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UPDATE: How Do You Manage Affinity Groups?

by Tobi Voigt on

Last March, I wrote a post asking for input on how history museums best engage affinity groups.

Specifically, I stated some of our challenges: “The ‘governance’ structure is completely different for each group. One is connected to membership, one is the old-fashioned (and dwindling) ‘guild’ model, one is a newly created ‘young professionals’ networking group. So, frankly, there is no ‘one fits all’ management for these groups. For the last many years, our staff liaison has been our public relations director, who has engaged several other staff members to support them.”

I also mentioned that we were starting a process to take a look at how we manage the groups to “1) better support and enable these groups to do their noble work in harmony with the Society’s strategic plan and goals, and 2) find a more efficient and productive way to manage them.

I want to provide an update on what we ending up doing, because it has been incredibly successful!

First, we compiled a working group made up of key programs, development and marketing staff members. We determined what each group’s core function was (donor cultivation, programs, marketing, etc.), then divided up the staff liaison duties accordingly. For example, I became the staff liaison for our Black Historic Sites Committee, since their work is programmatic in nature. A development associate became the liaison for the Detroit 313 young professional group, as their role is mainly in friend and fundraising. Our Director of Exhibits took over our Glancy Trains group, which maintains and updates our permanent model train exhibit.

Second, we created a structure to help fund the groups and their activities. Each affinity group is now included on our membership brochure. Just like with art museums, members can opt to pay an additional $20 annually to support the affinity group(s) of their choice. This revenue goes into a discretionary fund created for each affinity group, which they can use for their programs and activities.

Third, we developed standardized by-laws and a policy and procedure manual. Each group customized the by-laws to fit their purpose, but the basic structure remains consistent for all groups. The policy manual clearly defines the role and purpose of affinity groups within the Society and communicates our institutional policies and procedures for planning events, fundraising, and so forth.

I’ll admit it; we were nervous to debut the new process to the groups. Some have been in existence for more than 30 years, and all have gotten very used to operating in certain ways. This new affinity group process had the potential to upset some key relationships, as we were putting restrictions on certain activities and requiring them to follow new procedures.

Before implementing the new policies on January 1 of this year, we had several meetings and feedback sessions with each group. We explained WHY we were making the changes, and stressed how it would help them (clearly communicated expectations and processes, a dedicated staff person, money!) We also listened to their concerns and ideas and incorporated many into the manual.

The debut of the new affinity group process has been amazingly smooth! Now that liaison duties are divided among several key staff members, we’ve been able to support the groups more efficiently. Only one staff member attends each meeting and reports back to other staff as needed. The groups love the fact that they have a new source of funding for their activities. And lastly, the clear responsibilities and expectations set by the new by-laws and policy manual have improved how they operate and communicate, both internally and with staff. They feel more included in the Society, and we have confidence in letting them be our dedicated volunteer ambassadors in our community because they truly understand and share our priorities.

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