Grantseeker’s Guide to Foundation Affinity Groups

Foundation affinity groups can appear to be secretive at first. Let Rick Cohen show you how to navigate them to help your nonprofit.

Grantseeker’s Guide to Foundation Affinity Groups
18 mins read

Knowing how to navigate affinity groups can open many doors for your nonprofit.

You can’t be a member of a foundation affinity group unless you are on the staff or board of a foundation. Their conferences are forums where grantmakers discuss what they should be funding… but you can seldom go unless you’re a foundation person.

Why should you care? Because knowing how to work within their circles is an important way to get insider information about foundations and to get your organization a positive profile among grantmakers… in short, to help you and your cause raise money from foundations.

First, we’ll discuss the different types of affinity groups, then give some specific tips on how to make the most of them for your nonprofit, including ways to get into their conferences.

Types of affinity groups

This brief review looks at the national array of affinity groups. We counted more than 60 currently operating nationally plus another dozen that were formerly active but have become defunct. Technical purists might complain that 60 is a larger number than the 39 officially recognized by the Council on Foundations, but the Council need not be the final determinant of all things foundation, and in fact, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (an affinity group) identifies 325 funder networks.

Every affinity group serves multiple functions, but our classification emphasizes these main characteristics:

Issue groups

  • Organized around specific topics or causes
  • Examples: Social Justice Philanthropy Collaborative, Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement, Neighborhood Funders Group, the Literacy Funders Network, Grantmakers for Education, Grantmakers in Health, and Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees
  • Key activities: conferences, commissioned research, newsletters

Identity-based groups

  • Organized around a targeted constituency or community, usually perceived as underserved
  • Examples: Association of Black Foundation Executives, Native Americans in Philanthropy, Hispanics in Philanthropy, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, Jewish Funders Network, Women’s Funding Network
  • A typical set of multiple goals in an identity-based affinity group is illustrated by the Association of Black Foundation Executives, which seeks to promote grantmaking to Black communities, to nurture philanthropy within Black communities, and to promote diversity in the staff, trustees, and leadership of foundations.
  • Key activities: conferences, professional development, research

Internationally focused affinity groups

  • Some take an issue and look at it globally, while others focus on funding a particular geographic area
  • Examples: Africa Grantmakers, Grantmakers without Borders, Microenterprise Funders Network, International Human Rights Funders Group, International Funders for Indigenous People, Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support
  • Key activities: conferences, collaborative funding

Professional development for foundation staff

  • Organized around staff function or technical area
  • Examples: Grants Managers Network, Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, Foundation Financial Officers Group, PRI Makers Network, Association of Philanthropic Counsel
  • Key activities: conferences, professional development

Conservative foundation associations

  • The Philanthropy Roundtable acts as something of a trade association for ideologically conservative foundations, and has affinity-like gatherings called “breakthrough groups”
  • The Philanthropic Collaborative looks and feels like a conservative affinity group, joined mostly by conservative or free-market-supporting foundations, with an “affinity” for fending off government regulation of foundations

And don’t forget that many regional grantmaker associations also have their own affinity groups. As just one example, the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers has seven affinity groups within it. And Southern California Grantmakers has a 49-page report of local funder networks and affinity groups! [Editor’s note: since the publication of this article this report has been made available only to SCG members.]

To a nonprofit, the affinity groups would seem to be perfectly placed to raise money for themselves; after all, everyone on the board works for a foundation. And indeed, paying dues to some affinity groups seems politically necessary — which foundation CEO would deny a request from a staff person asking the foundation to pay dues towards the affinity group they want to join? But affinity groups do have challenges, as foundation CEOs grumble sotto voce about paying as much as $100,000 a year in total affinity group dues — without any due diligence, fit with foundation priorities, or accountability. Foundation CEOs have been known to ask, who are all of these groups asking for money and why do they always seem to be multiplying? (There’s even a kind of affinity group of affinity groups called the Joint Affinity Group.)

In some cases, specific foundations operate almost like patrons of the affinity groups they identify with most. For instance, the Kellogg Foundation has given $14 million to the Women’s Funding Network over the past few years, and Ford has given $10 million to Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy over the same period. These foundations are opinion leaders, the so-called “bigfoot” foundations with substantial influence over trends in these philanthropic areas. Just as you can learn from affinity groups what foundations think about a topic, you can also gain insights into their primary funders.

Is it worth a nonprofit’s time to research, understand, and engage affinity groups?

