Leveraging your network for that next great opportunity


What a sales pitch for a title!

In all seriousness, building up a network of folks who you respect (and in return, respect you) is not only good for you personally but a must-have for your professional career. At YNPN Triangle NC (and across the broader YNPN movement), providing opportunities to network is a core aspect of our work.

It’s not always what you know – it’s who you know.

The question is: after you’ve met incredible people, collected their businesses cards, and found them on LinkedIn: what’s next? How are you nurturing and maintaining those relationships? And when an opportunity presents itself to active your network, how are you communicating with those folks to provide insight or even to drop a good word in for you?

I’m going to be upfront: right now, in our nonprofit sector, we are not doing as good as a job with our networks as we need to. Far too often, the people in our networks look like us. White folks make up the majority of the nonprofit space. One study estimates that whites make up 80% of board members (90% as board chairs) and 89% of executive leadership. There will be many more focused posts on equity in our sector coming up, but I felt it important to raise this point as we think about our personal and professional connections. Since we recognize that who we know matters, if we don’t open up our networks to leaders who don’t look like us or have shared experiences, then it will be more difficult to transition leaders into nonprofits. [see chart below from Community Wealth Partners].


But, returning to the questions at end for today’s post.

Number one: how are you nurturing your network? It would be a nearly impossible feat to stay on top of all connections, so the first step is to prioritize. I like to think about what skill or knowledge deficits still exist in me. Then, I look to my network to find those individuals who can help fill in those gaps.

For example, my current role requires me to engage in online fundraising, an activity that I had zero experience. So, I hopped on phone calls and had coffee with folks that were doing online fundraising to ask them about their processes, evaluation tools, challenges, and successes. Even after more than two years on the job, I still do this. I know that I can always learn more from my peers or those a few years ahead of me in the professional trajectory. I sign up to receive communications from other nonprofits. If a particular appeal strikes me, I’ll reach out to ask: how did this appeal do in terms of achieving your goal(s)?

14067508_1151662291542857_5219411369995159038_nI am guilty of overlooking the on-going maintenance of my network. Our networks get larger and larger. Our work responsibilities pile on, and it can feel comprising to our to-do lists to make time for a meeting. But, it’s so important. It gives us a dedicated space to interact with another human being (an obvious statement but think about how much your work day is spent not interacting with an actual human being.) It provides us opportunity to learn about ourselves; to learn from someone else; and to also develop a better sense of what’s happening in our sector and/or community. Reconnecting with your network helps to eradicate those silos. Those silos exist between sectors (nonprofit/for-profit/public) and within sectors themselves (organization focus/geographical).

Recently, I had lunch with a colleague who works in providing grants and financing opportunities to help stimulate growth in rural economies, particularly for agriculture. I knew zero about this topic, but after our meal, I can better speak on what the NC Rural Center does if the opportunity arises to share it with others. I can now be a liaison between someone interested in pursuing farming to an actual resource.  Win-win!

13055092_1070433859665701_8618031969423345895_oNurturing your network doesn’t have to be anything formal. I do think it is important to ensure you are meeting face-to-face when possible in order to have a deeper level of engagement. A quick email now and then is fine; but we all know that our conversations will stick with us after those in-person meetings much more so than another item in our Inbox.

Second question: how are you communicating with folks from your network to provide insight or even to drop a good word in for you? Over the last year, I have provided more than a dozen references and/or recommendations for folks from my networks. Some have approached their requests to me in more helpful ways than others. From my experience, here are some suggestions I have for taking this type of initiative:

  • If possible, ask your connections before applying for that position. If you find a job at an organization where you have a connection or know someone who does, reach out as soon as possible to ask your questions. It’s ok if you have already applied to the position. But, doing your homework on the front end may save you time if you learn that you may not be a good for the organization or there’s something concerning about the culture that you don’t want to be a part of.
  • Ask your references if they are comfortable being your reference. It is awkward to receive a phone call from an organization and/or recruiter about a candidate that listed you that you wouldn’t actually recommend. Don’t assume your references want to be your references. It’s important to know if they have any concerns about recommending you. If they do, find out what those concerns are [yes, we are not all perfect. It’s ok.]
  • Provide references with context for specific positions. Once you have shored up your references, give them an overview of the position and its responsibilities. Are there particular experiences or skills you would like them to highlight about you? Were there specific projects you worked on that could be cited as examples? Don’t also assume your references remember every great thing you have done. Spend a few minutes talking through some particulars with them.
  • Even if you are asking someone to put a good word in for you more informally, still follow the steps above. When I send a note on someone’s behalf vouching for their awesomeness, I am putting my reputation on the line. So, I want to make sure that I believe the candidate is a good fit, not only for that organization but for that particular position. It’s also easier when you give me advanced notice. giving advanced notice (i.e. I know that Katie Todd is going to be applying for this position, and here are five reasons why she deserves an interview) versus (I believe Katie Todd applied for those position a week ago and I hope you haven’t already cast her application aside). We want to plant those nuggets into the minds of others.
  • Say thank you. As with anything in life, please take the time to drop a note, make a call, send a text, and share appreciation with the person who provided a reference and/or recommendation for you. Personally, I’m all about the hand-written thank you note. Yes, it’s old school but it’s power cannot – cannot – be underscored. Receiving a handwritten thank you note can be. I’m more likely to want to go for bat for those who did follow-up with me to say thanks than those that didn’t.

