Public Spirit, April 2018

How to build your professional network

Xinci Tan (MN GreenCorps) 

Perhaps some of you, especially if your end of service is fast-approaching, can sympathize with me when I say I feel an increasing anxiety about what comes next. Even those of you who have completed your AmeriCorps program years ago may feel this way. In any case, it is often when contemplating a career move that the importance of networking becomes exceedingly clear.   

"It's not what you know, but who you know."

What a cliché! Yes, but there's a reason why everyone keeps repeating it. If two people have the same qualifications, an internal recommendation is often what tips the scales. The fact is, hiring managers are human, and humans are more emotional than logical. Although I am just starting my professional career, I have had luck with some of these tips or heard them touted far too often to deny their truth.

Networking is all about relationship building

It took me some time to realize that networking didn't mean meeting people at events and landing a job a week later. It takes far longer (READ: years) for someone to learn how you work, trust you, and be willing to vouch for you. Networking is all about the long game. Meet as many people as you can with an optimistic mindset; you never know who will help you down the road.  

Give before you can receive

The key to building relationships is trust and reciprocity. Why should anyone put in a good word for you or give you a lead for a job if you haven't done anything for them? Do not approach networking with the goal of getting something for yourself, because that self-serving attitude becomes quickly apparent to others. Do network with the intent to help others. Always be thinking, "who do I know that I can connect this person with?" Or, "can I help this person solve their problem?" The way I see it, networking is really just professional-friend-making. 

Have some business cards made

business card example.png

They are inexpensive, easy to order online, and one of the most basic (but effective!) tools in networking. Choose a simple style with readable font (i.e., refrain from cursive) for your name, email address, and phone number. Add a title or an objective if you'd like, but make sure your name is the most visible component. I suggest printing no more than 200 cards to start because once you start working somewhere else, that organization will make you cards with their design and logo. 

Get a business card holder

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Nothing says "unprofessional" like a creased and ratty card pulled from a wallet. This item is also inexpensive, but goes a long way in terms of first impressions. Again, opt for a clean and simple design.   

Be active on LinkedIn

Spend as much time curating your LinkedIn profile as your other social media profiles. Unless you're aiming for a career as an artist and use Instagram to showcase your work, it's not going to get you a job. Making a LinkedIn account is free, and it's one of the easiest ways to network.  

Keep your online presence professional


specially on LinkedIn, act with tact and professionalism. Read some tips for selecting a good profile picture, and make sure your profile picture is not like one of these. That said, even your other personal internet platforms and social media accounts are not completely private. With the advent of the internet, online means forever, and it is a misconception to think potential employers cannot see what you do.  

 Trade business cards like Pokémon

If you have a good conversation with someone, whether at a career fair or during a flight, ask for their business card and give them one of yours. If they don't have one, ask for contact information like an email address. Follow up by adding them on LinkedIn. A good habit is to write notes on the back of their card about your conversation together, and use those notes to reference something memorable when you send your invite to connect. This personalizes the invite and helps you remember how you met in the first place. 

ADVANCED: Organize your contacts in a CRM


Client Resource Manager (CRM) applications are traditionally used by salespeople, but the personal CRM is on the rise. When you're networking, it is hard to keep track of everyone's names, let alone their titles and the content of your conversation. The CRM is a powerful tool that can help. They are like digital address books, but much more versatile. With every person you log in the application, you can see in one place their contact info, all the emails you've exchanged, and meetings you've had. You can save notes and add reminders to follow up about specific tasks, or after a set period of time with no contact, say 6 months.

 It takes work to maintain a CRM, and this technique may not be for everyone, but since I started using one last year, it's become an indispensable tool in my networking arsenal. There are many CRMs out there with varying features, and most of them offer a free version. If you wish to step up your game on networking, I highly recommend getting one.

BONUS: Look for (multiple) mentors

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The most successful people in the world did not reach success on their own. Many of them have or had mentors who guided them along the way. Look for someone in the industry you want to join or someone you aspire to be. Choose people you get along with and are willing to share their knowledge. Ask them to be your mentor and schedule regular meetings. Make an agenda for things you want to discuss at every meeting. Remember: your mentor cannot help you if you don't know what you want them to help you with. Also remember: a mentor-mentee relationship goes both ways. Your mentor is willingly sharing knowledge and giving you their time, so show your gratitude. Pick up the tab every time you meet; everyone is happier when they get a free meal. Some people have told me seeing their mentee's success is the most satisfying gift of all - make sure to keep in contact and update often.

Networking doesn’t come easily to most, but it is essential for building a career. Practice makes perfect, so keep at it!



Zayn Saifullah (College Possible)

One of the hardest parts of living on a strict budget, for me anyway, is keeping variety and spontaneity in your diet. While it’s certainly frugal to survive strictly on a rotation of granola bars, frozen pizza, and ramen, do you really want to do that? In this recurring column, I feature a new recipe every month that is nutritious, worldly, and competitive with processed convenience food for price.

