When and How to Transform Affinity Groups

Inclusive Leadership
Minute Read

We’ve discussed in previous articles how affinity groups and employee resource groups (ERGs) are similar, yet the formats and purposes of individual groups can vary greatly. At Ethos, we like to think of these groups as an internal laboratory, pilot program, or DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging) advocacy group. 

As your organization changes, your employee affinity group will evolve, whether because DEIB matures and necessitates new strategies, or because of issues related to turnover, ongoing group enrollment, or prioritization changes from your executive team. This article will cover what it looks like to transform an affinity group and some situations when you might use this approach. If you haven’t read our previous articles How to Start an Affinity Group at Work and How to Reboot Existing DEIB Affinity Groups, read those, too. 

Transform or Reboot?

When an affinity group no longer serves its original purpose, a call for change might come from committee members themselves or other employees in the organization. Affinity group members  may be confused about the committee’s functions, feel that they’re not adequately represented, or want a full-time team to provide more reliable and consistent support. A highly successful affinity group may also need deep restructuring as it matures and organizational dynamics start to shift. Members will likely have mixed feelings about trying to triage the situation while balancing their workload or deviating from the original plan. This is all completely normal.

Deciding whether to transform or reboot an existing affinity group can be tough. Think of it as sharing an apple pie with your entire organization that isn’t quite big enough. You could accommodate others by giving up your piece of the pie (even though you really want some) or compete by taking more of the pie for yourself. You could compromise by giving everyone an equal piece that’s way too small, or you could avoid the situation by saying you’re not hungry. Or, you could consider collaborating, to figure out how to make a bigger pie. This final option is what you’re doing when you choose to entirely transform your affinity group framework.

It sounds like a really positive solution—this is innovation, this is imagination, this is inventing!  However, the process can become difficult very quickly. If you want to make a bigger pie, you need more flour, apples, spices, and maybe even a bigger oven. 

Innovation is harder than making something from scratch or fixing something that's broken because you have to imagine something that doesn't exist yet. You’ll need more resources, more insight, more support, and more time in order to make it work. And with the context of something that already exists, you're not working with a clean slate. 

You have to be future-focused while mindful of the past and operating in the present. You may run into conflicts, and as Patrick Lencioni mentions in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, people are more afraid of conflict at work than in any other area of their lives. This has definitely been proven true in our DEIB consulting experience. However, if you have a few members at different levels of the organization who are fully dedicated to making this change, and who can stay committed for the next six to 18 months, it might be time to transform.

Why Transform an Affinity Group?

Just because an affinity group framework is no longer “working” doesn’t necessarily mean it was a failure. Ironically, the most successful affinity groups may find themselves in need of a transformation once they have achieved their initial goals and served their function. As larger organizational structures change, affinity groups may need to adapt to continue making an impact.

ERGs and employee affinity groups don’t last forever when you’re doing it right. There are many  ways to approach affinity group transformation. Take, for example, these three common affinity group examples that the Ethos team has worked on directly.

1. Your Committee Has Matured Into a Full-Time Team

This kind of transformation happens when your organization decides it needs full-time DEIB staff. Employees on an extracurricular committee may take on these roles instead of volunteering or doing this work for a stipend, and the organization will have to determine how to fill their old positions. Alternatively, the organization may hire DEIB professionals from outside the organization. It’s also common to see a new DEIB team combine previous affinity group members with a few new hires. Once the new team is formed, they will have to develop a working relationship with the existing affinity group, and then the group may need to revisit its purpose and vision. 

2. A Committee Structure No Longer Works for Your Organization

While the need for DEIB work will never go away, your organization may find that a committee structure isn’t working because no one has time to commit to regular meetings and the responsibilities of a committee role. In this case, it may be wise to disband the committee, transforming its members into advisors on specific issues that directly impact them. 

Instead of executing on initiatives and goals, they’ll function as partners to organizational leaders. Instead of committee meetings, they would collaborate during interviews and touch bases. In this decentralized affinity group format, advisors create and share community guidelines for how employees engage with these issues in their day-to-day work.

3. Your Team Wants to Integrate DEIB Work Organization-Wide

An organization we worked with recently decided that they wanted their DEIB committee’s functions to be a part of every full-time employee’s responsibilities. This came after a decision to embrace anti-racism as a core value—leaders recognized that confining DEIB work to a committee within a much larger international organization could hinder progress in this area because only a small group of people would see it as their “job.” 

