Responding to Requests for Networking

Many of us receive requests to meet with people who are thinking about entering Jewish communal work or working in the nonprofit sector. Often these requests are relayed to us by a colleague who asks, in an email or phone call, that we meet with someone they know or with whom they have had a similar conversation. What should our response be when we are approached by those seeking a job or considering the field of Jewish communal service?

Certainly, such requests can be seen as an imposition on our time and another task we have to handle in an already busy schedule. We may want to say, “I understand your request, but I really do not have the time to meet with you.” But I urge you to show a generosity of spirit and time.

When the request comes from someone looking for a job and we do not know of any open professional positions, we are particularly likely to want to turn the person away, simply because we do not think we can be helpful. However, we may be able to be more helpful than we think, and it may not be until we engage in conversation that it will become clear how much we can offer the job seeker. In situations like this our ability to be of real assistance becomes apparent only in the context of the conversation. Therefore we need to think twice before we turn down a request for a meeting.

Networking offers tangible benefits as well. At the very least it gives us the opportunity to meet some interesting and even unique individuals. Those of us who are veterans in the field of Jewish communal service can recall our own conversations with seasoned professionals when we were just starting out. Many of us remember a salient conversation we had at one point with someone who influenced our journey toward working for the Jewish community.

On average I receive two requests a month from people seeking to enter the nonprofit sector or considering a job change. I respond positively, but am very clear about the purpose of our meeting. Most of the time I do not know about specific job opportunities; however, I am prepared to speak with them about how to pursue their professional interests. I let them know that I am happy to meet with them and assist them in thinking through how they can first clarify and then pursue their career aspirations.

I thus make a decision to engage with people as a colleague and to provide them with the appropriate assistance to enhance their professional development. Most of the people who reach out to me are very thankful for the opportunity to meet with someone who can assist them in clarifying their interests.

I provide this clarification by offering them a perspective that many find very helpful. By focusing on their experience and knowledge, I help them determine their future direction. I suggest they identify an area of Jewish communal service or the nonprofit sector about which they are passionate. It could be the age group they like to work with or specific challenges facing that population, such as developmental disabilities, substance abuse, or Alzheimer’s disease. If they are not passionate about serving any one group of people, they may be interested in a particular area of concentration, such as resource development, leadership development, or the management of nonprofits.

Next, I speak with them about how they can learn more about the client group or area of service of interest to them. It is not rocket science to search the web or to identify agencies that either respond to the challenges they are interested in or employ people who are performing a variety of tasks in the voluntary sector. I then help them focus on identifying specific individuals who provide services or function in the capacities they wish to pursue.

When I am familiar with the field of service or specific professionals of interest, I will send an e-mail asking my colleagues to be available for what I call an information interview. In this meeting people pursuing their professional interests are able to learn more and reflect with someone already working in the nonprofit sector. This kind of engagement with an experienced professional can be invaluable.

A side benefit of these kinds of meetings is the mentoring opportunity it provides for the senior professional. The process of responding to questions and engaging in a conversation focused on explaining one’s own professional roles and responsibilities can be a stimulating learning experience for the veteran. When there is a willingness and openness to be available, then both parties will find the experience to be not only interesting but also rewarding.

We can never underestimate the value of these kinds of engagements between those looking to enter human services and those of us who are veteran professionals. The more willing we are to share with those hoping to join our ranks, the more we will strengthen the professional leadership and the services provided to the Jewish community.

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.