Don’t Join Something if You’re Not Going to Belong

By Joanne Dennison, CMP

In college I somewhat “accidentally” got involved in Student Activities. What I learned as I stayed involved as a student leader for the next four years and later in my first career as a college administrator, is that students who get involved stay in college and get more out of it. What I learned as I became a grown up is that this is still true.

Fortunately, I had a great mentor in my first “real job” out of college who made it clear I would join a professional association and I would volunteer and get involved. That has stayed with me as my career has evolved. Because of belonging to, I mean really belonging, I have had opportunities that have changed my life personally and professionally, that would most likely never have happened.

I was a joiner before I went to college and modeled my mother who was the undying volunteer. Going to college was different—they weren’t people I had grown up with my whole life and the idea of joining something was bordering on terrifying. What I have learned is that in my post college life it still can be—after all what if nobody talks to me? What if I don’t belong there? It’s like going to college all over again.

When I moved into my second career in business- completely removed from my first in higher education- I immediately looked at professional associations thanks to having the mindset from my mentor. I looked at the Chamber of Commerce, a women’s professional association and an industry specific association.  The Chamber was a very foreign concept since I had never been in the business world, having grown up in the academic world. I am grateful to this day for the Chamber. I went to everything, and the Chamber, as well as the library, were where I got most of my business education. I served in various positions including the board of directors before I moved away.

In the women’s association I also received great education.  I thoroughly involved myself and after a few years I realized it was not the best fit for me. I did however meet some great women and we formed a Mastermind Group that lasted for 13 years, and even though it ended over a decade ago, I am still in contact with most of them. That Mastermind group helped me change my business entirely and it would not have happened if I did not get involved with the women’s association in the first place.

Then there is my industry professional association. I have now been a member for over 20 years. This has helped me learn, grow my business exponentially and even led to me working in China and Thailand for them. Ironically it did not start that way. I joined. I read the magazine. I saw the notices for the meetings. I went to nothing—for an entire year. As my membership came up for renewal I thought “Did I really get anything out of this? Should I renew with them?”

My days of working at the colleges and urging students to join and belong came flying back to me. So during the last month of my membership I went to my first meeting, knowing absolutely no one. That one meeting led me to getting a certification that has been a big source of my income, becoming a leader in the chapter and in the industry, and as I said above, travelling and working in several interesting places.

When you first saw the title of this article you may have taken it more as discriminatory---don’t go somewhere you don’t belong. The reality is you will never belong if you don’t join, go to what is offered and walk through every door that is opened for you to get involved. This is true for any group or organization whether it is work related or personal such as community groups or places of worship. I was reminded of this a few years ago, when I lived in 4 states in 3 ½ years and was constantly “the new kid”. I remained “new” until I got involved.

I have been in many conversations with many groups where I have heard people say they dropped out because they got nothing in return. Either it truly wasn’t the group for them, or they did not work to belong.

And for those of you who already “belong” ---please remember what it is like to be that new kid. Reach out and welcome them and help them belong. You never know how it will change your life.