: personal development, concrete knowledge development, and incredible network development. In 2011 while still serving on staff at EPIP, I participated in Selah, a leadership development program for Jewish nonprofit and social-justice leaders organized by Bend the Arc, funded by Nathan Cummings Foundation, and with content facilitated by Rockwood Leadership Institute. With a supportive board, my organization paid for registration and travel for two retreats. The network and learning was so valuable that I just paid my own way to attend an all-cohort retreat, where I got to see and experience the whole alumni network in one place. It was a powerful experience; I learned a ton, saw old friends, and met some incredible new people, all of whom share a common experience and baseline leadership language through the program.

Thankfully, some insightful funders have created the Network of Network Funders (once again, yes, it is more than a little “meta”!) to advance their own knowledge on how to better support and connect their grantees. Hopefully, this is just the beginning. By better understanding the power of networks and actively supporting them, funders can help organizations build meaningful relationships that will increase their talent, effectiveness, and social impact.

Rusty Stahl close-upRusty Morgen Stahl, a long-standing Idealist board member, is a joint fellow at the Tides Foundation and the Research Center for Leadership in Action at NYU Wagner. He is founder and executive director emeritus of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, previously worked at the Ford Foundation, and holds a Masters in Philanthropic Studies from Indiana University. Rusty lives in Brooklyn with his betrothed and their two black and white cats.

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