If you want to understand the cutting edge (also sardonically called the flavor of the year) of foundation focus, you will find it — for good or bad — in the conversations within affinity groups, at their meetings, in their reports. To learn the language you need to speak for foundations to hear you, you can explore the word choices and syntax in affinity groups (some affinity groups seem to talk about “transformative” philanthropy while others usually say “strategic”).

And if you want to understand what foundations are afraid of, and which privileges and latitudes they want to protect from public and governmental oversight, you’ll hear it if you listen closely, because affinity groups created to make change in philanthropy frequently morph into mini-trade associations for foundations.

From challenging foundations to protecting foundations

The Council on Foundations gives such a vanilla definition of affinity groups that it almost makes them sound like social clubs: they “provide… opportunities for grantmakers with common interests to meet each other, share knowledge and encourage collaborative funding.” But the reality is that most were originally created to rock philanthropic boats, to push for different kinds of grantmaking.

For instance, the Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE) emerged from protests at the 1971 Council on Foundations conference, demanding “the inclusion of Black professionals who demonstrated a commitment to a concept of philanthropy that addressed the needs of minorities and the poor, protest(ing) the scarcity of Black professionals working in the philanthropic field [and further demanding] a collective focus of foundation attention on including the expertise of Black professionals on foundation staff, among trustees, and in institutional decision-making and grantmaking.”

Less forcefully, Hispanics in Philanthropy (HIP), founded in 1983, states its concern about the gap between philanthropic grantmaking to Latinos and the percentage of the U.S. population that is Latino: 1.5% and 14% respectively.

Among issue areas, many affinity groups were founded by program officers who saw themselves as cutting-edge rebels against the status quo. Grantmakers for Effective Organizations emerged from foundations who believed in capacity-building for their nonprofit grantees. The National Network of Grantmakers advocated a 1% increase in the minimum foundation “payout rate”… it’s now out of business.

It’s not a surprise that the edgy affinity groups don’t feel quite so edgy over time. But in the origins of affinity groups lie opportunities for nonprofits: we can make some affinity group members remember why they were created and what they ought to be doing.

Nonprofit strategies in the affinity world

The best and worst of philanthropy will be around for a long time to come, so make the best of the potential of affinity groups. How?

1. Learn their language

Credibility requires knowing the language, knowing how the experts and funders think and talk about issues, how they frame their interests. Read the special publications and newsletters of the affinity groups, and also read their conference reports as lodestones of what foundations are thinking about your issues. Draw from the reports and websites of affinity groups in your proposals and reports.

2. Get to their conferences

As you know, many foundations like to have “non-solicitation space” where nonprofit grantseekers are not allowed. Four tried-and-true ways to get into foundation affinity group meetings:

  • Get invited as a speaker — ask your best funder to get you invited to speak at a session
  • Go incognito, wearing a foundation badge given you by a funder while the affinity group staff and members wink-wink (surprisingly common)
  • Go on the coattails of a consultant who is either going as a speaker or with a foundation badge. If you know a consultant who is consulting to a foundation and going on their badge, ask the consultant to bring you along as their “associate”
  • Finally, a very few foundation conferences allow nonprofits to attend, so look into each one. The high fees are a different kind of barrier.

You’ll see many Buster Keaton double-takes at foundation conferences as people spot a nonprofit friend wearing a foundation nametag.

At the conference, notice which foundations are attending and most engaged. Meet as many people as you can, focusing on discussing trends in the field rather than your own organization. Ask funders: “I found your comment about ‘transformative grants’ very interesting. What are some of the ways that you can tell in a proposal that a grant is likely to be transformative?”

And when you get back from the conference, use your new knowledge and contacts to act like a peer with mutual interests rather than as a barbarian lobbing proposals over the castle walls.

3. Facetime

Like most foundation conferences, affinity group conferences prohibit solicitation by nonprofits. It is a rule honored in the breach, as lots of people conduct tons of business in the hallways outside of the formal workshops, including foundation people pitching to their peers to join them on funding initiatives.

But unless you know a funder well, don’t formally solicit them for support at the hotel, in the bar, or while exercising in the hotel gym. But simple facetime with funders is a great base for future follow-up, not just on your part, but theirs. Use affinity group presence to make an impression about your knowledge and legitimacy. It will pay off.

4. Affiliate if you can

Some affinity groups allow “affiliate memberships” for nonprofits or even for individuals. And if, for example, you are Asian, even if your nonprofit isn’t Asian-focused, get to know the Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy members near you; most of them work for foundations that don’t fund or hardly fund Asian communities.

5. Learn what the market is funding now

Foundations are a type of market, and affinity groups are where you do your market research.

