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About The Author

David Grabitske

David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Does your organization have an affinity group? Recent reports from experts in the history field have shown that relying on heritage tourism will not by itself improve use of museums and historic sites. It is one component of usage, which happens to have people who stay longer and spend more. However, for the history museum and historic site that want to improve the number of users and to grow users into significant donors, developing affinity groups appears to be a promising method. Some of Minnesota’s local historical organizations offer book clubs and art shows in communities that are too small to support them otherwise. There may be others, such as veteran’s and living history groups; card, dance, food, model railroad clubs; hiking, canoeing, bicycling, snowmobiling, and other outdoors affinity groups.  Two questions:

  1. If you have such an affinity group, in what ways does that group partner with and enhance your organization?

  2. If you have no affinity groups, can you speculate on what kinds of affinity groups might be needed in your community?

11 Responses to Affinity Groups

  1. David:
    While it may seem odd to get a response from Iowa, I guess that is OK because our first state consititution was rejected because we claimed land all the way to the Minnesota River.
    Anyway, I wanted to share how such affinity groups have been utilized at the Western Historic Trails Center in Council Bluffs. A few years after the center opened in 1987, a local chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Association was looking for a meeting place for weekly discussions. Staff at the center offered them a meeting space. This association resulted in a solid corps of volunteers for the center, sources of public programs, and financial contributions for special projects and programs before, during, and after the Lewis and Clark bicentennial.
    The Center is located on a system of bike trails and each year the center hosts a bike ride originating there.
    Our site manager has established three geo-caches at the site which has brought people from all over the country that enjoy geo-caching. They stop to visit the center, shop, and search for the caches.
    The Department of Natural Resouces approched us about a fish stocking program in the small lake located on our property. We took the stocking program and we began to issue licenses through our shop and we not only get fishing parties stopping in but hunters getting licenses and deer and turkey tags.

    Reply

  2. Owing to the size of our community, we find it quite useful to partner with other groups, not necessarily affinity groups. For instance, we have jointly hosted author readings with our library friends group. Our recent Model T snowmobile rally had the local snowmobile club providing assistance, and we have plans to do activities jointly with another local historical organization.

    To me, local historical organizations have little choice but to partner with other groups to do events that will draw appreciable attendance. The net needs to be cast wider than before, and the only way to do that is to partner.

    Trying to wrangle more than one groups to do events is not always easy, but the rewards can be worth it.

    Reply

  3. Jon G says:

    Re: Affinity groups

    I was a volunteer with Isanti Co. Historical Society, and we had a fairly active group in support of the West Riverside School. Interest in the school was so strong that it was hard to enlist support for other activities/sites within the county. See http://www.ichs.ws for more info.

    Idea: I would hope the MHS would begin an affinity group around old(er) cars. I do know the MN Transportation Museum is somewhat strong, but feel MHS could do even better. So many folks of all generations are into cars, and it is a great way to connect history

    Reply

  4. Mary Warner says:

    Show of hands, please. How many of us have had affinity groups all along in the history of our organizations and have known that heritage tourism (which translates to bus tours in my mind) isn’t our true bread and butter? It only makes sense that if you want long-term supporters, you have to make them feel emotionally connected to your organization and the best way to do that is by building relationships. It’s the slow, tedious method, but it’s also tried and true.

    In our organization, we have long partnered with a local quilting group. The Log Cabin Quilters used to meet regularly at our museum. This group eventually disbanded, with some of the members joining the Prairie Point Quilters. The Prairie Point Quilters is a much larger group and our museum doesn’t have room to accommodate their meetings. We do, however, still partner with them on a biennial quilt show, which is very popular among the hundreds of visitors who come to see it because of our unique setting.

    We also attempt to create short-term affinity groups through some of the projects we’ve done – notably our Documenting Morrison County Deaths project and our Uncommon Focus photo project. For both projects, we had specific goals and created procedures that our volunteers could follow on their own in order to accomplish the larger goals. Because we can’t think of everything and we know our volunteers have their own areas of expertise, we allow some leeway in our procedures. This gives volunteers the autonomy they desire and gives us a better product in the end because our volunteers typically go far beyond what we expected of them in the first place.

    Perhaps our biggest issue concerning the topic of affinity groups is that Morrison County is fortunate to have quite a number of organizations that cater to individual interests. For example, we have an active local arts organization. While a historical society in a community without an arts organization can host arts-related classes, we are conscious of the fact that if we do such a thing, we have created competition for our arts organization. While we are certainly willing to partner with other organizations on specific projects, we’ve discovered from experience that we have to be careful not to allow our mission to be subverted in the partnership arrangement. There’s no sense in partnering if you come up with the short end of the stick.

