There was a time when people talked about “meeting with other people” as a way of making connections that could further their personal and/or professional development. I remember about twenty years ago it was referred to as “creating strategic alliances,” and today everyone refers to this activity as “networking.” Yet, exactly what is networking with individuals who are interested in working in the Jewish community? What are the informal rules governing the way people form professional relationships, and what are the rules that guide organizational networking?
The relationships we develop can often be mutually beneficial even though we may not think so when we first talk with someone. Many of us receive phone calls from people who tell us that “so and so suggested I speak with you.” These individuals on the other end of the phone either have an idea to share with us or would like to elicit our thoughts about a particular subject or project. At times we are enthusiastic about meeting with someone who wants to know what we think about a new idea for a new project, and at other times we find this to be an imposition on our time.
There are important lessons to be learned in sharing our time with others. First of all, when someone reaches out to us, it is, at the very least, a compliment. It means that we have some knowledge and understanding of the voluntary nonprofit sector that the other person considers valuable.
Sometimes we are not even aware of the value that our perspective on issues might have for someone else. At those times we might tend to say no to a requested meeting because we think we just do not have the time. Yet often these meetings can be stimulating and invigorating. The questions and challenges that are posed can cause us to think about issues in a new or different way. Another person’s search can often provide us with opportunities to rethink our own ideas and to question assumptions we have made in the past about ideas, concepts, and organizations.
Another important feature of these kinds of meetings is the impact they can have on the person who reaches out to us. Requests often come from people who are looking for a new position in the Jewish community, are just beginning their careers in Jewish communal service, or are thinking of entering the nonprofit sector. When we extend ourselves to such individuals we let them know that we value their desire to work either in the nonprofit sector, in general, or in the Jewish community.
I would like to share a personal experience with you. Many years ago when I was preparing to move to Israel, I sent out 40 letters to professionals in the field of social work, introducing myself and telling them that when I arrived I would be calling to arrange a meeting with them. As is not uncommon, I did not receive a single response to these letters. Fortunately, however, when I arrived in Israel, most people were not only very welcoming but were also happy to know that I had actually arrived in the country.
I soon began the process of making phone calls and arranging meetings. People were extremely generous with their time and were glad to meet me. (It is true that I had appropriate credentials and had been the director of a Jewish family service agency and had served on the faculty of a school of social work). During the first round of meetings I learned a great deal and was most appreciative to the people who extended themselves to me.
However, there was one response, or rather the lack of a response, that had a lasting impact on my professional career. I had written letters of introduction to the director and assistant director of a large Jewish communal agency in Israel. Not only did neither respond to my letters but they also failed to return any of my subsequent phone calls. Out of the blue, several weeks after I left telephone messages one of the organization’s employees who lived near me stopped by one night with a message. He told me the director and the assistant director of the agency had received my letters and phone messages, but the agency had a policy of not meeting with any new immigrant professionals until they were in the country at least two years.
Needless to say, I was taken aback. That agency’s unwelcoming policy had a lasting impact on my subsequent behavior, and I decided that from then on, I would meet with anyone who requested a meeting with me. If someone thought I could be helpful to them, I would be willing to extend myself. Over the last 30 years that I have been in Israel I have met some wonderful people, and they have always been thankful for my willingness to meet with them and for sharing my thoughts and ideas with them.
The process of networking has been valuable to me as an individual and apparently has been much appreciated by those whom I have met; similarly I have been thankful to those who met with me when I was seeking advice and counsel on professional issues. These kinds of consultations build the network of relationships that become the glue in maintaining connections among professionals and aspiring professionals. We all have a great deal to learn from giving our time to others and having others who share their time with us.
Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.