A Library's Appeal: 'Affinity Groups' as a New Means of Fund-Raising

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

by Anne Lowrey Bailey

In closely watched experiment, "affinity groups" of volunteers raise millions for California institution.

Arthur H. Coleman, a black physician, has helped the San Francisco Public Library raise over $30 million -- and solve a problem that plagues fund-raisers nationwide.

Dr. Coleman heads a 60-member group of blacks that has raised $536,000 for the library's new African American Center and is seeking $500,000 more. He is practicing a new style of fund raising that allows mainstream institutions like the library to win donations from sources that are often hard to tap: minority groups and people who usually donate to special-interest causes, such as the environment or AIDS.

Dr. Coleman's committee is one of nine "affinity groups" formed to reach out to San Francisco's diverse racial and special-interest groups. Each group is sponsoring a special center in the new library related to its interests, and then raising the money for the main campaign as well.

In the process, the affinity groups have given the fund-raising drive an inclusive style that has converted what was once a floundering campaign into one of the city's most popular causes.

Together, the affinity groups have raised $10.3 million. The library's gay and lesbian fund-raising committee has raised $2.2 million; the Chinese committee, $625,000; and the environmental committee, $548,000.

Most of the affinity groups have pushed their donors to make "stretch gifts" -- more than they would ordinarily contribute. As a result, the library has received over 2,200 gifts in the $1,000 to $99,999 range. Those gifts amount to $6.3 million, more than 15 per cent of the $30 million goal.

In March, the library passed that goal and decided to keep raising money until it obtained $34 million.

Sherry Thomas, executive director of the library's fund-raising arm, says many foundation and company officials worried that the affinity-group approach would balkanize the campaign into competitive, if not warring, factions. But the opposite happened, she says. The groups "developed an enormous degree of mutual respect and a passionate personal investment in the library."

As a result of its success, the campaign is attracting national attention from people who want to copy its approach. But some grant makers are not sure whether the affinity-group approach would work for other cities or causes.

'Working With Nine Boards at Once'

Mobilizing the affinity groups to raise money has not been easy. The library has hired a part-time staff member from each special-interest group to coordinate that group's activity. "It's like working with nine boards at once," says Ms. Thomas, who runs the Library Foundation of San Francisco.

Recognition has been important to the donors attracted through the affinity groups. Those who give $1,000 can specify a name -- not necessarily their own -- to be etched in glass in their group's room, while those who give $5,000 get a name in bronze in the main lobby.

Says Charles Q. Forester, a co-chair of the gay and lesbian fund-raising committee and a city-planning consultant: "in our community the only permanence we have these days is a name on a quilt. Here was a chance to put our names on a wall in bronze for centuries. We wanted to be recognized for making a contribution to society, not just for dying."

Direct mail and telephone appeals stressing the chance for public recognition drew a strong response.

One 57,000-piece mailing to a list of homosexuals compiled from rented lists drew donations from 8 percent of its recipients-much more than the 1 or 2 percent who typically respond to such appeals. The average gift was $354, and the mailing netted $172,000. Unlike the response to most mailings, more people gave the highest suggested amount -- $5,000 -- than gave the smaller amounts that were also mentioned. One Wisconsin waiter even sent $1,000 he had earned in tips.

The effort to offer donors special recognition has presented some challenges. One black church assembled $10,000 from its congregation and wanted each person who had contributed to be listed on plaques in the library's entrance. Another $10,000 donor wanted her name etched in Aramaic. That led Kenneth E. Dowlin, the city librarian, to have a nightmare in which all the donors want their names on the same wall.

'We Are Paying Our Way'

Leaders of the affinity groups say that their members were pleased to be included as donors to a civic project. "This was the first time the African-American community had been brought in at the beginning, and asked to play a key role," says Dr. Coleman. "Usually, by the time the black community hears about a philanthropic project, the train has left the station," he adds. "If we're lucky, we may catch the caboose. At the library, we are riding first-class, and we are paying our way."

The library has worked hard to pay attention to cultural differences among the affinity groups. The Latino-Hispanic committee often solicits gifts assembled by large families. The African-American committee works through churches. Fund raisers for the Chinese committee approach the leaders of large family associations or clans in Chinatown.

In one case, the Library Foundation even changed its logo. The logo is royal blue, a color considered unlucky by the Chinese, so direct-mail appeals to that groups show the logo in red, a lucky color.