Some affinity groups are largely reprinters of others’ knowledge, something like a clipping service. Get on their listservs and go to their websites to see what the market is reading. Other affinity groups have sharp, useful newsletters that spot trends and identify organizations, people, and ideas that are seen as the cutting edge of the field.

As one example, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) is typically very useful in identifying where the capacity-building and evaluation fields are going, particularly around the excruciating, never-ending foundation circular march on measuring effectiveness. Although it has gone through a couple of staff leadership changes in the past few years, the Neighborhood Funders Group has often surfaced issues and generated original research to bring topics to the attention of nonprofits and foundations. If you view the affinity groups as venues for market intelligence, what intelligence might you find? Here’s a taste of what you can find:

Unfortunately, some of the useful information from the affinity groups is firewalled away from curious nonprofit eyes:

  • Just about everything on the website of the helpfully-acronymed Foundation Financial Officers Group, particularly the results of FFOG’s annual surveys on foundation administrative costs, investment practices, and compensation (FFOG recently reprinted an article from Blue Avocado and we can’t even see it!)
  • The ability to search the “who’s funding hot topics” part of the Grantmakers for Education website

Ask a friendly funder to print out these or other materials and pass them along to you, and to keep an eye out on your behalf for future interesting stuff.

Nonprofits talking to affinity groups

Foundations are big on evaluating nonprofits and demanding outcomes. It wouldn’t hurt affinity groups to be held to the same standard by pressing them for outcomes:

  • To what extent are affinity groups reducing the barriers between grantmakers and nonprofits and getting new organizations onto the radar screens of funders?
  • To what extent are affinity groups bringing more funders into specific grantmaking topical areas? How much more money is flowing — how many more funders are devoting money — to the subject areas of the affinity groups?
  • Are affinity groups affecting or changing foundation practices on affinity group concerns such as racial diversity or advocacy grantmaking?
  • Do the affinity groups end up diverting grants to themselves from nonprofits that serve populations in need, as the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy contended in 2004?
  • Are the affinity groups taking stands and promoting programs that push the envelope on public policy agendas, such as health reform or immigration, or do they talk big but take a dive when push comes to shove?

An affinity group advocate admitted to Blue Avocado that “there may now be too many affinity groups,” especially when regional or local ones are added in, bringing the total in his mind to some 400. But he defended their value as “enabl(ing) wider inter-organizational collaboration and coordination of resource allocation [and] validating new or controversial fields including social change philanthropy and philanthropy in the emerging economies.” (Did you pick up a few good phrases there?)

A conservative like the Hudson Institute’s Bill Schambra might counter that the growth of affinity groups seems to be “generated by persons with a left-of-center ideological bent” with the downside of their collaboration being “the tendency to slide into mindless groupthink and painfully conventional mediocrity.”

A hard-working affinity group leader confirmed Schambra’s concerns in a way. She grumbled that she didn’t see “a lot of vision among the funder networks.” She lamented that members see the networks “as a place to come for information and professional development, but not a place to work collaboratively with others.”

Whether they are marching foundations to new frontiers of social change grantmaking or guiding them to the lowest common denominator of mediocrity and groupthink, the affinity groups are loaded with useful information for the nonprofit grantseeker willing to devote some investigative resources to search for clues to what they — and their primary foundation benefactors — are promoting for philanthropy.

See also:

About the Author

Rick Cohen‘s investigative reporting appears in every other issue of Blue Avocado. His articles on the Decline & Fall of the Vanguard Foundation recently won a Min Award for journalism. A memory from his days as Director of Housing and Economic Development for an unnamed city in New Jersey includes giving a conference speech in Atlantic City on real etate tax abatements, and then playing blackjack at the “cheapo $5 table” the rest of the day while waiting for the mayor so they could go home.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

6 thoughts on “Grantseeker’s Guide to Foundation Affinity Groups

  1. Hmm. While I appreciate the legitimate questions that Rick Cohen asks about the effectiveness of/access to affinity groups, overall this reads like a snarky hit piece, more of the “nonprofits: good, foundations: bad” trope that is pervasive throughout this website. I think that it’s possible to be provocative without the sarcastic subtext (check out NCRP’s work as an example).

    And to Jan’s point, it *would* be great to engage openly in conversation – if the forum is a safe and legitimate one for all involved. But the anti-foundation bias present here doesn’t allow for that space. That’s why I’m writing this response anonymously – I don’t want my organization in your spiteful crosshairs.

  2. Hi Rick, what’s your source (e.g., web link or GEO publicication) for “Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (an affinity group) identifies 325 funder networks”?


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