Merry Christmas, all!  I happen to be over in Spokane, Washington, as we speak, enjoying a wonderful holiday with my extended family — and I hope all of you are celebrating today in your own special and relaxing way today, as well.

In the spirit of the season, however, I wanted to dedicate one of my final posts of the year to the concept of “giving” that plays such an enormously important part of the networking and relationship-building process.  Time and time again, I encounter job hunters who are new to the networking process and who understand the idea, on an intellectual level, that they should be seeking to “give” to those around them.  At the same time, and due in part to the emotional stress of the job hunting process, they often struggle to understand what they might have to share with others that would be of any real value — since they’re not usually in the financial position to ply people with lavish gifts and baubles, after all.

In light of this, I’ve compiled a list of 15 “networking gifts” that all of us can keep in mind and consider passing along to the people in our relationship circles as we forge ahead into the new year.  This list, of course, isn’t intended to be a complete list of every possible networking gesture.  It’s designed to be a starting point to stimulate some fresh thinking and creativity on the subject, more than anything else.  And as you’ll note, the list which follows contains not just tangible gift ideas, but a number of intangible items, as well, since the suggestions in this latter category are the ones that are most often overlooked — but tend to be even more appreciated in many cases than a tangible gift.  Plus, the price is right.  Especially if you’re one of the many professionals counting yourself among the ranks of the “income-challenged” at the moment!

So with these caveats and clarifications in mind, here’s the list:

#1. Referrals: As you go through the process of seeking referrals for yourself, have you considered simultaneously introducing the people you meet to other useful individuals that might help them meet their needs and objectives?  Potential customers?  First-rate vendors?  Complementary business allies?  Stellar job candidates who might fit a company’s needs in other areas, aside from the ones that you, yourself, specialize in?

#2. Market Intelligence: If you’re devoting a good chunk of time to researching companies, industries, and market trends, as you should be, keep in mind that  this “intel” might be extremely valuable to share with some of the people you meet, either in verbal or written form.  Over the years, I’ve seen people hit home runs on networking appointments by whipping out copies of well-researched target company lists or analytical exercises they’ve conducted, relative to certain market dynamics or developments.

#3. Coffee/Lunch/Drinks: As I’ve discussed in previous posts, you’ve got to be careful with this one to avoid implying that the price of a latte is being offered as some form of “fair trade” for the other person’s time.  At the same time, it’s certainly appreciated (and good manners) to pick up the tab for coffee or lunch when you invite a person to meet with you.  And if they beat you to it, and buy their own coffee before you get there, consider mailing them a coffee card after the fact so that you can “treat” them next time!

#4. Books & Articles: If you listen closely and walk away with a sense of the things that really interest a person, either personally or professionally, you’ll then have the ability to tap into the wealth of published gift ideas out there available via sources like  Whether you mail along a book you know they’d really enjoy, or simply forward along a magazine article relevant to their professional sphere, the recipient is bound to be impressed by your thoughtfulness.

#5. Bartered Services or Volunteerism: Has a person really gone out of their way to be useful to you?  If so, consider reciprocating by offering to trade them some services in your area(s) of expertise or by offering to donate a few volunteer hours to them in some capacity, even if it involves something as basic as data entry or stuffing envelopes.  Even if they decide not to take you up on the offer, they’ll remember your proposal and walk away convinced that you’re a reciprocally-minded individual whom they’re proud to have be a part of their network!

#6. Handwritten Notecard: A staple of courtesy for centuries, the simple act of thanking somebody in writing, via a handwritten card, still goes an awfully long way.  In today’s instant-gratification (i.e. e-mail-driven) culture, sending a card speaks volumes about how much you value a person.  So following any good networking exchange, take the time out of your day to share some sincere thoughts with the other person in a hard-copy format they can keep on their desk and enjoy for weeks, months, or years to come.

#7. LinkedIn Recommendations: Want to make somebody’s day and give them a gift that will truly keep on giving?  If you’re connected to them on LinkedIn, surprise them by looking up their profile and submitting a personal Recommendation.  This gesture won’t cost you a dime — and the positive words you share will remain connected to the person’s account for eternity.  Or at least until the next major social networking paradigm comes along.  And who knows?  Your words might “tip the scales” in a case where a potential employer or customer prospect is reviewing the person’s profile and deciding whether to hire them or not!

