Affinity Group Members Find Common Ground, Or Not

The Delaware Grantmakers Association in Wilmington had an interesting problem in 2013 — its membership was too diverse. Even with a relatively small membership of 36, CEO Will Sherk found that differences in culture between the north of the state and the south resulted in grantmakers having different priorities.

“Delaware is a state that’s long and narrow and there are a lot of differences in the northern part, which is more urban and has headquarters of corporations and foundations. The southern part, Sussex County, is this odd combination that’s very rural and dominated by the poultry industry and beach communities,” Sherk said.

Sussex County grantmakers, he said, noticed one major problem for the citizens in the areas they serve: transportation. These members formed a loose affinity group, whose purpose is to collaborate on how best to solve the public transportation problem in southern Delaware.

Affinity groups are “something associations are doing more and more to help members plug in and feel connected,” said Jennifer Baker, director of ASAE Business Services for the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), in Washington, D.C. “It’s often based on job functions. They’re something associations have been doing for a long time, and it’s more common now that associations are moving away from general marketing and toward more personalized marketing.”

Sherk said five member organizations joined the Sussex County grantmakers affinity group, and it might expand to six or seven. That’s not the only affinity group in the Delaware Grantmakers Association. According to Sherk, there is also a dozen-strong affinity group within the membership focused on educational grantmaking. “Education reform is a big agenda item in Delaware, and we have a number of funders who have agreed that by working together, they may be able to increase impact,” he said.

As Baker mentioned, associations can have membership groups based on job functions, such as an executive directors’ group, or a fundraisers’ group. ASAE has both of those, as well as a group for component relations and business operations, among others. “It’s a mix of job-specific titles or a cluster of job skills,” she said, such as a group for those whose jobs include communications, meetings and expositions.

The Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers (ABAG), like the Delaware Grantmakers Association, has groups based on funding focus. According to Elisabeth Hyleck, special initiatives director, ABAG just launched its 10th group, focused on neighborhood and community development.

“We call them affinity groups,” she said. “Other (grantmakers associations) call them work groups or issue groups, but really they’re made up of grantmaking members who are interested in exploring a topic together. Their main purpose is really to combine their knowledge and expertise with the focus on impacting a community concern.”

ABAG’s groups are focused around members’ funding areas. It has an education group (the largest and most active, according to Hyleck), a health group, a green funders group and a mental health grantmakers group, among others. “They’re a huge way that our members interact together and with our organization,” said Hyleck. Though she didn’t have exact percentages, “the vast majority of our active members do participate in an affinity group,” she said.

Hyleck pointed to the education funders group as an example of what affinity groups can do when working in concert. In 2011, the group convened on the federal Investing in Innovation grant. It committed $900,000 in matching funds, which helped secure about $5.5 million in federal funding for Baltimore city schools. “The established infrastructure of the Education Funders Affinity Group enables ABAG to quickly convene meetings on time-sensitive topics, such as federal funding opportunities like Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation grants,” said Hyleck.

Affinity groups often come about organically, with members coalescing around job functions or other interests. For ABAG, said Hyleck, “It’s very member directed. As a membership organization, we’re guided by member needs and interests.”

Likewise, Sherk said the education funders group formed through members’ initiative. “Over the past several months, one of our leading members talked to other regional grantmakers associations and found many have highly effective affinity groups,” he said. “He brought the idea back to other members. Members expressed their frustration to (Delaware’s) secretary of education, that we’re putting money in and we don’t see results. It was member-led but the motivation was a discovery.”

Baker said the process of forming an affinity group can be led by the umbrella association, or can happen organically. Sometimes, she said, there’s a formal process; other times the association notices its members have come together on their own and officially recognizes the group.

For ABAG, the process can start either way, but “you need to have four other members who sign on to participate,” said Hyleck. “They have to outline their top three goals, the purpose of the group, ideas of activities, who also might be engaged, what would indicate progress or success, and what guidance and assistance they’d need from the staff.”

Success metrics can mean the difference between viable outcomes and members chasing their tails. Both Sherk and Hyleck said that potential affinity groups must determine how they will measure success before the organizations will consider them for inclusion.

“A critical piece is to define the area of focus and determine measures of effectiveness and success,” said Sherk. The education affinity group is in the process of hammering out success metrics. Some metrics they’re looking at include how ambitious the outcomes are, how the groups leverage their collective assets, and the boldness and creativity of the projects they will undertake. “The only measure they’ve all agreed on is whether the project closes the well-defined (Delaware student) achievement gap,” he said.

Hyleck said success can be measured in different ways, but many of the groups use the same metrics. “We see a lot of the same things (from group to group),” she said. Some metrics, she said, could be defining a problem and increasing knowledge about it; evidence of group meeting attendance; and, going deeper on a topic. “There’s something to be said about really exploring something as opposed to jumping from topic to topic. We also find it meaningful if we see regular attendance and engagement by key players.”

Sherk expects more members to coalesce into affinity groups in his two-year-old organization. The Delaware Grant­makers Association will attempt to identify three to five critical issues facing the state that members can attempt to solve collaboratively. He believes that his organization will see two or three more affinity groups in 2014, based on the template that the Sussex County and education groups will have laid out.

Hyleck said that in the nearly seven years she’s been with ABAG, the organization has added four affinity groups, with the neighborhood and community development group making five.

“We’re proud that our members do find value in the affinity groups, and they’re really interested in deepening understanding of the issues and acting in a catalytic way to effect change,” she said. “We’re happy to nurture that and continue this great way of leveraging our members’ knowledge, expertise and resources.”  NPT