Innovation among Affinity Groups - What's Your Role?

I arrived on Saturday and spent the first 36 hours making the rounds of affinity group events: ABFE, AAPIP, HIP, and the "All for One" reception sponsored by 17 affinity groups. As someone who worked for many years in the affinity group field, I enjoyed the chance to catch up with old friends, and to reflect on how the AG movement has evolved. At a time when collaboration is more of a watchword than ever, affinity groups have special relevance, as they have always held the promise of making collaboration real. But that promise can be hard to realize. The traditional business model for affinity groups has been a combination of foundation grants and member dues (which are usually paid by the foundations at which members worked), and as the number of national foundations with portfolios dedicated to building the field of philanthropy began to dwindle several years ago, AGs began to feel the pinch. In the last 10 years, there's been significant turnover in the AG world, as some prominent groups (National Network of Grantmakers and Women & Philanthropy) ceased to exist as independent entities and a host of new, unstaffed AGs emerged. The funder fervor for fellowship and mutual support has hardly dimmed, but the extent to which such networks can exist sustainably as independent 501c3's has come into question.


So it's been exciting to see how a number of long-standing affinity groups have turned challenge into opportunity and developed innovative ways of layering original programming onto their core work of convening funders with mutual interests. The examples I know best include Funders for Lesbian and Gay Issues, which in the 90s (when it was called the Working Group) developed a national partnership program with community foundations to help them incubate LGBT field-of-interest funds. Hispanics in Philanthropy followed soon after with the Funders' Collaborative for Strong Latino Communities, which leveraged a national membership network through a matching-funds model to multiply the level of funding targeted to grassroots Latino groups. (Full disclosure: I worked for HIP during this time.) And then Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy developed a National Gender & Equity Campaign and a civic engagement fund for AMEMSA communities (my new favorite acronym, worth a google), and began incubating and hosting giving circles. More recently, the Association of Black Foundation Executives launched a fellowship program for emerging leaders that has brought together some of the best and brightest new leaders of color and provided coaching, convening, and support for original research project (I think that's how I met Trista, in fact, when she was an ABFE Fellow).


All of these projects - and there are many more from groups like EPIP and others - have in common the idea of moving beyond the traditional business model of a membership association to leveraging a network of committed funders in pursuit of value-added philanthropic projects. So it was interesting to see the ebb and flow of energy at this year's pre-conference AG events. Of course attendance at the conference overall is down, but for some groups the size of the rooms in which they help events were quite small compared to years past, while for others new programming generated record crowds. Innovation is hard work, and it can be difficult to focus on the new at a time of economic downturn and the threat of retrenchment among funders. But the best AGs have weathered crises before, and I'm looking forward to seeing what forms of innovation this new moment inspires in affinity groups.


But they can't do it alone. All of us who are members and friends of affinity groups need to keep supporting these networks and providing the ideas and initiative that fuel innovation. How have affinity groups helped you in your professional development? What ideas do you have for they can stay relevant and fresh at a time when travel and professional development budgets are being slashed?


Chris Cardona is a Consultant at TCC Group, a thirty-year-old consulting firm that provides strategic planning, evaluation, grantmaking services, and program design and implementation to foundations, corporate giving programs, and nonprofits. He is a former staff member of Hispanics in Philanthropy and a former consultant to Women & Philanthropy, Disability Funders Network, and the Joint Affinity Groups.