    Reply

  5. The whole concept of “short term affinity groups” seems like a new one in that I have not seen it in the articles cited in the Interpreter. Can you say more about how these work? Do you find volunteers migrate from project to project, or do most volunteers help out for only one project?

    It seems like the idea of affinity groups is to strengthen long term relationships with the organization.

    Reply

  6. Mary Warner says:

    I made the term up, David, to describe what we see with various projects. It’s basically the same concept as horseshoe groups that are talked about in church circles – a volunteer opportunity that lasts only a limited time, the point being to avoid burnout. (I see there’s an article on that linked through the Local History blog – haven’t had a chance to read it yet.)

    What we see is people who want to help for a particular project because that’s where their skills or interests lie. On Uncommon Focus, we engaged the photographers. With Documenting Morrison County Deaths, we got people who loved to “haunt” cemeteries, something most of them told us they did anyway, but that they felt other people thought was creepy. Our project gave them a convenient excuse to be in cemeteries.

    For our project on retyping the WPA biographies, we were able to use long-distance volunteers, who wanted to help us out, but weren’t close enough to work in Morrison County. One of our volunteers on this was from California. We sent photocopies of our WPA biographies to them through the mail and these volunteers typed them into computer files for us. They sent them back on CD, so we could print them and download them to computer.

    While these wonderful volunteers remain engaged in a hands-on way typically only for the duration of one project, we find that they walk away with a better sense of our mission and become ambassadors for MCHS. Many of them also become long-term members.

    Realistically, we can’t expect everybody to throw their entire souls into our organization for years and years. Most people have too many interests to stick with one thing for the long-term. If we get people involved for even a short amount of time, we spread the word about the value of what we do and that creates a ripple effect of general support. People talk, and when they talk about MCHS, we hope they’re saying good things.

    Reply

  7. Mary Warner says:

    Oops. Correction. I see the article on the Local History blog is about avoiding burnout in nonprofit EMPLOYEES, not volunteers. My bad.

    Reply

  8. Your comments remind me of the Christine Litch article, “Is your organization ready for the Boom?” http://www.guidestar.org/DisplayArticle.do?articleId=1171

    Litch shows that one emerging trend is that volunteers want to perform at levels they are trained for, such as in your photograph project. I don’t think that will be limited to the Boomers, but will be part of the volunteer profile as long as post secondary education is strong.

    However, I am also reminded of something else that I cannot remember specifically. Whatever I read suggested that for Generation X volunteering meant short, specific commitments that could be done independently.

    Short term affinity groups seem like something to consider.

    Reply

  9. Mary Warner says:

    What I find interesting in this discussion is that “experts” in the field are finally stepping back and analyzing things that we in the history field have been doing for years. Somehow, when a trend gets named, we all think it’s a new thing, but we, as historians, should realize that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

    I’m working on an article for our newsletter about the history of how our museum came to be and I’ve noticed that since our founding in 1936, we’ve had a small number of people who really dedicated themselves to the organization for the long-term, and a larger amount of people who’ve been involved for a while and then gone on to other things.

    After Val Kasparek, our first president/curator died, MCHS waned as an organization and was then reenergized by Arch Grahn, Field Director of MHS. The same thing happened after Alex Huddleston, the next curator, died. I think it was easy for the rest of the board to fall away after we lost these two powerhouse people.

    Both Val and Alex worked with MCHS up to their deaths. That sort of dedication is rare, although I think we wish that it wasn’t as rare as it is. Given that, we have to be willing to work with people where they’re at, with all their complexity and divided interests. We can’t change human nature. Both types of personalities are needed in our organizations.

    Reply

  10. Is it the trend that’s new or the thinking about the additional opportunities that is new? The sense I am getting from what “the experts” have written is that the way we work cultivates fertile ground for development (fundraising) as an added component to labor already received. In your research, have those dedicated volunteers since 1936 also contributed monetarily?

    Reply

  11. Mary Warner says:

    Some have contributed monetarily. Some have also contributed to our collections. Many of our volunteers have become members, which means they’ve paid an annual membership fee. We have a very high renewal rate on memberships, so those who volunteer and become members tend to remain members for a long time, often until the point of their deaths. We had one volunteer within the time that I’ve worked here whose family became members after her death out of respect for the work she did for us.

    I’m going to shift this conversation a bit and ask a question. This isn’t aimed just at you, David, but all readers. Do you like having organizations looking at you solely for your financial position and the money you will bring to the organization? I suspect that the answer to this is no. Good relationships are not built on this premise. They are built on trust, respect, honesty, and on a mutual concern for each other’s well-being. So it is between an organization and the people it serves. When all of these things are in place, then people will naturally want to do what it takes to assist the organization, whether it be through volunteering, becoming a member, or making financial contributions.

    What I’m sensing is that there is getting to be a recognition on a larger scale that this is how things work. It’s the long, steady road to success.

    Reply

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