In the coming week, I challenge you to schedule at least one in-person meeting with someone from your network that you would like to learn from, whether it’s about a potential career shift or acquiring insight into a skill. My final advice for today is this: remember that when you are networking, approach the opportunity not from the frame of what can they provide me but from the space of what can I bring to them. Listen without worrying about what you are going to say next. The number of doors that will fly open when you approach networking in this manner will astound you.




Why I’m here?


We live in a time where so much is done without true purpose: from “liking” a Facebook post to scrolling mindlessly as endorphins flood our brain (see “captology“), we expend a massive amount of time not doing a whole lot.

I’ve been thinking about this concept in connection to our nonprofit sector. How often do we sit in meetings without a clear understanding of what we hope to accomplish? Why do we allow distractions from our email, social media accounts, or inner voice to derail our best laid plans? And if we don’t take action now, what is going to happen to our ability to accomplish our critical missions?

I’ve wanted to be a writer for most of my life. And, I thought starting a blog would allow me the space to grow my skills, reach new audiences, and fine-tune the voice I wanted to establish. But, since starting this blog two years ago, I have yet to approach it from the other side: what do people want to read about? What is going to help add value to our social discourse?

Certainly, I have enjoyed sharing vegan recipes and travel adventures; various running endeavors and moments of zen. But, I am ready to make a change, as I see an opportunity to contribute to a broader dialogue through this blog. As a young leader, I often seek out the advice of others when it comes to navigating sticky situations or answering questions I may not be able to ask of my peers. I’m looking for resources; for ‘a-ha’ moments; and for solidarity.

Moving forward with this blog, I want to give back for the next generation of leaders, particularly those working for social good. Does that automatically mean the nonprofit space? Absolutely not. If our communities want to thrive, we have to pool all of our talents, brains, and resources together. The nonprofit sector cannot do it alone, nor should it. But, the nonprofit sector does need to do a better job of educating its funders and partners on how they can engage in a more equitable and fair way.

Thanks to the inspiring and incredible Alexa Sykes over at Black Professional Magic, I’ve taken the steps to establish a content calendar moving forward, to keep me accountable and to also ensure I don’t waste your time.

Cause ain’t nobody got time for that.

Living off the to-do lists of others

I think about writing in my blog often. Sparks of ideas, commentary, thoughts I feel the need to share publicly crop up throughout my days. But, I cave to that unrelenting, never-ending to-do list, most often spurred on by the emails on others.

Over the weekend, I read a tip on how to achieve greater productivity at work. It cited that clearing out one’s Inbox was not actually a demonstration of productivity. Emails have become the evidence that we are busy! Look at this Inbox full of messages awaiting my response. I must address them immediately!

This is so far from the truth. Emails are noise – distracting us from being fully engaged in the present, from being able to concentrate, to be creative, and to give ourselves over to projects fully.

I’m an email hawk. So is my partner. So is my boss. It creates this firestorm of rapid response, driving up non-necessary tasks to top of mind, crowding out space in the brain where truly more important work should be holding prime real estate.

Similarly, I have seen this unfold within my mind as I attempt to meditate. There are days when I find it immensely difficult to concentrate solely on my breath. To acknowledge when thoughts seep in but gently push them to the side. The constant barrage of pinging leaves me anxious, on edge. I don’t want to feel like that – live like that. I want to be in a space of calm. I want to be in an environment where I allow myself the time to immerse myself into a project, a problem, an opportunity without interruption.

First things first: I need to keep that Inbox tab closed.

