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An introduction to affinity fundraising: How to deepen your peer-to-peer practices

(Image: Gerd Altman)

Giving back is human nature, especially in a crisis – but as you probably know, the most powerful kind of “ask” no longer comes from your organization: It comes from the friends and family members that people inherently trust.

That’s the driving principle behind peer-to-peer fundraising, which you’ve likely employed in the last year to help drive your annual appeal, GAgives on #GivingTuesday, and other campaigns.

What nonprofits need now, however, is to take that approach a step further: “Affinity fundraising” is a strategy that multiplies the power of peer-to-peer, using volunteer fundraising teams organized and equipped by you to lead their own campaigns.

“This is already becoming the next stage of peer-to-peer,” said Senior Consultant Kathy Keeley, citing the track record of fundraising heavyweights like Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “I’ve been watching large institutions raise money this way over the last couple of years. There’s opportunities with affinity fundraising, particularly in this pandemic.”

In GCN’s member-exclusive May Breakfast Bites event, Keeley explained how affinity fundraising works and where to get started.

Affinity fundraising defined

An affinity group is a fundraising team made up of loyal “minor” donors (those giving under $1,000) who all share a particular interest related to your work. If you’re a museum, it could be fans of impressionist paintings; for a community-builder, it could be activists for a particular neighborhood; a healthcare provider could convene those affected by a specific condition; a park might look to the parents of youth soccer league participants who use on-site facilities.

An affinity group is a fundraising team made up of loyal "minor" donors who all share a particular interest related to your work.

The idea is to organize multiple groups of volunteers, each centered around its own specific shared interest. You give them each a name, equip them with tools, and support them from the sidelines. The group itself will develop its own meeting schedule, fundraising efforts, and social outings, while keeping you up-to-date and asking for resources as needed. “You’ve got to support their events, but the affinity group should be doing 75 percent of the work,” said Keeley.

What keeps these groups engaged is the interest they share and the good they accomplish through fundraising. “The data says that, as much time as we’re spending on our screens, we’re seeking real connection,” said Keeey. “Affinity grouping is a way to create that social connection.”

Why affinity groups work

In light of all the shifts underway – in generational demographics, in communication technology, in attitudes toward our institutions, in the ways we occupy public space physically – the importance of peer-to-peer fundraising cannot be overstated.

“The old-school mass appeal might still work with Boomers, but not with Millennials,” said Keeley. The way it works now: “A friend asks me, I trust my friend, and I give because I want to help that friend. And it all happens online. It’s an extension of your crowdfunding.”

Because in-person events are a questionable prospect in the short- and medium-term, and because we all need to focus on cultivating donors from the “digital native” generations, Keeley sees affinity groups as the fundraising practice of the future: “From here on out, this is how we’re going to be building our ‘lists.’ Nonprofits need to build muscle strength with this type of fundraising.”

Where to begin

Shared interest is the glue that binds an affinity group together, so the starting point is identifying what that interest could be. Look to your programs, the people who support them or take part in them, the activities they join, and the beliefs they reflect.

For your first attempt, Keeley recommended looking to your board, or to a particular board committee. It’s a win-win proposition: You get the chance to practice organizing affinity groups, and your board members get a powerful way to support the organization. “Every single board member should be raising money through their networks and friends,” said Keeley. Affinity group fundraising gives them everything they need to be successful.

Of course, you’ll need to put in work up front to support them. For the initial group, you want to be especially hands-on. “This is where you’re going to learn what works, what doesn’t, and how you need to improve,” said Keeley.

"These groups have to have a life and feel of their own... Be careful not to step in too much. You want them to own it."

First, you’ve got to give them a name based on their shared interest, or help them develop one. That name is a branding opportunity: It should be fun, or catchy, or compelling for the people involved. For instance, your board-based group should have a name other than “the board.” It could be 15th Street Club, the Green Team, the Rainbow Group – whatever makes people smile.

“These groups have to have a life and feel of their own, different from the board or the development committee,” said Keeley. “Be careful not to step in too much. You want them to own it.”

Next, provide each member with a landing page on a giving platform like GAgives.org. Make sure the platform is capable of pivoting to all social media platforms, and can work with whatever system your affinity group members are using. The landing page needs to explain your work with a good story, a compelling image, and one strong statistic that you can use over and over.

Each member also needs templates for making appeals – “lots and lots of templates,” according to Keeley, suitable for all the communications channels available. “This has to be easy for people: user-friendly with a capital YOU.” No matter which giving platform you’ve chosen, they should have a “resources” section providing templates that are ready to download and customize. Make your materials as cut-and-paste-ready as possible.

“It’s like developing a donor letter, but with digital tools,” said Keeley. She suggested working with members to make sure they can add to their page in order to personalize it. She also recommended trying video: “Just use your phone. Make it 30 seconds long, one minute tops. You want to create something compelling – something that people want to share.”

Finally, teach each member how to make “the hard ask” for a donation. (“For the really squeamish, you can teach the soft ask,” Keeley noted.)

What’s next

This topic will be explored further in Nonprofit University’s new Certificate of Digital Fundraising series, a three-part course beginning July 7. Check this page to find out more about the course and sign up.

In addition, you can contact GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group with specific questions and requests for support through [email protected] or 678-916-3082.

Marc Schultz is communications editor at GCN.

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