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It’s a sad but common cry in the volunteer world: “I put my name down to help—but no one ever called me.”

It doesn’t seem fair, does it? All you want to do is serve at your child’s school—and the next thing you know you’re back in junior high, parked against the wall, waiting in the hope someone will ask you to dance. Meanwhile everyone else is having a great time as they whirl around the room.

Volunteer organizations would seem to be the last great clique for grownups. The same people are tapped for responsibility over and over again, while newcomers are passed over for service.

The reality is community volunteerism relies on social networking—and networking is crucial for volunteers.  It is always easier to ask for help from people we knowand the best-known people are those who help. And so the cycle continues:

I know you—I invite you to help—you show up to help—more people get to know you—you are asked to help again.

While this works beautifully for some, such efficiency looks like exclusivity to those outside the system.

Jeff Goins, viral blogger and author of The Unfair Truth About How Creative People Really Succeed, voices his frustration with this “closed loop” network:

For years, I heard people talk about their influential friendships and subsequent success. And I silently seethed with envy. It just seemed unfair. Of course those people were successful. They knew the right people. They were in the right place at the right time. They got lucky.

Goins then offers this encouragement: every newcomer can find a seat at the table and network their way to success, provided they are willing to work for it. After all, you can’t be a wallflower if you refuse to hug the wall.

If you can answer these questions, it won’t be long before your volunteer dance card is full:

WHO? First, you need to identify your gatekeepers, those whom Goins describes as holding “the keys to the kingdom.”  In volunteer organizations, these are usually officers (e.g., the PTA President), committee chairs or paid staff such as the school secretary. They can tell you what—and who—you need to know to get connected. Goins advises being “strategic in reaching out and tenacious in staying in touch.”

WHAT do you want to do? It’s been said “our call lies at the intersection of our passion and the world’s need.” What are you passionate about? There is nothing more rewarding than serving a cause we believe in. I’ve discovered I will work far above my pay grade and outside my comfort zone (and increase my networking opportunities) for issues that really matter to me.

WHERE can you make a difference? Your best bet is to join the efforts of programs already in progress. Your gatekeeper can help you find that crossroad of your interest and organization needs.

No doubt, you have some wonderful ideas about things you’d like to see improved. However, to create opportunity you must earn credibility—something you achieve by first helping others in their work.

WHEN? Familiarize yourself with the organization’s calendar of meetings and events. The accountability of most nonprofits (such as school boards and PTAs) requires that at least some meetings are open to the public. You don’t need an engraved invitation to attend—you just need to know where and when to be there.

Finally, HOW do you build a successful network? Help as many people in the network as possible.

Goins advocates, “Serve your way into relationships. This is crucial. It’s not just who you know, it’s who you help. People remember what you do for them more than [anything else].”

In order to serve effectively, you must be willing to:

  1. SHOW UP. It may easier than ever to network through the ‘net—but real connection happens in the real world. Sooner or later, we need to get out from behind our computers and go where the people are.
  2. STEP UP. Make yourself useful. If there’s no other task at hand, grab a broom. (Sometimes the most humble services are also the most memorable.) And at least once, be brave enough to tackle that tough job nobody wants. (Without a doubt, the most significant connections I ever made came about because I was willing to do something no one else would.)
  3. SPEAK UP. Make an effort to let others get to know you. Share your interests, passions and strengths. When others find you willing and able, they will ask you to participate more often.

Goins concludes with this challenge:

Will you embrace the power of networks and put yourself in the right place with the right people? Or will you keep thinking those people are just lucky? The fact is luck comes to us all. But those who prepare to leverage it are the ones who succeed.

I believe every story of success is a story of community. And the way you’re going to find your path is by walking alongside others on theirs. So what are you waiting for?

Are you ready? Let’s get our dancing shoes on!

Related resource: What to Do When You Feel Left Out, Unlucky, or Just Plain Ignored