Perhaps the most important part of the Library's Foundation's strategy has been to recruit key people from each special community. Here's how some of those leaders became involved and made their campaigns work:

The African-American Center: An Appeal to Black Pride

When Dr. Coleman's wife, Renee, first approached him about raising money for the library's African-American Center, he said, " I don't need to be on another board any more than I need a hole in my head."

But after she told him that the gay and lesbian committee was raising $1.6 million for its center, he says, he felt the old competitive spirit rise within him. After bracing himself, he declared that if the homosexual group was raising $1 million, the least blacks could do was raise $500,000.

Dr. Coleman's committee first approached the ministers of two of the largest black churches in town. Committee members also began holding small receptions in their homes. Dr. Coleman says people liked the idea of creating a center that will collect high-quality black literature and materials on the history and culture of blacks in northern California.

Even with his long involvement in black affairs, Dr. Coleman says, he often underestimated donor giving capacity. One of his patients, a bus driver, gave $100. Willie Brown, the Speaker of the California Assembly, who usually only gives to politicians, gave $15,000.

The momentum continued, he says, until the campaign was within $12,000 of its goal. Then the committee held a black-tie party, the Beaux Arts Frolic at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Over 600 people showed up.

"I put my minister's cap on," Dr. Coleman recalls. "I told everybody, 'You're in church, and you're not going to leave until we're over $500,000. If you've got a big ego, you're going to give us $5,000. If you've got a little ego, give $1,000." His plea netted more than $40,000.

"This library is ours," says Dr. Coleman. "We'll watch carefully what people do with it."

The Latino-Hispanic Committee: Building a Sense of Community

Carlota del Portillo, a community college dean and San Francisco School Board member, says that at first she refused to take on the job of running the Latino-Hispanic committee. She walked five miles with her friend Fred Rodriguez, a lawyer who has been involved in numerous civic activities, before he finally persuaded her to take the job.

"You have always talked about the Latino community as an integral part of San Francisco," he told her. "This is our chance to be recognized as philanthropists and supporters of the city of San Francisco de Assisi."

"This campaign is not about money," says Ms. Portillo. "It's about building community. The Library Foundation basically said, 'We recognize you should be a part of this, because you are a part of San Francisco. Now, how would you like to participate?' And we designed our own fund-raising approaches."

She adds: "We are succeeding because we were allowed to proceed in our own way, and with our own dignity."

The Latino-Hispanic fund-raising committee decided to sponsor the library's large community meeting room. "It speaks to what Latinos are all about -- family, community, meeting, dialogue, consensus," says Ms. Portillo.

Ms. Portillo says the fund-raising training she received from the library foundation staff was important. She began to be successful, she says, because she had a good product to sell, she had made her own pledge, and she could talk to others about making "stretch" gifts. She says she began to understand how to word requests for donations, how to make it sound easy.

"I stressed that the room would be done in the name of our own Latino warmth and family centeredness," she says. "That worked again and again."

There were setbacks. Ms.Portillo remembers approaching one widow who talked constantly about here late husband. "A mere $1,000, and his name will be on the wall of the library forever," she told the woman. She replied: "His memory isn't worth $1,000."

Peer pressure worked better. At a party for members of the Hispanic Bar Association, one committee member had the idea of putting red dots on the name tags of people who had pledged $1,000 or more. 'They got jazzed, " recalls Ms. Thomas. Everyone wanted a red dot by their name. The party raised $28,000.

The Gay and Lesbian Center: A Step Toward Acceptance

When the library asked Charles Q. Forester and Diane Benjamin to help plan the library's Gay and Lesbian Center and raise money for it, Mr. Forester was astonished. He could not recall another occasion on which gay men and lesbians had been asked to be part of a mainstream civic project.

As a result, gay men and women have been among the most enthusiastic supporters of the library. Many see their contributions as one step toward becoming accepted members of society.

Says Ms. Benjamin: "We see this as a way to give back to a city that has shown us so much tolerance."

The group also sees the center as a way to preserve gay culture for future generations.

"Gays like giving to the library because it isn't against anything," Mr. Forester says. "It's not a donation to fight the right wing or AIDS but to build something." However, the committee was concerned about taking money away from AIDS causes. So it urged donors to only make library gifts after they had contributed to AIDS groups.

"This isn't only for us, but for people who want to know about us," Mr. Forester add. "It's not only for the teen-ager who thinks he's gay, but also for his parents, and for anyone who wants to write the story of the gay civil-rights movement."

