The Importance of Professional Networking in Social Work

Professionals networking discussing social work

Networking can be a key part of professional development for any career trajectory, including social work. Networking in social work can potentially help create lasting career outcomes. This page will discuss the types of networking that social workers can engage in, as well as tips that may help a social worker navigate building a network. 

What Is Professional Networking in Social Work? 

Professional networking describes the act of building a network of professional contacts within your industry that can help you navigate career growth and achieve professional goals.

Social workers have a unique position within their communities that allows for them to foster meaningful relationships with their clients. But worker-client relationships are not the only type of human connections these professionals create and nurture. Professional relationships may allow social workers to leverage career possibilities beyond their current role, learn about new events and trends in their industry and, in some cases, develop a peer mentoring relationship.

While the professional networking definition is straightforward, there are several ways social workers can build out their circle of contacts in the field. For example, you can attend networking events virtually or annual industry conferences in-person.

For social workers, there are three main types of social work networking: operational, personal and strategic. 

Operational Networking

Operational networking is focused on networking within organizations like a workplace, including coworkers, managers and clients. According to a Harvard Business Review article on leadership and creating networks, operational networking is focused on building strong working relationships that can help you succeed in daily tasks and maintain relationships. 

Personal Networking

Personal networking isn’t limited to a workplace, but rather externally across multiple workplaces, industries and organizations. When personal networking, you may target friends, shared friends, colleagues or former professors. The same HBR article explains that personal networking emphasizes personal and professional development. A potential outcome of personal networking may involve one party providing a referral for another, resulting in a new job.  

Strategic Networking

Strategic networking is generally focused on a broad goal, such as delving deeper into your industry or working on a policy that impacts the industry as a whole. Strategic networking allows professionals to work toward future priorities, as well as garner stakeholder support. According to HBR, strategic networking spans companies and industries both internally and externally. 

Some social work organizations offer networking events, such as the NSWM Forward Thinking Summit, which is held annually by the Network for Social Work Management. There is also the National Association of Social Workers, which offers various networking events and conferences. Lastly, there is also the Society for Social Work and Research Annual Conference

Why Professional Networking in Social Work Is Important 

Professional networking is important in social work because it can help social workers build relationships, leverage career development opportunities and hone communication skills. Since the field of social work is rooted in interpersonal relationships and efficient communication between social worker and client, professional networking is an opportunity to harness and improve those existing social work skills. 

Part of becoming a social worker includes being involved in your community and understanding how to address clients’ needs. The same concept applies to professional networking, where there can be an exchange of services or ideas, or even a job referral. 

Social Work Networking Do’s and Don’ts

Networking in social work may be one way to advance your career, but how does one begin to navigate the process? Here is a list of do’s and don’ts to help you start your professional networking journey in social work.

Do attend social networking events.

Social networking events, whether in-person or online, can be a viable avenue for making professional connections. Social networking events give you the opportunity to meet and form connections with like-minded people in your career field or industry who have valuable skill sets and connections to offer. 

Do dress appropriately.

It’s important to dress professionally when you are networking. If you are at an in-person event, make sure to dress in business attire, such as a suit, or as the dress code indicates. If it is virtual, you should still dress professionally. The way you present yourself can make a difference. When making a first impression, aim to convey professionalism, aptitude and any other qualities that are unique to your personality. Your body language can also give potential professional contacts a sense of who you are, so be mindful not only of what you wear but how you carry yourself.

Do ask questions.

Networking is as much a learning experience as it is adding contacts to your network. When making connections with people, especially those in your field who are in a position you aim for in the future, try to learn as much as you can about certain roles, experiences and any other industry knowledge. Asking questions can also make up for a lull in conversation if you don’t have anything else to add. 

Do prepare an elevator pitch.

An elevator pitch is a very brief (typically 30-second) introduction about yourself and your goals. It’s important to keep this succinct, but it can be helpful to touch on your background, education, relevant interests and goals. Think about your values and passions when you are preparing your elevator pitch, and what exactly you bring to the table. Remember that your contacts have as much to gain from you as you do from them. You’ll also want to rehearse your pitch enough times to sound natural and not scripted. 

Do follow up. 

It’s a good idea to follow up after making a professional connection. If you have their email address, feel free to send a message to thank them for their time and share your intentions moving forward. You could even propose a meeting time. 

Don’t forget your business card.

Paper resumes can be a drag to carry around all day, if you are networking at an in-person event. Instead, try carrying your business cards and distributing those. You can provide contacts with a QR code to access your resume, website or portfolio. 

Don’t go straight into “job talk.”

It’s not always wise to start talking shop, especially with a first-time encounter. You wouldn’t go up to a stranger on the street and start off conversation that way. No one wants to feel like they are being “used” even at a professional networking event. Consider starting the conversation on a personal level, such as discussing how they thought the event or conference went. You can ease your way into the more professional topics after. 

Don’t interrupt others.

Being an active listener and displaying basic etiquette is important in professional networking and establishing a positive first impression. Interrupting or talking over someone can appear unprofessional. Remember that you’ll want to approach the conversation as a learning opportunity as well, and interrupting the person you’re speaking to may not allow for that. 

Don’t be afraid to approach people first. 

It might seem intimidating to walk up to someone you don’t know at a networking event, but remember that’s what the event is for. People are expecting to mingle, so don’t be afraid to pull someone aside if you’d like to talk to them and get to know them a little more. Taking the initiative to start a conversation may also work in your favor, demonstrating confidence to other professionals.

Don’t come in without goals.

Having no specific goals at a networking event could minimize the value you would get out of the time spent at the event. Set goals for yourself, whether it is to talk to at least five people that day or find at least one job referral. 

Last updated November 2021.