The Merits of Affinity Groups, Part Three: How to Start Your Own Affinity Group


By definition, collecting and exchanging data across different sectors to improve the health of people is a collaborative process. Peer learning groups, or ‘affinity groups’, are a great way to begin or develop that process. So, here’s how you can start your own affinity group.


All In Affinity Groups

In our previous posts, we’ve made a case for the benefits of peer learning by examining the All In network’s Affinity Groups in greater detail.

In case you haven’t read our posts yet, All In is a nationwide network of communities that share their successes and challenges from their data-sharing efforts with each other. DASH helps manage the All In network with its partners.

The Affinity Groups within the All In network are designed to foster peer learning around specific topics. In 2021, All In launched eight Affinity Groups to explore topics such as health and housing, behavioral health, care coordination, and more. Discussions were led by the participants, while subject matter experts facilitated activities for each group.

In this post, we share the eight most important things that DASH has learned from the All In Affinity Groups to help you launch your very own peer-learning group.


1. Do you research

Professional affinity groups aren’t exactly a new concept. There are several organizations already doing this type of work, so it makes sense to build on their existing knowledge.

All In, for example, reached out to its network with the goal of learning best practices and finding what would work well for All In practitioners. Nemours Children’s Health System, using their experiences from their Integrator Learning Lab, shared the importance of preparing participants for what to expect, while Hunger Vital Sign’s Community of Practice learning group helped to better understand program structures and ideas for facilitating activities across a broad learning community.

At other fact-finding meetings, potential subject matter experts discussed program design and facilitation concepts. Potential participants reviewed material and provided early edits and participant goals.

Based on these experiences, we strongly recommend reaching out to experienced peer-learning organizers as a first step.

2. Review your audience’s interests

The final All In Affinity Group topics, such data law, health and housing, and community indicator dashboards, were influenced by All In’s programming over the past couple of years, which included webinars, All In National Meetings, as well as the grant funding programs of All In partners.

Emerging topics were a consideration as well, including the publication A Toolkit for Centering Racial Equity Throughout Data Integration, which All In had previously featured in a three-part webinar series in 2020.

An audience survey helped to pinpoint where there was momentum and interest around certain topics. Based on input and conversations with subject matter expert leaders, some topics then had to be merged. For example, the preliminary topic of Engaging Community Members and People with Lived Expertise folded into another group called Centering Community Voice and Engaging Community Members and People with Lived Expertise.

With the help of All In’s network, it was then possible to distill all interests and concerns into a final set of group topics, ultimately arriving at eight discussion groups. This shows the value of designing topics with the direct input of experts and participants.


3. Make the benefits clear

People’s time and attention have defined upper limits, so it’s essential that affinity group participants understand what it is that they will gain from attending the discussions.

To that effect, subject matter expert leaders of the All In Affinity Groups drafted learning goals, which helped participants decide which groups they’d like to join. On top, a pre-assessment survey was integral to understanding the participants’ familiarity with various topics, which then helped to tailor the program to the needs of the participants.

Subject matter expert leaders also used the first meeting to clarify expectations and refine their own learning goals – in addition to writing down expectations for the participants, which outlined how members could make the most of their time, before, during, and after meetings.

Greg Bloom of Open Referral and subject matter expert leader for the Re-Imagining Technology Group shared that,

“By soliciting feedback from participants before, during, and at the end of the Affinity Group cycle, we were able to check our assumptions about what would be most valuable for them and hone our agenda accordingly. In some instances, feedback helped me identify someone whose interests weren’t directly relevant to those shared by the majority of the group, enabling me to follow up with them. In at least one case, I was able to redirect someone to another Affinity Group that was more relevant to their interests, which was a good outcome for everyone. And at the end of the cycle, we were able to get a sense of what resonated most with people and what they wanted to continue learning about in the future.” 

4. Tap into the wisdom of your peers

American society tends to reduce politics to questions of technical management. This way of thinking about the world affords an outsized role in decisions that affect everyone to a college-degreed minority (despite the fact that good political judgment requires practical wisdom and civic virtue, not high SAT scores).

In resisting this technocratic worldview, All In believes that the only way to effectively fight some of the nation’s most pressing public health issues is to welcome the vast diversity of experiences that people and organizations hold.

