Rebuilding a Network

I am an ardent fan of LinkedIn. I grew up in California, but left for Peace Corps in Morocco four days after graduating from college in 1982.  I was gone from California for more than 25 years, 20 of them in Africa and Europe.  During that time I led Save the Children programs in West Africa for eight years.  I later headed the Bernard van Leer Foundation (BvLF), the largest Dutch private foundation, for nine years.  BvLF funds nonprofits worldwide helping disadvantaged young children.

My years abroad were rewarding and memorable.  But when I came back to California four years ago, I realized my local network needed work.

I left California in 1982, before “Silicon Valley” entered the popular consciousness.  The Bay Area that I came back to in 2008 was partly familiar, with its natural beauty and can-do attitude.  But it was also greatly changed, speaking a language of technology, IPOs, start-ups, and entrepreneurship.  And the nonprofit “dot orgs” spoke this new language as much as the for-profit “dot coms.”

The job that brought me back to California was the Executive Director of the Firelight Foundation, which funds 134 grassroots organizations in Africa helping children affected by AIDS and poverty.  To raise funds for Firelight, I was going to need to quickly build up the Bay Area network that I would otherwise have built over two decades.  I imagined needing to send out thousands of introductory emails and meetings over hundreds of cups of coffee.  It was daunting.

Then, early in 2009, a colleague told me about LinkedIn.  I took to it readily.  It helped me keep my overseas networks intact, and systematically build my new one.  LinkedIn has been useful to me personally, and to the Firelight Foundation as a whole.

I can think of six ways LinkedIn has helped us do our work:

1)    Firelight wanted to get to know new donors.  Our LinkedIn solution was creating several “saved searches” focused on key audiences in the Bay Area who mention Africa, or any of the ten African countries in which we work, in their LinkedIn profile, and who are group or 2nd degree connections.  These saved searches give us a couple of dozen new profiles to review each week, and have helped me reach out to hundreds of potential supporters since my arrival.

2)    I wanted to grow my own personal network, and to use it in a targeted way.  LinkedIn has allowed me to go about this methodically.  As of today I have 1480 connections, categorized according to about 50 tags, from “tech” to “globally engaged youth” to “ex-Peace Corps Volunteers” to “social entrepreneur.” Every day, I consult this list for outreach and targeted mailings. I’ve also encouraged all of Firelight’s staff and board members to engage actively with LinkedIn.

3)    Each time I travel I make a point of scanning LinkedIn for connections in my destination cities.  In spots as far apart as Washington, Geneva, and Lusaka, Zambia, I have come across old friends and colleagues, newly transferred or with new responsibilities, who can be helpful to Firelight’s work.  And I have often reached out to people I did not yet know but whose profiles indicated they’d be interested in what we do.

4)    Firelight is currently looking for a new board member.  We would this person to be a leader in the tech industry, with a broad network, affinity for our mission, and have some experience of Africa.  LinkedIn is an excellent tool to broaden our prospecting.  It’s also great for checking out the background of potential board members, and how we’re connected to them.

5)    We’re also looking at LinkedIn to help find expert volunteers from the business world interested in “encore careers” with nonprofits.

6)    The African organizations we fund can really benefit from LinkedIn as well, as a source of ideas for fundraising, management tools and techniques, and innovations.

LinkedIn has helped the Firelight Foundation’s network keep growing.  It has brought real value to Firelight and, more importantly, to the children we serve.