Specialty associations for racial, cultural, ethnic, religious, gender, sexual orientation, and other constituencies are popping up like mushrooms after a heavy rain — most professions have at least one affinity association in addition to their mainstream organization, and many have several. And they're not just growing in numbers: “These organizations are growing in membership and popularity” as well, says Sharmagne Taylor, CMP, president of Houston-based meeting management company On-Site Partners. And, of course, membership growth means more potential attendees for niche industry conferences.

But their growth may be coming at the expense of the mainstream associations, which are trying to attract the same increasingly multicultural audience that is splintering off into these minority groups. The ubiquitousness of racial, religious, and culturally based niche associations “raises the bar and requires that [mainstream organizations] not only be inclusive, but that the organization's efforts be perceived as genuine,” says Taylor. “Time is limited, and individuals may choose to only be involved in one group. They will choose the one that has the greatest perceived value and where they ‘belong.’”

But, while they may be competing for the same membership and meeting dollars, there are ways the two types of organizations can work together to enhance the unique benefits each has to offer.

Why the Split?

Some mainstream associations are working to be more inclusive and address the concerns of their minority members (see articles on pages 18 and 24 for examples of what they are doing), but the very existence, and continued growth, of these affinity groups would appear to indicate that they still have a way to go. People in specialty associations often are asked to explain why their groups are needed in the first place. The answer, in short, is that their issues and concerns aren't being met in the mainstream organizations, says Suzette Eaddy, director of conferences, National Minority Supplier Development Council, New York.

Adds Joan Eisenstodt of Washington, D.C.-based Eisenstodt Associates, “People want to be part of a group where they're understood. It's about feeling accepted for who you are. It's hearing people speak the language you speak,” which is exactly what niche organizations offer. “I can talk with another black person about challenges I have because of my race. I don't have to explain it — we can skip that step because we share that experience,” adds Eaddy.

Some believe that once mainstream organizations truly live inclusivity, the need for these affinity groups will melt away. “As we become more aware of the demographic needs of our industries and our associations, the need for splinter groups is reduced because they don't need to splinter away — their needs are being met,” says Carlos Conejo, a researcher and multicultural expert with consultancy Multicultural Associates, Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Others argue that, despite their efforts to be inclusive and welcoming to the many different types of people who make up their memberships, the mainstream organizations' very multicultural, multiethnic, and generally diverse nature doesn't allow them to be as inclusive as an association that's dedicated to just one racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural group. For example, an Hispanic association could advocate for better employment opportunities for the Hispanic professionals in the group. For a mainstream group to be fair to all its constituencies, it would have to also advocate in the same way for all other minority groups represented in their organization, which may not be practical, instead of advocating for the profession as a whole.

Either way, most agree that affinity groups are here to stay, whether it's for good or just until the larger groups make minority members feel more welcomed. And that's OK, says Emil Chuck, PhD, health professions advisor and term assistant professor of biology at George Mason University, Fairfax, Va., and co-chair of the diversity committee of the National Postdoctoral Association. (Chuck notes that these are his personal reflections and not representative of any organization with which he is affiliated.) The mainstream groups will always be vital because they “serve the standards of the entire profession,” but, he adds, both mainstream and affinity groups may be necessary. Citing Malcolm Galdwell's book The Tipping Point, he says that it's difficult to maintain productivity when any organization or meeting exceeds a critical mass. “Breaking organizations into smaller units facilitates and enhances productivity. So a general organization shouldn't be afraid of working collaboratively with smaller affiliation groups,” just as they likely already do internally through their committees.

“It's not that they aren't concerned with serving the subgroups' needs,” Chuck adds, “but that the subgroups may feel they're more effective working as a side organization. As long as there's collaboration and a strong relationship between the main group and the affinity group, as long as all the groups are working in tandem, it helps everyone.”

Where the Twain Meets

One place where they can, and often do, work in tandem is at meetings. When Douglas Kleine, executive director, Association for Conflict Resolution, Washington, D.C., worked for an association that had splinter groups for women, blacks, and Hispanics, “What I did was simply provide a tent for them, give them space at our conference to do their own networking meetings.” He adds that he also joined the women's group, and attended their meetings. “How else would I know what their needs are?” he asks.

Carmen Van Kerckhove, co-founder and president of New Demographic, an anti-racism training company in New York, also says that larger organizations should “reach out to the business associations for persons of color. And by outreach, I don't mean just, hey, come to our meeting, but to really build long-term relationships with that organization.” If you just send them an e-mail blast once a year when you want more people from their ethnicity, race, gender, or religion to come to your meeting, they'll know it and respond — or not — accordingly, she adds.

Chuck suggests that the larger professional society should exhibit at the affinity groups' meetings, and the president or other executive committee members of the mainstream organization could be at the minority group's meeting or perhaps even take part in the plenary sessions. “Reciprocally, the larger organization may identify key individuals to nurture into committee or board leadership positions, or potentially propose joint programs in mentoring or career placement,” he adds. “While it may be impossible to please everyone, I think the affinity groups want to be sure that their perspective is respected and opinions are heard in the larger organization. If there is a meaningful presence and dialogue among leaders in these organizations, the meeting agendas and leadership of both organizations will begin to reflect that commitment.”

Ultimately, say planners, the niche and mainstream organizations can coexist, and even enrich each other. Mainstream organizations can provide a larger voice for the issues of the minorities among their memberships, and minority associations can provide the cultural intelligence the mainstreams need. But to do this successfully, adds Taylor, the larger organizations have to make themselves genuinely inclusive, both internally and in their outreach to minority groups.

Comments? Contact Sue Pelletier at spelletier@meetingsnet.com