This month’s recipe was given to me by a Corps Member at College Possible. Fawm Kauv are a comfort food brought to Minnesota by Hmong refugees and immigrants. I suppose the best way I could describe it is a happy medium between a spring roll and a steamed dumpling given its slightly thicker but delightfully light tapioca and rice flour wrapping. It does take some practice to get the wrapping’s thickness correct (it should be slightly thicker than a crepe), but I’m going to keep trying.


Provided by a College Possible Corps Member

Makes ~ 5 servings (approximately 20 rolls)


1 ½ cups of rice flour

~$0.70 for a 16 oz. bag, ~$0.35 per batch

1 ½ cups of tapioca flour

~$0.60 for a 16 oz. bag, ~$0.30 per batch

5 cups of water


1 tbsp of olive oil

~$9.00 for 25 oz, ~$0.17 per batch


2-3 cloves of minced/pressed garlic

Price varies per pound

1 Ib ground pork or chicken

Price varies per pound

1 cup chopped green onion

~$0.50 per batch

1 cup chopped cilantro

~$0.50 per batch

1 tbsp of olive oil

~$9.00 for 25 oz, ~$0.17 per batch

Salt and black pepper to taste



Making the wrappings:

  1. Mix the rice flour, tapioca flour, water, and olive oil in a large bowl until homogenous. Add water as needed so that the resulting batter has a watery consistency.

  2. Heat a small amount of oil (or use nonstick spray) in a small nonstick frying pan. Scoop about a ¼ cup of the batter into the pan, or just enough to cover the pan bottom.

  3. Similarly to making crepes, swirl the pan or spread batter so that the pan’s surface is evenly covered. Cover let cook for about 3-4 minutes until batter has become solid.

  4. Slide finished wraps onto a lightly greased plate and set aside until filling is ready.

Making the filling:

  1. Heat oil in a large frying pan over medium-low heat. Once the oil is hot, add the garlic and fry until the garlic no longer smells raw but without browning.

  2. Add the ground meat and increase heat to medium or medium-high.

  3. Add the green onion, cilantro, salt, and pepper and combine.

  4. Spoon 1 tablespoon in the center of each wrapping and roll up like you would a burrito.


Total cost per batch: ~$5.59

Total cost per serving: ~$1.12


Spring Has Sprung: Get Into Nature

Gyan (Habitat)

As a busy AmeriCorps member, it’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the Minneapolis urban landscape. However, just beyond the borders of city neighborhoods are some beautiful natural spots. Many of you are probably familiar with these sites - however, I wanted to call attention to them. As a Californian whose encounter with nature ranges from arid cityscape to wild expanses of mountains and ocean, the plentiful and well-integrated Minneapolis park system was a pleasantly different experience for me. Here are a few natural hotspots to check out:

Wirth Regional Park

Located just west of Minneapolis in Golden Valley, this large parkland is filled with both wildlife and wilderness. Dotting the park are cross country trails, allowing for convenient skiing during the winter time. Now that spring has finally blossomed (after some persuasion), this park is excellent for cycling, hiking, and jogging.

Hidden Falls Regional Park

For an encounter with the Mississippi River less encumbered by the presence of other humans, check out Hidden Falls on the Saint Paul side of the river. There are some nice picnic sites, places to launch boats, fish, or canoe, and you can literally drop your feet into the river if you’d like.

Chain of Lakes

For some serious lake-mongering, check out this chain of lakes located in the heart of Uptown. You’ll find plentiful walking and cycling trails, including convenient access to the Nice Ride bike system. Rent a canoe and explore the hundreds of acres of water.


So, there’s a good starting point for you to engage with the nature of the Twin Cities. Stay safe and enjoy the sun!



Zayn Saifullah (College Possible)

In this column, we’ll be featuring interviews with professionals working in the variety of teams that make up a modern nonprofit. For this issue, I sat down with Mikki Cookle, who started last month as a senior research associate on College Possible’s Data, Analytics, Research & Evaluation (DARE) team.

This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Zayn Saifullah: Thanks for talking with me today! First, could you tell me a little bit about your role and what your day to day looks like?

Mikki Cookle: To be perfectly honest I’m still learning a lot of my role, but where I come in is supporting the thought process around how we craft an intentional and strategic evaluation plan for our organization that’s actually giving us a design that will yield the insights that we’re interested in. Something that’s often talked about here at College Possible is wanting to increase college enrollment and graduation rates for our students. In order to meet that goal, we need to know what the particular levers are that cause that to happen. Since we have so many components to our programming, a lot of our program area people are interested in the aspects of programming are actually driving outcomes. Then they can focus more resources on the things that are helping and pull resources away from the things that aren’t.

