Affinity Funders: Those foundations sound like appropriate prospects. You know the ones. Their specialized missions seem to be a match, but perhaps the foundation has a more specific focus than is apparent at first glance. Perhaps your lead is not located in your region or state. Maybe it’s family-managed association that essentially underwrites its own projects. Or your hunch tells you this lead may be worth a little time.


So how should your research on these meaningful but perhaps more obscure leads differ and how much time should you spend on determining if a letter of intent or proposal is even worth your while?

First there are some handy sources to get a sense of what’s out there. Hopefully skimming a list such as the online directory provided by the Council on Foundations will provide a short list for a closer look.


Given the number of hours in a day, you already know time for further research on these new prospects is limited. As on many topics, Blue Avocado offers some practical advice on how to sift through more specialized foundations before you travel to dead end ask.


Significantly, Rick Cohen, a national correspondent for Nonprofit Quarterly and Blue Avocado contributing writer, compares some affinity foundations to “secret societies”–insular groups that may seem impenetrable and opaque. After all, many such groups have board comprised of staff and, sometimes, the funding family or entity that formed the grant-making organization.


In Grantseekers Guide to Affinity Groups, Cohen provides some evergreen advice while categorizes such foundations this way:


  • Issue groups focused on specific concerns such as literacy, hunger, refugees, etc.
  • Identity-based groups addressing the concerns of certain ethnic, gender, or even geographic definitions.
  • Internationally focused affinity groups that may zero in on approaches such as micro-enterprise, indigenous peoples, human rights, or disease prevention, for example.
  • Professional development for foundation staff, to provide funds for conference and workshop attendance.
  • Conservative foundations associations, formed to provide funding via ideologically-based groups.


Many affinity groups receive foundation funding that is essentially passed through the specialized grant-making organization. This provides a way for foundations to literally “pass the buck,” allowing the more specialized associations to distribute funds accordinging to their guidelines.


What’s a grant-seeker to do? Cohen’s best advice in Blue Avocado comes to:

“If you want to understand the cutting edge (also sardonically called the flavor of the year) of foundation focus,” he writes, “you will find it–for good or bad–in the conversations of the affinity groups, at their meetings, in their reports.”


His next thought certainly applies to fundraisers’ appropriate homework for approaching any funder: “To learn the language you need to speak for foundations to hear you, you can explore the word choices and syntax in affinity groups,” For example, while foundations aspire to “transformative” philanthropy, others describe their approach as “strategic”.


In addition to learning how to talk the talk of these foundations, Cohen recommends attending the more well-attended and successful of their conferences as an attendee or speaker. Making connection to gain personal facetime is always an appropriate goal. Affiliating as a member is another approach.


Perhaps most important is learning what this marketplace of funders is supporting. Some guidelines never budge while others shift with generational changes in family members in administrative roles or identified community needs.


Monitor the time you spend checking out these specialized funding sources. You can often tell if your nonprofit is a match by looking carefully at who has received grants from affinity groups. 990 forms reveal a lot and that may be all the research you need.