06/11/2013 03:44 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2013

Look Both Ways: Activating Affinity Groups

As a fundraiser for a large philanthropic organization, identifying and activating affinity, or a sense of community among donors and volunteers is one of the sharpest arrows in our quiver. What does successful "relationship and community building" look like in the fundraising sphere? And how might non-profits and NGOs create networks of like-minded people who will generate energy around campaigns through the feeling they are part of something important and impactful leading to enthusiastic word-of mouth?

One of the most popular maxims about fundraising also happens to be the truest: people donate to a person, not necessarily an organization. Think of your coworker asking you for support in office fundraising drives, the neighbor selling Girl Scout cookies, or the contribution you made to a hospital or medical research institution after the passing of a friend or loved one. That personal connection is made even stronger and more readily reinforced over time if the organization to which one is donating is seen as a collection of individuals with credibility and feels they are part of a community of donors that shares similar interests and activities.

Affinity groups can be based on geography (neighborly proximity or ties to a specific community), profession (industry), donors of certain giving levels and donors of a certain giving longevity. As an example here at the Y we focus on geography, donors to our community based Y branches; donors of a certain giving level, we have formed a Chair's Round Table for all donors to our annual campaign of $1,000 and donor tenure, our President's Circle is made up of donors to our annual campaign who have given for seven or more years.

We work at creating connections between members of each group, including stewardship events for both our Chair's Round Table and Presidents Circle, specialized communications and group specific tours of our programs.

Not only do we work at deepening the donor's connection to us, we work at creating connections among the members within the group. The more networking opportunities and friendships built -- the even greater personal and professional benefits the Y brings to its donors.

At our stewardship events we try and get as many people introduced to each other as we can. The more our donors feel good about making a gift to the Y and feel good about being part of our events and tours, as well as meeting their peer donors in these affinity groups, the greater our gift renewal rates become. We feel that while keeping our donors connection to the Y strong is of vital importance we also know that building horizontal relationships among donors can greatly impact their sense of belonging to something big and meaningful.

This type of organic relationship growth goes beyond the traditional vertical relationship building between organization and donor. It's much more personal than a donor to agency professional friendship it's the type of friendship that adds great value to the donors giving choices and their willingness to attend our events and program activities. It's easy for a donor to not attend events when the only people they know in the room are agency staff, it's much easier to clear your schedule to attend when you know your friends and peers are also attending.

We are always looking at ways to improve the results of our stewardship plans, enhancing the donor experience and deepening a donor's connection to the Y. We have found that building and properly staffing affinity groups helps to build the vertical relationships among donors and our work.