So, I’m going to be doing a lot of that research envisioning with Jeff (the DARE team manager), and then I’ll be supporting the data analysis process through which we can  learn whether an individual initiative is a best practice that we should implement nationwide or whether we should discontinue it. Lastly, I’m going to be working on reporting, so I’ll be helping create survey instruments for collecting basic data from our students and then analyzing it after we get it back.

ZS: And I imagine that a lot of these reports go not only to our program team but to our grant writers as well?

MC: Exactly, development and communications use a lot of the data that we collect as well as program staff.

ZS: Because you’re so new to College Possible, what’s been challenging about this role for you?

MC: The biggest problem has been gauging the landscape of data since every organization uses data differently. College Possible has been a data-driven organization since its inception, so there’s a lot of backlogged data. As someone who’s new to the organization, sifting through 18 years of data has been difficult and it’s been hard to balance how much time I should work on that versus just moving forward with new evaluation initiatives. But it’s important to reflect on the past and work with the data that we have. Thankfully I’ve had some amazing predecessors that have done great work and there are papers and reports that I can read to gain some of the insights they had into all that data.

ZS: Coming off of these projects and some of the challenges that you’re facing, how has your background prepared you to face those down?

MC: My background is primarily in working at the program level in nonprofits. I spent a couple years after college working for a YMCA after-school program in in North Minneapolis, working with a lot of the same demographic of students that College Possible serves. After that,I worked for two refugee resettlement services both in the Twin Cities and abroad. I came away from those experiences seeing a huge need for really intentional services that are effective in closing the opportunity gap. It ignited my passion for seeing the cycle of intergenerational poverty broken and the opportunity gap closed.

At the YMCA (Beacons program), I was the coordinator of the program, so all of my work was program oriented. I did however have some opportunities to sit in on some task force groups that were thinking about “how do we make youth development programming more geared towards getting young people aware of college as an option for them even at an early age?” That kind of whet my appetite for more things in the evaluation sphere because it was asking more strategic questions than just program implementation. I’m very much a strategic thinker so it can be hard for me working in a program where inefficiencies are pretty blatant and maybe nobody’s doing very much about how we could do that better.

Kind of the same thread I had in all those experiences was inattentiveness to measuring impact. I think this is a particular phenomenon in nonprofits because they’re not profit maximizing, instead they’re working out of their hearts, which is a beautiful but sometimes because they’re “heart people” they don’t give the needed attention to actual versus intended outcomes. That’s what drove me back to grad school because I didn’t really develop any quantitative skills in my undergrad that could help me do that work. I did a Masters of Public Policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and took a more quantitatively-focused track which involved statistics, economics, and evaluation classes.

ZS: For corps members looking to get into the program and evaluation sphere, would you recommend grad school?

MC: If they have the skills in economics or statistics out of undergrad, then they could probably find something even without going back to school. But the landscape is such that they may find it fortuitous to get a master’s degree regardless. If you have the baseline skills though, it can be helpful to just get in the door and begin working with people who have more experience. For instance, I have Jeff who’s been in the field for around 20 years and learning from him has been far more valuable than some of my coursework – it’s an apprenticeship to some degree.

To do this work, you’ll need to be comfortable working with large data sets and appropriating them to do the types of analyses that you want to do. In terms of statistical tools you’ll need, they’re pretty advanced – for example, regression analysis and econometric techniques. You’ll need more than just knowing how to find a standard deviation. Apart from that technical side, there’s a whole theory side that asks questions like “what is evaluation” and “how do you approach evaluation.” A graduate program would hypothetically offer training in both areas.

In my master’s program I focused much more on the technical classes rather than the theory classes, and now that I’m here I’m seeing the value in those theory classes. I thought that the theory would just make itself obvious through the technical side, but I think that there is value in learning the various approaches to evaluation especially since every organization is going to have different values and methodologies for approaching this work. Being aware of what those are can make you a more competitive candidate.

ZS: Last question: what’s your most and least favorite things about your job?

MC: What I like most about this role is the hunger at College Possible for insights from evaluation. It makes the work very motivating to know that there are people who care about the answers to these questions and are going to implement when we find results.

I’m grateful that Jeff has brought me into the conversations about crafting a research agenda which has given me a “birds eye-view” of what our strategy is, what questions we’re trying to answer, and how to best to answer those questions. That’s where I feel like I come alive: strategizing about how to make work more efficient and better by thinking critically about what’s in place.

ZS: So it’s very much “statistics for a cause.”

MC: Exactly! What I don’t like is the work of digging through lots of data that’s in a lot of different places. It’s not like I hate it, but it’s definitely my least favorite part because you’re so excited to take the data to a place where you can analyze it. You wish it could go faster, but it’s part of the gig and you have to work with the data that exists.