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Networking events: What works best?

This guest blog is by Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CEO of Spark Consulting. The original post can be seen here.

What is the best type of networking event to hold to get the maximum member engagement?

It depends.

I know, I say that a lot.

I’ve participated in – or seen – all kinds of successful (and unsuccessful) networking events: formal presentations with networking time either around a meal or not, peer-to-peer sharing roundtable discussions either around a meal or not, chat-everyone-up networking events with or without booze, activities (traditional, like golf or less traditional, like bowling), ball games, group service projects, dance parties.

So, what makes something work – or not work?

It really depends on your industry culture. Is your community more “suit-and-tie, here’s my card, all-business,” or more “let’s grab a beer”? Are they big sports fans, either spectating or participating? Would they rather go lawn bowling, or spend a few hours together at the local food bank packing boxes of shelf-stable provisions for seniors in your community? Are they comfortable getting their groove thing on together, or would they rather attend an event that will also provide continuing education credits they need to maintain a certification or license?

When you’re thinking through, “Well, what IS our industry culture?” also think about, “Is it something we want to change?”

I was recently conducting stakeholder interviews for a client, and a non-member graciously agreed to participate (their opinions are REALLY important to hear, but it can also be REALLY difficult to get them to agree to invest 30 minutes in the good of a community they’ve chosen not to join). He offered a fairly harsh assessment, painting the association’s culture as an “old boys network,” of “men in suits, women in hose, rubber chicken dinners with off-color MCs” followed by “the men going to the bar, and the women and kids going to the hotel rooms,” and noted “women don’t tolerate this kind of Eisenhower America behavior anymore.”

Are there people in your community who are in recovery? Then maybe you want to think carefully about continuing your tradition of open bars at your events. Do under-represented groups (women, racial minorities, LGBTQ people) feel safe at your events, or are they worried they’re going to be harassed? Is the activity you’ve planned accessible to people with disabilities? Have you considered not just Christian religious holidays, but those of the other major world religions as well, in choosing your dates?

Can you use your events not just to provide networking opportunities for today’s needs for today’s members, but also use them to pivot to a more diverse and inclusive future?

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