The Environmental Committee: a Natural Project to Support

Lucy Blake helped form the environmental fund-raising committee shortly after Earth Day 1993, when a group of environmentalists discussed ways to create a memorial for the California writer Wallace Stegner, who had recently died.

"Wallace Stegner was my personal hero," says Ms. Blake, former head of the California League of Conservation Voters. "He spoke to my passion for the American West and its fragile environment. I wouldn't have done the project if it hadn't been really important to me to do something to honor Stegner, and the way he's influenced people's thinking about the West."

Ms. Blake soon was calling her committee "the Fab 15." The group is composed of people in their late 30's and early 40's "who can be counted on to raise at least $15,000 for the center without a lot of prodding," Ms. Blake says.

The Fab 15 approached the library with its idea, and was given a fourth-floor room overlooking the Civic Center plaza. The group envisions creating a model regional environmental library, filled not only with books about the West, but also information on everything from parks to environmental groups. It wants to raise $800,000 to finish and furnish the center, pay for a full-time environmental librarian, and acquire materials.

"Environmentalists are used to giving money, but not for civic things," Ms. Blake says. "But because they have a soft spot in their hearts for Stegner, because they love San Francisco, and because they care about their environment, this is a natural project to support."

Will It Play In Cleveland?

The success of the San Francisco effort has prompted many fund raisers to debate whether to borrow the affinity-group idea.

Not everybody thinks the idea can easily be adopted by others. Kirke Wilson, executive director of San Francisco Rosenbery Foundation, questions whether a city like Cleveland, which has been largely abandoned by middle and upper-class people, could run an affinity-group campaign. "The neglect of Cleveland schools may be indicative of attitudes toward the library," he says. "They might not find people in the city who can contribute."

However, the Seattle Public Library Foundation has already begun to form affinity groups as part of the advance planning for a capital campaign. "I think they are really on to something," says Terry Collings, the foundation's director of development. "I would never have guessed they could have raised what they have from one of these groups."

Martin Paley, who directed the Library Foundation of San Francisco throughout much of the campaign, is convinced that the affinity-group technique can work well for many types of non-profit organizations.

"It's probably easier to get large chunks of money from the wealthy, " he says. "But then responsibility for the institution is vested in a narrow spectrum of the community."

On the other hand, when many donors give, they will feel responsible for an institution if the organization falls on hard times. "If you've built that relationship," he says, "they will stand behind you, work with you, and care abut you."

An Expensive Dinner

Mr. Dowlin, the San Francisco librarian, says the library has sponsored several events that revved up donors, as well as himself.

One such event was the Founder's Dinner for the Gay and Lesbian Center. The event sold out 1,300 tickets, with a high percentage of guests paying $1,00 each, and wound up raising $800,000.

As Ms. Thomas was working on the seating plan, she got a call from a businessman on an airplane.

"I'm landing at 5," he said. "What will it take to attend the dinner?"

Ms. Thomas said she was sorry, but the event was oversubscribed.

"If I give you a check for $10,000, can I come?" the man asked.

Ms. Thomas thought for one second.

"I think we have a place for you," she said.


Charlotte Mailliard Swig says the San Francisco Public Library's campaign to raise $34 million is the toughest drive she ever worked on- and the most rewarding.

Mrs. Swig, whose fortune is based in real estate, is an experienced philanthropist. She has helped raise money for such causes as the San Francisco opera, ballet, and symphony.

But the library campaign presented one problem after another, until it formed "affinity groups" to raise money from people with diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. Those groups have raised $10.3 million for the library's $34 million campaign.

Martin Paley former executive director of the library's fund-raising foundation, says it did not create the affinity groups for altruistic reasons. "We did it because we had to raise $30 million in three years," he says.

"The campaign changed completely because of the affinity groups," adds Mrs. Swig. "That was the turn of the campaign. It was more than they money- and I don't usually say that, because the money is important."

Fund Raising for Furniture

The library campaign had problems even before it ever started.

In 1988, voters had approved a $109.5 million bond issue to build a new main library. The bond issue was enough to build the library, but by law, the money could not be used to pay for furnishings, computers, and special-purpose rooms.

The problem, say fund raisers, is that many donors don't want to pay for those things either.

In addition, Mel Swig, Mrs. Swig's husband and the campaign's co-chairman, set the drive's goal at the amount of money the library really needed- $30 million- almost double the $16 million that feasibility studies said it could expect to raise.

