So I was sitting up one night last month, staring at my work to-do list, which was feeling long but totally manageable (save for this one, super-tedious data entry project that just felt way too sucky to ask any of my board members or Fellows to help me with). If you work for a small nonprofit organization with limited staff, you know this moment. Actually, if you’re a grown up with any sort of responsibilities at all, you know this moment. At any rate, I was having that moment.
Out of nowhere, a friend of mine (we’ll call her Kim) Gchats me to let me know she’s got some time on her hands and volunteers to do the sucky project for me. The weird thing is, I didn’t remember mentioning the project to her. Perhaps at some point when last we spoke, I was babbling about whatever was in my brain at the time and she managed to sift the project out of the mess and identify it as a way that she could help a friend.
The power of sector-wide generosity
In the moment, I was mostly feeling beyond grateful for Kim. But it also occurred to me that gifts like this are actually exchanged regularly amongst the incredible people I know who work in the sector. We do stuff like this for each other all the time without question.
The angst I was feeling though was over the fact that when we talk about what it’s like to work for a nonprofit via social media or even amongst these same family and friends, we so rarely lift this—our ability to create networks that support us and push us—up as one of our key characteristics or our core values. However, it is something that we do that not only makes us unique, but actually makes us incredibly powerful.
If we are to continue creating and cultivating networks that not only work for social change, but also nourish us and support us when we encounter setbacks, challenges, and burnout, we have to try the following:
View reliance on networks as a strength, not an inefficiency
Networking is not just a job search tool in the sector, it’s the way we get things done because our work is incredibly complicated. We’re not making widgets – we’re building a world where basic needs are met, communities are strong, and access to opportunity is equitable. With goals this audacious, there is no end to the universe of challenges and opportunities that will present themselves.
So we simply cannot (and should not) build organizations that can address every single opportunity and challenge that will ever arise. Imagine if we took the fact that we already ARE networked in so many ways – we have staff that have moved between these organizations, provide different services to the same clients, and work on the same issues – and actually built this into our organizational strategy for achieving our mission. It would not only relieve us of the pressure to keep doing more with less, but would allow each organization to really focus on the things we do the best. And rest in the knowledge that collectively we can provide community members with what they need.
Cultivate your network by being generous
I was in a workshop a few years ago where we did an exercise. In column A, you had to list people you considered to be key contacts in your network. In column B, you had to list how you came to know that person. The first part of the exercise was more about mapping your network. But in column C, you were then supposed to take the people in column A and list all the people you’ve introduced them to. The idea was that building your network was not about how many people you collect and remembering where you got them so you can go back for more. It’s about cultivating those relationships.
There’s plenty of research now that confirms what we’ve probably always known instinctively: lots of nodes are better than one central hub. In other words, the most effective systems are ones in which people with helpful information are directly connected with each other rather than having to be routed through one central person. The strongest way to add value to a relationship is to help the other person (or organization) in that relationship build his or her network by introducing them to other people (or organizations) that they should know.
Actively ask for help
The step after thinking about other organizations as part of our mission is actually reaching out to them for help. In the story of my sucky project, I got lucky. I happened to be sharing my stress with Kim – an incredibly attentive friend who was able to pick up on the fact that I was struggling without my having to actually tell her. The thing is that not only would Kim have been just as willing to do the task if I had explicitly asked, if I had considered the possibility that I could ask for help instead of doing the whole thing myself, I probably would have approached the project way more creatively without necessarily adding more work for her as a volunteer.
I know. You’re thinking “It doesn’t make sense to turn everything into a shareable project. By the time I explain to someone else how to do it, I could have done it myself.” I hear you. And this logic is correct when we think about checking a task off our list as an end goal. But when you think about our work as nonprofits not only as service providers who accomplish a set of functions, but as a space to provide services and engage people (in whatever small way) in the act of building a better world, then it’s a lot harder to say that you can accomplish the same thing by just doing it on your own.
How are you building community? Share your advice and experiences in the comments.
After almost eight years of engaging with the network as a volunteer, Trish Tchume is proud to be serving as the first-ever Director of YNPN National. Prior to becoming Director of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN) in 2011, Trish served as Director of Civic Engagement for the Building Movement Project (2008-2011) and as a Campus Organizer, a Community Outreach Manager, and the Director of Training for Idealist.org (2004-2008), all following years spent doing community development work via city government and academia. Over the years, Trish has received a number of awards and recognitions for her engagement of young nonprofit professionals including her selection for the inaugural class of Independent Sector NGen Fellows in 2009. Trish equally credits her rich Jesuit education, her strong Ghanaian roots, and a severe case of middle child syndrome for her commitment to engaging as many people as possible in the important work of building a just and equitable society.