This is a post from a member of the Freelancers Union community. If you’re interested in sharing your expertise, your story, or some advice you think will help a fellow freelancer out, feel free to send your blog post to us here.

As a long-time freelancer, I’m often asked how I’ve managed to stay independent over the years. I’ve never done any traditional advertising for my business, but one of the most effective ways I’ve found to uncover new opportunities is to network.

Based on my years in the freelance trenches, I’m a big believer in professional organizations as one of the best ways to build your network. I can’t remember when I haven’t been involved in one.

From the early days of my career when I was a member of Women in Communications to my days in the Bay Area when I was first a member, then president, of our IABC (International Association of Business Communicators) chapter, to today when I serve on the board of two organizations, my local AMA chapter and my chamber, professional organizations have always been a big part of my freelance life.

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Being an active part of professional organizations really does a few things for you:

  • Helps you stay current on knowledge in your industry
  • Helps you gain experience in an area you may want to explore through volunteering
  • Adds credibility—being able to say “I’m on the board” or “I’m an active volunteer in this group” can help position you as an expert

And maybe most importantly:

  • Helps you meet and connect with others for referrals and recommendations

To those who say, “But I don’t have the time,” remember that, when you’re looking for your next client project, if you don’t build your network and expertise now, you may not have much to fall back on when the time comes.

Invest the time before you need the contacts. Believe this—it’s always better to have the network in place so that when you need it, it’s there.

The other point here is that if you build a strong network, chances are those dry spells we freelancers experience will be fewer and farther between—because through your network, you’ll have a steady stream of potential opportunities coming in at all times.

And don’t just simply join and attend maybe one event. Make a point of going to a couple of events before you join to make sure the organization is a good fit.

Do you feel comfortable when you walk into the room? Are attendees welcoming and friendly?

Once you’ve found an organization that fits your style and interests, join and throw yourself into it. Volunteer right away to get involved in something that either you’d like to do or perhaps something you need more experience doing.

Did you know volunteering is a great way to grow your skill set? It’s true. What better way to gain experience in an area that’s newer to you than through volunteering?

Skills gained this way still belong on your resume and LinkedIn profile. And depending on the task, you can also grow your network this way.

Always treat your volunteer gigs with the same professionalism with which you treat your client projects. This will earn you the reputation of being someone they’d remember to refer business to when the opportunity arises.

So, if you’re looking to expand your knowledge, gain experience, boost your credibility and build your network, try getting involved in a professional organization.

Like me, once you start, you may find yourself hooked.

Looking for an opportunity to start? Apply to be a SPARK leader in your city!

Michelle Messenger Garrett is a public relations consultant, speaker and award-winning writer with more than 20 years of agency, corporate, startup and Silicon Valley experience. She works with clients worldwide, assisting them in crafting and carrying out a PR strategy to help them get the word out, get noticed and lead to an increase in visibility, prospects and sales.