Let’s see how today goes. As with most things in this life, it’s about developing healthy habits. 30 days feels like a long time.

On Saturday, I had the opportunity to co-present with my friend and fellow YNPN’er Ivan Canada  on the topic of board developing. We named our workshop “Building a Strong Team” and laid out nine different areas for consideration when establishing a nonprofit or community organization’s leadership hub. One area that we pressed collectively centered around the importance of board culture. As Ivan so brilliantly stated during our presentation: “Whether you know what it is or not, your board has a culture.”

What’s the culture of your organization? As the chair of a nonprofit Board of Directors and as a junior staff in an established organization, i think about culture daily. Partly because creating a welcoming, inclusive, team-orientated environment is important to me. That’s the type of culture I want. Navigating how and when to take action to shape the culture is more challenging.

As a young leader, I think that my fellow Millennials have not only the willpower but the voice to redefine the culture of the nonprofit space. We talk a lot about this on our YNPN Triangle NC board. Even as an organization driven by young leaders, we still stumble in establishing the right procedures and mechanisms to foster the culture we seek. Fortunately, we don’t merely shrug off our missteps or hide them under the rug. We have open, honest, and transparent conversations into how we can do better. This is rare in the nonprofit space. It’s so much easier and less painful to simply say “let’s continue with how things are because that has worked.”

Rocking the boat can make folks a little sea sick or stumble around on their unsure footing. But you know what: that’s a good thing. We’ve become far too comfortable in maintaining the status quo. At YNPN Triangle NC’s #NonprofitSTRONG summit earlier this year, Atrayus Goode, the keynote and executive director of Movement of Youth, asked the 200 nonprofit professionals in the room: what social ills have our sector actually solved? He cited the billions of dollars raised and re-invested in communities to address issues ranging from food insecurity to public education to health care.

What have we solved?

What happens if we don’t solve these issues?

What will our communities look like in 50 years?

Will there be blog posts asking these same questions?

My hope, for the final question, is no.


Little KT

For those who met me as an adult, would you believe that I was the kid whose bedroom resembled something like this:

messy room

At some point in my adolescence, my mother elected to stop the nagging, yelling, pleading, and bartering. She simply…

door closing


I can’t pinpoint the exact moment in time when I realized that I couldn’t live in a chaotic state. Over the years, I broke several beloved treasures beneath my feet over the years, lost toys, and likely disgusted a friend or two. It’s funny to reflect on the contrast between my best friend growing up, Dani, and her tenacity for order with my pigpen habits. I have zero memories of disorganized piles on her side of the room she shared with her sister (this was the same girl who spent time oiling the woodwork in her room). What ran through Dani’s mind when she entered the scene out of “Tornado” at my house?

As I experienced my first-ever roommates in college to realizing how much more I enjoyed my physical environment when clothing/Trolls/game pieces/dirty dishes (??) weren’t underfoot, I transitioned away from being a slob into finding peace in the act of “decluttering.” Or, at least, I’m a work in progress.

To be frank, there simply isn’t enough room in my space for stuff. This extends beyond my surroundings to my mental and emotional spaces. And with the number of inputs demanding attention, demanding space increase daily, I have to contend with my own personal limits. Will I choose to shut the door and ignore the creaking hinges as they bulge against the weight? Or will I dive headfirst into the rubble, separating out the “must” versus “want” in order to sustain myself for the long haul?

I took two instances over this Labor Day holiday weekend to strap on my helmet and go to work on decluttering elements of my life.

First, the closet. Since moving into our home two years ago, I made halfhearted attempts to tidy up my closet partition. Some new hangers here; some shoe cubbies there. But, whenever I walked into the space, I could feel the tension. Too many items. And far too many that had sat (hung) for too long. On Sunday, I sat down and made a single rule: if I had not physically worn that item in the last year, it had to go. It did not matter if I had great emotional attachment to it, such as the t-shirt I won on our Big Boss Brewing tour when I shouted out the special password revealed on Twitter or those irresistible strappy blue sandals I had purchased (and not worn) for a wedding in 2010 but I knew that I would wear them someday.

No. I embraced the principle Marie Kondo espouses in her Tidying Up national bestseller and reviewed every single item asking the same question: have I worn this in the last year? One hour and four shopping bags later, I stood back and marveled at the transformation. Even this morning, I remarked to Aaron: “It’s like a whole new closet!”

