Networking opportunities can come your way easily when you’re employed: going to conferences, being introduced to new contacts through organizational partnerships, or even just staying in touch with current and past coworkers over after-work drinks. And you always have something handy to talk about with these folks: your org’s new initiative, the funding climate, staffing changes here and there—the list goes on. Best of all, many of these opportunities come to you with no price tag attached.
But when you’re spending your nine-to-fives alone, looking at jobs on your laptop from your kitchen table, the world of networking can seem very far away. Days may go by when you don’t see anyone in person, you feel out of the loop about current events in the sector… and you’re not going to pony up $500 to join 200 of your closest nonprofit pals at the Hyatt this Friday.
So how can you successfully, meaningfully network when you don’t have a job? Here are three angles to flesh out:
Where to go and who to go to
When you’re not staying in the know about upcoming events in your field through work, check out what relevant groups on LinkedIn and Meetup are doing in your area. A lot of the smaller, more local events planned by members in these communities are free or low-cost, and can introduce you to tons of new people who share your interests. Ditto for the activities hosted by professional associations for people in your line of work.
Another way to find networking events is to create them. One fun way to do this is to first make a list of people you know. (If you get stuck after listing friends, family, and classmates, check out this great blog post by Liz Ryan that gives examples of places you might have met cool people that you haven’t had occasion to contact in a while.) Then email a handful of them every week and invite them to have coffee with you, or just chat on the phone, to catch up. When chatting, try asking them if they can recommend someone you reach out to, to keep the conversation going.
Rekindling these old acquaintances—and getting connected with new ones–is a very efficient way of stay on top of what’s happening in the outside world, and hearing about job openings before they hit the Internet.
What to say
Whether you’re meeting someone for the first time or reconnecting after some time away, it’s important to show friendliness and positivity, even if your job search has you feeling blue. To this end, don’t lead with the fact that you’re looking for work. Although you don’t need to hide this, and you do in fact want to mention it eventually, it’s best to get in the habit of asking other people about themselves first.
For example, try asking people what they do and what’s going on in that world right now, how they heard about the event you’re attending, what they’ve been up to since the last time you saw each other, etc. Not only will this present you as a curious and caring person, but you might also get some helpful information right off the bat (for example, the person mentions they know someone you’d like to be introduced to, or works somewhere you’d like to know more about).
Then, when it’s your “turn,” you can simply say you’re no longer with your last organization and are looking for new opportunities, and give a brief (one or two sentence) sketch of what you do or would like to do for work. If your conversation partner seems receptive, you can then proceed with, “Do you have any advice for me?” or, “If you hear of anything like that opening up, I’d love to to know about it!”
How to handle your Benjamins
Networking, like anything, can either be very expensive or pretty easy on the wallet, depending on your approach. Expensive things like attending flashy conferences or buying a new professional wardrobe might seem necessary, and they could well be beneficial, but at the end of the day, networking is about people, and—at least for now—conversation is free.
You will have to spend money sometimes; just try to spend wisely. Make networking dates only for coffee—not a meal—whenever possible. If your networking target would rather have “adult beverages” after work, stick to just one yourself (there are other reasons to adhere to this rule as well!). You’ll always want to offer to pay for the other person’s tab, which is all the more reason to keep the cost per item as low as possible.
When it comes to conferences with steep ticket prices, try this old trick in lieu of attending: research the presenters online, see who interests you, then email them through their website or LinkedIn to introduce yourself and ask for a brief informational interview. It’s true you’ll miss the opportunity to network with the other attendees at the live event, but reaching out to presenters can still be a powerful way to grow your network.