This affinity group became a “committee to dissolve the committee,” or what some might call an “institutional change team.” Another organization we worked with formed a similar short-term committee to integrate the functions of six different committees into existing roles. An institutional change team isn’t meant to be permanent—this transformational work takes about six to 18 months to complete, and then their decision-making responsibilities would be similarly absorbed by organizational roles.

Notice that choosing organization-wide integration doesn’t mean that you’ll stop strategizing or managing DEIB goals. Slack received a lot of attention for building a diverse team with a decentralized DEIB model during their first few years of rapid growth. However, they eventually lost representation in leadership roles, increasing from only 8.8% in 2019 to 9.2% in 2020. In 2021, they started losing Black employees and others from underrepresented groups. 

Two Important Caveats

There are two challenging circumstances that can halt or even reverse progress when it comes to re-strategizing DEIB efforts. The first is when you’re not receiving enough support from the executive team. In this case, changing your structure or hiring a full-time DEIB team may not be effective. In order to create sustainable change that will lead to desired outcomes, you’ll need buy-in from leaders at the organization’s highest level.

The other issue is what we see commonly at white-led nonprofits—when power is concentrated amongst a specific type of people who are speaking on behalf of others who don’t identify with that group, there is no coalition. Representation isn’t the ultimate fix, but the population being served needs both representation and advocacy at the decision-making table. What’s important here is making sure that people with the lived experiences of the groups you’re serving are present and their voices are heard. 

How to Transform an Affinity Group 

At its core, an affinity group is just people who are committed to a set of ideals and trying to make those ideals a reality inside of an institution or organization. If you have those people, you have what you need to transform.

Here are the steps you’ll need to take and some questions to consider:

1. Plan Ahead For Transformation

  • Who is involved in the change? 
  • Who is affected by the change?
  • When will this change happen? 
  • What will be the components of this change at the broadest level?

2. Define Your Vision

  • What’s missing in your current structure? What are people asking for?
  • What is the highest vision of this new way of doing things in the future? 
  • What results and outcomes do you want this affinity group to achieve?

3. Create A Roadmap For Change

  • How will you get to this lofty vision? 
  • What will the transformation look like? 
  • What are the phases of getting to that vision? 
  • What are the open questions? 
  • What are your specific affinity group goals?
  • How will you measure your outcomes?

4. Announce Your Plans And Get Feedback

This is when you’ll share your roadmap, timelines, and vision with the rest of the organization. It’s critical to allow some time to gauge their reactions. We like to use Rachel Botsman’s model of “climbing the trust stack.” First, people have to trust the idea; then the company; and, finally, they have to trust the other people involved. Real trust is formed during this last step, but you can’t get there without going through the other two stages. 

Instead of questions, here are some objections you might have to reconcile with:

  • If we transform, we won’t be doing DEIB anymore: it’s an undercover way to eliminate this body
  • The transformation might end up worse than what we have now
  • This will be time and energy-intensive. How will volunteers have the mental space for this project along with other priorities?

5. Implement The Transformation

Follow the roadmap you’ve created and keep each other accountable to stay on track with your vision.

6. Measure Outcomes And Determine Next Steps

Answer these questions individually and then compare notes as a group. See if you can identify any new affinity group best practices. These questions are taken from the After-Action Review process we use at Ethos:

  • What were the project's objectives, goals, and metrics?
  • What did we actually achieve?
  • What went well and why?
  • What could have been improved and how?
  • What are the lessons learned?
  • What actions need to be taken by whom and when?
  • Who else should receive this After-Action Review?

Parting Words

When you come to the inflection point where your original affinity group ideas are not playing out as planned, the choice is ultimately between re-energizing or transforming your current structure and doing something different entirely. In contrast to the experience of starting or rebooting an affinity group, choosing to transform your affinity group means making more sophisticated decisions beyond what to focus on, how to advocate for employees, or what learning events to host. The decisions you’ll make throughout this process need to be informed by experience and a strong baseline of knowledge across a lot of areas.

When affinity groups in the workplace are functioning well, they move DEIB goals forward and raise organization-wide awareness with their success. Transforming something that has worked in the past feels like a huge risk, but sometimes it’s the only way to grow. When our clients are facing this dilemma, we like to ask—is the pain of staying the same worse than the pain of changing?

If your affinity group is ready for change, let’s get in touch.

This article is part of an ongoing series about affinity groups, employee resources groups, DEIB councils and committees, and other grassroots DEI initiatives inside organizations. Read parts one and two of the series, How to Start an Affinity Group at Work and How to Reboot Existing DEIB Affinity Groups


Blog written by Kelsey Hoff

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