Walking a Fine Line

There’s a time to network and a time to be of service. A key to “giving back” effectively is knowing and observing the difference.

An old saying advises not to mix business and pleasure. There are two other things not to mix: Networking and community service.

Now, you may ask: Isn’t it partly to make business contacts that we join a service club or get on a charity’s board of directors? Well, yes, partly. But the real reason to join such an organization is to serve the community.

You can always spot the person in a service group who really is there to network. He or she is the one aggressively handing out business cards on any pretext, too eagerly volunteering for the high-profile projects and elbowing his or her way into the newspaper publicity pictures.

A good rule of thumb is: If you want to network, join organizations and attend functions that truly are for that purpose. A chamber of commerce, for example, is a service group but also by charter a place for businesspeople to get together and make professional connections. Many chambers sponsor events specifically for networking.


Just giving back

On the flip side, if you want to serve, then serve purely. A communications agency I once worked for encouraged its people to get involved in service organizations and professional groups. I joined a public relations society and soon learned the expectation was that I return from meetings with leads for new business.

I wasn’t comfortable hawking my company at these events. I felt compelled to sit at the dinner table next to someone from a potential client company, rather than next to someone with whom I had shared a pleasant chat during cocktail hour, or anyone else. I preferred simply to enjoy what I could learn from my peers and to share things they might learn from me.

Of course, since my company had paid for my membership, I was obligated to do as directed, and so tried to sit with “the right people” and gather calling cards. The trouble was that most of my fellow society members weren’t there primarily to network and were somewhat chilly toward any conversation that made them feel I might be qualifying them as prospects. Or at least so it seemed at the time.

I eventually discovered (as a wise mentor had once suggested) that the best way to make business connections in such a setting was not to pursue them, rather to simply give to the organization and expect nothing in return but the intrinsic satisfaction that goes with being of service.

In other words, the point of being in the organization was to help the organization and its members and to grow professionally. If a potential client took notice and it led to a business relationship, fine, but that was purely incidental. A nice surprise, and that’s all.


How do you serve?

In an organization of service-minded people, a self-promoter stands out, and not in a flattering way. Promoting yourself in a setting like that can do your business more harm than good. In general, the more close-knit the community, the more true this is.

For example, in a club like Rotary or Kiwanis, members generally are there much more to serve the community than to advance themselves. Many have been members for years. The friendships and business connections within the group are well formed. A new member clearly interested in himself or herself first will have trouble fitting in.

It’s liberating to discover the difference between networking and service. Belonging to a community organization can provide pleasant and highly rewarding interludes during busy weeks at work. If you adopt a service mindset, you can take off your business hat for those hours at lunchtime, in the evening, or on a weekend and know the simple satisfaction of helping someone else or bettering your hometown.


Ways to benefit

You can learn and hone new skills by volunteering to serve on committees or hold offices somewhat outside your area of expertise. You’ll associate with people in businesses far different from your own, and from them learn tips on how to make your own business run better.

A Rotary club I once belonged to launched an annual indoor Christmas tree sale at a mall that had a few vacant shop spaces. The first year, it was poorly organized. Members who volunteered to work the sale arrived to find no instructions; they had no idea what to do, what kinds of trees were kept where, if they could accept checks, and so on. Customer service was chaotic.

The next year, the sale chairman was a local bank branch manager. Before the sale began, he took time at one of our weekly meetings to spell out all the procedures. Volunteers arriving for work received a sheet of what he called “failure-proof” instructions. Wow! I learned an incredible amount just by observing this man, and I could go back and apply that to my own work. So it’s not just through making contacts that involvement in a service group can help your business.

What do your volunteer endeavors look like? If they include networking, that’s great – it’s valuable and necessary. Just be sure to network in the appropriate places. And if not already doing so, consider getting involved in something truly service-oriented. You may find the respect you enjoy and the satisfaction you feel as a result will be well worth it – even if it never leads to a dime’s worth of new business.


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