Professional Networking in Social Work
Networking for social workers involves building, maintaining, and leveraging professional contacts in the field. You can network at large conferences hosted by professional associations or by having coffee with a colleague who works in your department. Most networking begins with a face-to-face connection, though the internet has shifted the way we establish and continue professional relationships.
For recent graduates, networking can help you find your first job even when you lack experience. For young professionals, growing your network can help you learn about and pursue new career paths within your field. For seasoned social workers, networking offers the means to share best practices and develop new skills.
Knowledge-sharing plays a critical role in the field of social work: it can help you connect clients with the housing or educational resources they need to get back on their feet or allow you to adjust your approach when dealing with victims of domestic violence or individuals coping with substance abuse problems. More than just finding a new job, networking enables social workers to do their current jobs better.
Networking for Social Workers
Different Types of Professional Networks in Social Work
Professional networks can be divided into three categories: operational, personal, and strategic.
First, operational networks often exist within organizations. They consist of your coworkers, managers, employees, clients, and vendors. Developing positive and productive relationships with these individuals helps you succeed on a day-to-day basis. Second, personal networks exist across organizations and fields. Your personal network may comprise friends, former colleagues, teachers, and members of your community. While you can call upon this network for advice in your current role, most people tap personal networks when looking for a new job. Third, strategic networks span companies and industries. People often use these to pursue a broader goal than finding a new job. For example, a social worker may call upon political leaders within his strategic network to fix a policy that disadvantages clients.
Social workers benefit from all three types of networks, though early-career professionals should focus on developing operational and personal networks.
Networking Events in Social Work
Attending social work networking events can help you meet new people and expand your professional circle. These events often take place at large venues, such as convention centers and hotels. Organizations like the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) regularly host large national conferences and smaller regional events.
Social work networking events often feature lectures, seminars, and discussions of interest to those working in the profession. For example, a conference for social workers may feature a presentation on a community health project or a panel of experts debating how to reduce homelessness in urban areas.
In addition, these events provide an opportunity to connect with other social work professionals. Depending on the nature of the event, you may meet others through structured group discussions or in more informal ways, like during coffee breaks or cocktail hours. Remember to pack plenty of business cards, and follow up on the connections you make at these events.
Elevator Pitches in Social Work
Through an "elevator pitch," you briefly introduce yourself, discuss your professional background, and articulate a goal. For example, at a networking event, you may meet the person in charge of hiring for a large hospital. Using your elevator pitch, you would tell this person who you are, that you have extensive experience working with individuals with physical limitations, and that you want to use your skills to help people leaving a hospital after surgery.
Your elevator pitch should be no longer than thirty seconds. Make sure to practice it aloud and before others, if possible.
Social Networking Sites for Social Workers
Although the strongest professional networks involve in-person connections, social media platforms like LinkedIn play an increasingly important role in maintaining social work networks. For example, if you meet a connection at an event, but forget her name before you have the opportunity to follow up, you can search online using the name of her organization or other information. Social networking sites also allow you to determine who in your network can facilitate a connection to a particular person or recommend you for a given job.
Relying exclusively on online networking sites can cause trouble. You may find yourself with many professional "connections" but few individuals in your network willing to vouch for you or offer assistance. Try to think of these sites as tools to supplement in-person networking rather than replacements for it.
Tips for Networking in Social Work
Like any other skill, networking requires practice. Don't feel discouraged if you forget your elevator pitch or leave an event without making meaningful connections. Throughout your career, you will have many opportunities to develop and deepen your professional network.
- Ask Questions: Ask questions to keep a conversation going and to develop a rapport with a potential connection. You may learn something new and acquire meaningful information for your follow-up.
- Be Bold: Many of us shy away from meeting new people, but networking requires you to leave your comfort zone and introduce yourself. If you struggle with this, try to attend networking events with a friend or colleague so you can introduce yourselves together.
- Stay Professional: Asking personal questions can help you create a bond with a fellow social work professional, but avoid discussing difficult topics. In addition, many networking events offer alcohol, so make sure to know your limit or abstain altogether.
- Know What You Want: If you want a new job, prioritize events and activities that allow you to meet new people and talk about your accomplishments. If you want new knowledge or skills, try to attend events that offer you the chance to learn from experts in your field.
- Give More Than You Take: Prepare for the next time you need a favor by helping others in your network. Think about what you can give to your colleagues and connections rather than simply thinking in terms of what they can do for you. When you need assistance later down the road, your network will likely respond enthusiastically.
Networking Event "Do's" for Social Workers
- Set Goals: Whether you want to talk to 10 new people or have a follow-up conversation with a potential future employer, know what you want to accomplish before you attend a networking event. Having a goal can help you use your time wisely.
- Dress Appropriately: Unless the event organizer specifically mentions an informal dress code, wear business-casual attire: dress pants or suit, skirt, button-up shirt, or its equivalent. It's best to avoid jeans, sneakers, and t-shirts.
- Bring Business Cards: You meet many people at networking events, and business cards allow you to share contact information quickly so you can follow-up at a later date. Also, bring a pen so you can write additional information, such as a personal number or the name of a mutual acquaintance, on the back.
- Be Concise: Stay focused, speak clearly, and give other people the chance to talk. Work on your elevator pitch to make sure you convey the most important information about yourself quickly. You can always follow up with more information after your conversation.
- Follow up on Connections: To build a network, you must follow up. After an event, sort through business cards you have collected to prioritize those with whom you should follow up. Reference a detail from your conversation, or ask a question to encourage your connection to respond. Avoid following up on the phone unless the connection requested that you do so.
Networking Event "Don'ts" for Social Workers
- Distribute Paper Copies of Your Resume: No one wants to carry around dozens of pieces of paper. Stick to business cards at an event and incorporate your biggest accomplishments and qualifications in your elevator pitch. When you follow up, you can share or link to your resume to provide additional detail.
- Use a Shotgun Approach: A few meaningful conversations can yield better results than many superficial encounters. In advance of an event, identify individuals with whom you want to talk, and seek them out. This kind of approach also makes follow-up easier and more productive.
- Interrupt/Talk over Others: Wait for the right opportunity to contribute to a conversation, especially when talking with a senior social work professional. Likewise, listen to what others say instead of simply chiming in with an unrelated piece of information during a moment of silence.
- Be Intimidated: Everyone attends networking events to meet new people. Don't worry that you might bother someone stop you from beginning a conversation. In all likelihood, the person you approach will be happy she can respond to your introduction rather than having to introduce herself.
- Neglect to Follow up on Connections: If someone gives you his or her business card, respond either via email or social media. For important connections or when networking in social work management circles, send a handwritten note thanking the individual for his time. A single conversation means nothing if you cannot use it to help develop an ongoing professional relationship.