Second, the mind. It has become increasingly clear to me (no pun intended) that my daily meditation can make or break my day, if I elect not to invest in it. Unfortunately, several of my co-workers were also on the receiving end of this discovery last Monday as grumpy Katie spewed fire throughout the office. No more skipping meditation.

I want to grow further in my mindfulness practice. Not feeling comfortable taking this leap on my own, I turned to the innovations of others and downloaded the app Headspace. Headspace markets itself as a 10-minute daily practice to improve your meditation. It doesn’t hurt that the person providing the guided meditation has a killer Australian accent. With two lessons under my belt, I’ve been surprised at how fast those ten minute session feels. There were mornings where my silent five minute meditations seemed to draggggggg onnnnnnn. It took serious self-control not to check the timer. I look forward to meandering through the next eight levels and see how I feel and what should come next.

I still do like to make piles of things (I swear they are organized); however, being with someone who is the definition of fastiduous has even curbed my kneejerk reaction to stack higher…and higher…and higher..


Your turn: Are you drawn to decluttering? Or do you dodge piles on your way out the door? What is your breaking point to clean ish up?


Defining leadership

Over the last year, I’ve been working on revising my own definition of leadership, particularly for how I want to be perceived (or not) in conjunction with this word.

After reading Paul Schmitz’s Everyone Leads and currently in the midst of Angela Duckworth’s Grit, I firmly believe that leadership is rooted in action, not in a particular position or title. This approach contradicts how we are socially conditioned to view leadership/leaders. Power resides in the individuals at the “top” of various chains; but, each of us carries immense power that can be flexed, given the right conditions.

It’s funny: this week has been an opportunity for me to “flex” a variety of leadership muscles in vastly different surroundings. And, at times, I see my continued struggle in finding balance, especially when it comes to those leadership “positions” as opposed to opportunities to act like a leader.

Our YNPN Triangle NC Board of Directors participated in our first-ever strategic planning session this Saturday, facilitated by two corporate executives over the course of five hours. (What a way to spend a Saturday, right?) I left that afternoon feeling, as Sophie says, the feelings. Exhilaration. Stress. Frustration. Clarity. Exhausted. As a completely volunteer-driven 501(c)(3) organization, it can be easy for me to forget that…oh right, we’re volunteers. The majority of us have full-time responsibilities, whether in employment or academia, not to mention families and other extracurricular activities.

There were several moments during the session I found myself hesitant to speak up, fearing that I would create an unfair power dynamic within the group. I am finishing my second year as Board Chair, with one final year ahead. Even nearly 18 months in, I’m still feeling out the ropes as to when to step up and when to step back, knowing (or, at least sensing) that there is an expectation for me to have the answers to questions from the rest of our team. Most of the time, I’m working to figure out those answers alongside them. I view my role as keeping our ship pointed toward the end goal, making sure my crew has what they need in order to be fulfilled and successful, and actively seeking opportunities to keep us afloat (resources, partnerships, funding).

That’s the ideal, at least. It’s hard. It’s really hard. I came home Saturday, elected to pick a fight with Aaron, and then cry into my pillow for 15 minutes. Is that how leaders act? It seems fairly unlikely. At least, not so people can see. The pressure to keep up that front, to be bold, to be willing to take it on the chin (up to a point), and to invest in others so much that you are left drained and depleted – it’s hard. It’s really, really hard. On the flip side, it’s also a huge honor, and I am grateful for the opportunity.

Oh, double-edged sword. 

Tonight marks the third night in a row of board meetings, and as I noted above, I have navigated the previous two with varying degrees of leadership. On Monday, I engaged at our youth advisory board meeting with conviction, offering a rallying cry around personal responsibility and communications. But, I hold no actual leadership position. That was an intentional decision, as I recognize I am spread far too thin. It would be unfair to me and those around me to pretend like I could fulfill those roles. Last night was our quarterly board meeting for my job. As a staff member, I spend most of the three-hour meeting in silence, sharing when scripted in the agenda. In this space, I wonder if the board members view me as a leader, or since I tend to be more reserved, if they don’t.

Viewing myself as a leader in my work space is more nebulous for me. We operate in such silos that it feels like we’re all individual leaders. But, when it comes to some of the broader, bigger decisions, our voices may not be part of the process. Mini-leaders. Which is fine. That’s why we week out other opportunities to grow those skills and competencies desired to be more equitable, thoughtful leaders, not only in our work spaces but in our communities.

Alright. It’s time for coffee and, well, time to get down to work. I’ll leave you with this: how do you define leadership? And, based on your definition, are you a leader? Why or why not?