When Mr. Swig announced the goal in 1990, Mr. Paley says, the foundation's entire staff of five gulped with fear. The campaign's fund-raising consultant, Charles P. Howland, jokes that people could hear the thump at the back of the room as he fainted.

The campaign also came at a time of intense competition for donations to cultural institutions. San Francisco's Museum of Modern Arts, Performing Arts Center, and Asian Arts Museum were all in the midst of capital campaigns.

In addition, the library lacked "the swanky, social dimension of the opera, symphony, and ballet" that enable donors to "grow socially," Mr. Paley says.

In fact, by the 1980's, the library's elevators smelt of urine, homeless people slept at tables, and collections and been depleted through years of theft, neglect, and annual city budget cuts.

Robert M. Fisher, director of the San Francisco Foundation, summed up the drive's chances of success in one word: "Nil."

A 40-Year Quest

That didn't stop the library's proponents. Foremost among them was Marjorie Stern, president of the Friends of the Library. Known as a holy terror to friends and foes alike, Mrs. Stern says she "fought tooth and nail" for a new main library building for 40 years. She had marched on the Mayor's office to save the library's land and walked the streets of the city to build grassroots support of the bond issue.

She had helped recruit a top architect to design the new building and fought for the appointment of a top-flight librarian. She also had created the library foundation.

"We've always worked terribly hard- I can't bear people who don't work- for every single thing the library's got," she says.

Mr. Swig word hard, too. He had made big gifts to many of his friends' campaign, and he had counted on them to return the favor.

But the competition for cultural gifts was so stiff that "the old reciprocity system" broke down, according to Sherry Thomas, now the foundation's executive director.

As a result, Mr. and Mrs. Swig had difficulty in recruiting campaign chairmen for corporate gifts, major gifts, or special gifts.

"Mel and I were really the only ones raising money for the longest time, " recalls Mrs. Swig, "most people were involved in other institutions. The library did not have romance for them. Forever it was the two of us, alone."

Then, at a crucial moment in the campaign, Mr. Swig developed cancer. (He died last year.)

Lacking prominent volunteers, Mr. Paley, former president of the San Francisco Foundation and the Koret Foundation, sought gifts from the area's grant makers.

"When Martin looked me in the eye and said, 'Bob, the least the San Francisco Foundation can think of doing is $1 million, I gagged,' says Mr. Fisher of the San Francisco Foundation. The foundations average grant was $10,000. Nonetheless, it gave almost $900,000. Mr. Paley ultimately raised a total of $11 million from other foundations.

Despite the success, fund raising for the campaign slowed when the amount raised hit $7 million and again at $11 million and came to a complete halt at $16 million, according to Mrs. Swig.

"There were no more people to get money from," Mrs. Swig recalls. "People hadn't said No, but they hadn't said Yes."

Things were looking so bleak that one of Mrs. Swig's friends called and said that if the campaign failed, she wanted her money back.

Heart and Soul

It was at that moment of desperation that the affinity-group concept was born. Steve Coulter, then president of the commission that governs the library system, traveled the city, inviting members of varied racial and other communities to help create the new library.

Then Mr. Paley broadened the idea to include raising money. "It was then that the campaign found its heart and soul," Mr. Paley.

To test the affinity-group strategy as a way to bring in new donors, four foundations connected to the Haas family awarded the library $2 million in challenge grants.

They promised to match $1 million in donations from the affinity groups and a second million if the campaign raised $1 million in grassroots community support.

The first money didn't come easily. "We fumbled around." Ms. Thomas recalls. At first Mr. Paley tried recruiting the most visible leaders from each interest group, but they lacked the time. Instead, the foundation's staff had to search for people who were rising leaders, knew other influential people, and could dedicate time to the library.

The affinity groups did not work well, Ms.Thomas adds, until the foundation hired part-time fund raisers from each community.

Finally, a group of gay men and women committed to raising $1.6 million. That challenged the other groups. The Chinese agreed to raise $1 million, and blacks $500,000.

Since then, the campaign has picked up momentum. In March, it passed its $30 million goal and its leaders decided to keep going until they raise $34 million.

"We wanted this to be a democratic capital campaign, one whose doors were open to everyone," says Mrs. Swig. "We never in our wildest dreams imagined how that was going to become a reality."

From the July 12, 1994 issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Copyright (c) 1996 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc. Posted with permission on Urban Parks Online. This article may not be published, reposted, or distributed without express permission from The Chronicle. To obtain such permission, email verria.neal@chronicle.page1.com.


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