#8. Reference/Testimonial: Similar to the LinkedIn Recommendation suggestion above, you can also offer to a be an outstanding “verbal” reference to the other party, either in an employment reference capacity, if the other person is in transition, or in a customer reference capacity, if the person is a consultant or owns a business.  Along the same lines, a written testimonial or letter of recommendation can be a tremendous gesture, as well.

#9. A Good Laugh: You might think I’m kidding, but don’t underestimate the power of humor as a way to deepen your relationship with the people around you.  Amongst the sea of somber coffee appointments people suffer through these days, most of which tend to be “strictly business” in tone, your acquaintances will remember the fact that you made them laugh and that you brought a little entertainment value to the mix!  So whether you infuse some humorous material into your meeting, itself, or follow up with an amusing or entertaining message of some kind, don’t knock the refreshing “gift” of a good chuckle!

#10. Time: Here’s another weird one.  Given that most people are extremely busy these days, saving them even 5-10 minutes can be a very valuable and much-appreciated gesture.  How do you give this as a gift, however?  It’s simple.  If you’re setting up a networking appointment, offer to meet the person at the coffee shop in their building.  Or at a location highly convenient to them.  Savvy individuals will recognize this thoughtfulness on your part and won’t forget that you saved them a lengthy drive.  Arriving at each meeting with a clear agenda and ending it precisely on time, too, both represent meaningful “gifts of time” that won’t go unnoticed by your busiest acquaintances — especially those in the “connector” community.

#11. Charitable Donations: Once you’ve established a solid relationship with a new acquaintance, and if you can afford doing so without hardship, you can convincingly demonstrate to the person that “you care about what they care about” by making a suitable donation to one of their favorite charities, should they ask for your support.  Better yet, strive to be the very first person to send in a contribution when they send out a group request for support via e-mail, as tends to be the fashion these days.

#12. Content (or Content Editing): In a world where “content” is becoming increasingly important, and companies and individuals are tasked with generating lots of written text for things like websites, blogs, resumes, LinkedIn profiles, and marketing materials, you should look for opportunities to help the people you meet in this regard.  If you’re a good writer, yourself, you might offer to ghost-write (or contribute) some appropriate content to whatever their current projects might be.  Or if you’ve got a keen eye for detail, you might offer to proofread a person’s resume or provide objective feedback on other materials they’ve written.

#13. Networking & Job Hunting Advice: Sounds strange, I know, but if you’ve embarked on a serious full-time job search, you’re going to become a pseudo-expert on these two topics before you know it.  As a result, you might turn up some valuable tips, resources, and advice to share with the folks around you.  You might come across some relevant job leads to pass along, for example.  Or some useful job hunting or research websites others don’t know about.  Or you might be able to recommend some productive networking groups that people should join — or that they might want to contact for speaking opportunities.  Whatever the case may be, you’re going to be learning a lot of new career-related info in the weeks ahead, so don’t be afraid to bequeath this knowledge to others in appropriate situations!

#14. Timely Follow-Through: While it may seem silly to apply the word “gift” to this particular item, I can assure you that MANY professionals these days bemoan the lack of follow-up they receive from people after they’ve made a generous effort to “do the person a solid.”  So if somebody has made a referral for you, or extended assistance in another capacity, one of the most gracious and effective things you can do is to get back to them, within a reasonable period of time, to let them know that you took their advice to heart and benefited from it.  Many folks I know, in fact, would put such a gift at the very top of their list, since it gives them the emotional payoff they were looking for — the feeling that they did a good, helpful thing!

#15. Compliments, Hope & Optimism: Again, while some may poo-poo these kinds of intangible items, they deserve a special spot in the toolbox of the serious networker.  While most people can afford to buy their own lunch or latte, after all, it’s hard to put a price on the person who can make you feel energized, hopeful, and excited about the future.  Given that both employed and unemployed folks alike are dealing with a ton of stress these days, and loads of anxiety about the future, a few compliments or hopeful sentiments you pass along can end up having a huge impact.  Sure, there’s a fine line between being sincere and being a butt-kisser, but if you can find this line and walk it successfully, you’ll be amazed at how eager people suddenly seem to be to spend some quality time with you!

In closing, my friends, this is just a partial list of the many creative “gifts” that the average professional can decide to dispense to those around them, should they put their mind to it.  Take these ideas to heart and you’ll find that you can be the next best thing to Santa Claus, no matter what your financial circumstances or job situation!

Happy holidays, everybody…

P.S. And if you’re really intrigued by this subject, here’s a link to another posting I wrote earlier this year that discusses some additional thoughts on the subject.