Natrina Kennedy, a now-former IPHI employee, explained that,

“In the Developing Meaningful Measure group, we participated in what was referred to as the Consultancy Challenge. Participants shared a challenge that they experienced when trying to partner authentically with community members around measurement. During the sessions, their peers will discuss insights and their diverse experiences to how they overcame a similar obstacle in their work. The challenge was well received and many of the participants even connected outside of the sessions to dig deeper. This not only allowed for peers to learn from each other but also normalized that this work is hard and requires true commitment. It cannot be done alone or in silos. When we truly tap into the power of our network, it gives us a greater opportunity to understand the deeply rooted complexities and interconnections perpetuating disparities and injustice in today’s society.”


5. Support your group facilitators

Ensuring that subject matter expert leaders can come in with clear expectations is just as important as it is for participants.

In the service of making sure that everyone’s time was used efficiently, All In staff provided administrative support (opening Zoom rooms, managing breakout rooms, writing emails, and keeping rosters), which allowed subject matter expert leaders to focus solely on content delivery and facilitation.

All In also hosted a training and orientation session for staff and subject matter expert leaders, as well as midpoint and final check-ins with the whole group. In addition, monthly check-ins allowed staff to share ideas, troubleshoot pain points, and document best practices.

Naomi Rich, Program Specialist at the Public Health National Center for Innovations and staff support for the Accountable Communities of Health Affinity Group, shared:

“Meeting with other support staff provided a set time to connect with my peers about strategies to effectively promote and communicate with my group, celebrate successes, and share ideas. My group started after all other groups, so I was really lucky to be able to hear about what worked well and what needed to be adjusted from peers who just went through it.”

6. Highlight participant stories

We encouraged subject matter expert leaders and participants to share their learnings and takeaways with others to demonstrate the value and encourage growth.

The subject matter expert leader and staff from Developing Meaningful Measures by Centering Community Voice co-wrote the article Cultivating a Teachable Spirit: A First Step Toward Co-Creation. In the piece, they discuss how they got started and what continued to drive their work. They explain that their collaborative relationship helped shape the foundation of their group, which was centered on building and sustaining relationships with people with diverse lived experiences. This collaborative relationship helped co-create measurements focused on what matters most to the health and well-being of communities.

Natrina Kennedy, support staff with Centering Racial Equity throughout the Data Integration, curated quotes from participants that DASH shared via its Twitter account:


7. Evaluate your work

We heard anecdotes from All In staff and partners on how the Affinity Groups influenced the participants’ understanding of data-sharing. But for a more robust demonstration of success, we relied on quantitative and qualitative data.

DASH used web-based survey tools as well as forms for more qualitative data collection. We analyzed survey responses from participants before and after the program, and we collected attendance data.

Completion of the final participant survey was incentivized by a drawing for $15 gift cards distributed to two survey respondents in each Affinity Group. In addition, we surveyed subject matter experts and support staff with respect to engagement and collective problem-solving strategies, support needed for affinity group implementation, and other factors relevant to Affinity Group objectives.

Less formal data collection methods included documentation of Affinity Group procedures, compiling communications with group participants and leaders, and recording meeting notes to capture new ideas and other feedback we received.

Ultimately, we found that peer learning has the potential to change what kinds of data various collaborations choose to collect and what measures they might implement, which is critical for challenging participants in data sharing projects to think critically about their own assumptions and biases. In the second installment of our series, titled How Peer Learning Works, we explain the results of our post-assessment in greater detail.

These formal, process, and impact metrics create the foundation for All In to advance future programming that is responsive to the interests and needs of individuals and organizations working in the field of data sharing.

8. Plan for the future

DASH was thrilled to hear the overwhelmingly positive responses to this round of Affinity Groups, but we also identified areas for improvement for All In.

As we detail in our How Peer Learning Works post, there was overwhelming interest at program launch and meetings started strong, but some groups began to taper off about midway through. Summer vacations and COVID virtual fatigue might have played a role.

Additionally, we encouraged group members to take advantage of the All In Online Community as a way to stay connected between meetings as well as to continue making progress after the groups had ended.

Early feedback revealed that there was confusion around using the Online Community, and so we organized an informational, 101-style meeting where we explored the features of this online platform. Despite coaching and reminders, uptake remained low. For future rounds, All In will invest more time into communicating the value of this tool to participants.


Read Part One: Learn from Your Peers to Get Data Sharing Right

Read Part Two: How Peer Learning Works