When I was first out of grad school trying to get a job, I heard people saying, “you have to network,” etc. I thought at the time, and still do, that that approach is only particularly effective if you have a current job or some kind of existing network to use as a springboard. However, once you’re safe and sound in a position you’re okay with, you can use volunteering to build a powerful network and increase your marketability. And, while you always meet interesting people working at a food kitchen or other real charitable cause, your career calls for you to work the professional circuit.

My advice if you’d like to expand your career horizons is to join a professional association. Now, I happen to have made my career (so far) working for these critters so I know whereof I speak.

The first step is to find an association you’re interested in. If they have stringent admissions criteria you don’t meet, join another one. If one is too expensive, try another. But really benefiting from the association means more than just opening up your checkbook and paying the dues (altho you’ll keep the staff happy that way). No, to really get the benefit out of the association, you have to work it. The best way to do this is to volunteer.

Most associations are made up of aging folks who’d like to step aside but they feel guilty. So, generally speaking, anyone new is met with open arms. These people are great contacts to have, and if you give them a hand, they’ll be a friend for life. And they know everybody. Go to their meetings every once in awhile; sometimes they publish when the board meeting is–go to that and you’ll have a private audience and people willing to hear all about you. Call up your local chapter, send an email, and ask if they need a hand. Phone calls made for a conference. Newsletter layout. Whatever you’re good at, offer it to them. If they’re smart they’ll take you up on it. If you read their newsletters, you’ll see sometimes there are different needs that people advertise. You’ll get some people who are so overwhelmed you’ll never hear back from them. If so, try a different association when your dues expire.

Another tip is to make friends with the staff. These places are basically small businesses and if you find a friend, they’ll network you in with the who’s who of the industry or field. Keep on their radar, and soon you’ll be asked to do all kinds of stuff. It will keep you *extremely* busy, but in my estimation, the contacts are worth it.

I always used to be vaguely offended when someone said “it’s not what you know it’s who you know.” Now, I use that as an invitation to start meeting interesting people. Some may see this as somewhat Machiavellian or that it’s akin to using people, but if you generally enjoy making new friends, being a good person, and helping others solve their problems, it’s fun and can be beneficial as a career investment.

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