A behind-the-scenes look at The Junior League’s 21st century transformation

In the spring of 2009, Susan Danish, Executive Director of The Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc. made a call to Heather McLeod Grant of The Monitor Institute, a renowned think tank consultancy for the nonprofit sector.

Danish and the AJLI Board and Staff, over the course of several years of research and analysis, had discovered a troubling trend. Junior League membership, since peaking at just under 200,000 in the late 1990s, had been in gradual decline for more than a decade.

Truth in numbers

“While we knew the declines were not happening every year in every League—and that the numbers were not the only measurement of a successful organization—we also knew the membership numbers were symptomatic of something more,” said Danish.

AJLI had conducted broad scale market research among current, resigned and prospective members to better understand what the numbers might mean. The results were telling. Members expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of impact their Leagues were having in the community, and many preferred other volunteer organizations they worked with because the demands better fit their busy lives. They felt that their Leagues were not well run and they felt a lack of connection within the League.

“When Junior Leagues were first founded, over a century ago, we were unique,” said Danish. “Today, the nonprofit sector is crowded with millions of organizations, all competing for women’s volunteer time and money. So the question became, ‘How can we better position ourselves in today’s world?’”

To begin to address the external questions, the AJLI Board worked with Global Business Network, a consulting firm with special expertise in ‘scenario planning’—planning from the outside in—and in planning for often unpredictable futures. As a result of this work, the AJLI Board proposed, for League consideration, a new, more sharply defined Vision for the organization. After extensive dialogue and debate, the Junior Leagues voted to adopt the new Vision Statement at AJLI’s 2009 Annual Conference: “The Junior League: Women Around the World as Catalysts for Lasting Community Change.”

“Now the question became how to bring the new Vision and our enduring Mission to life,” said Danish.

External forces

That’s when she phoned McLeod Grant, who in addition to consulting for Monitor, had authored the best-seller Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High Impact Non-Profits.

After several conversations with McLeod Grant, Danish and AJLI’s sitting and incoming Presidents Debbie Brown Robinson and Delly Beekman concluded that it was a good match.

Their goal was to develop a strategy that would successfully engage League membership in reclaiming The Junior League’s once unique position as the go-to source for expert training in community and civic leadership—and as the definitive provider of trained, hands-on volunteers who had never been afraid to tackle a community’s most daunting problems, from squalid living conditions for impoverished immigrants back in 1901 to new issues throughout the decades, including women’s inequality, alcohol abuse, inadequate foster care, childhood obesity, juveniles in detention, domestic violence, environmental degradation, and human trafficking, to name a few.

What followed throughout the 2009-2010 League year was a journey designed to involve and seek input from as many Junior League members as possible, a journey now known as the Strategic Roadmap for the Future.

“The Strategic Roadmap is not just about the Association, it’s about every single Junior League member now and those to come,” said Danish.

“The Roadmap belongs to all 160,000 members of The Junior League,” concurred Debbie Brown Robinson, AJLI President from 2008 to 2010 who worked closely with Danish to marshal the support of the Board and League leadership. “And so we had to be very intentional in devoting time to explaining why the Roadmap is important, and in bringing League leadership along at every step of the way.”

McLeod Grant’s first exposure to League members occurred at Annual Conference in Atlanta in April of 2009–an experience she dubbed “full immersion”—when she and her colleague Divya Mani came away with a very solid grasp of the issues the Leagues were grappling with.

“Meeting the League leaders busted the stereotypes,” she said. “I realized they’re ethnically, politically, and socio-economically diverse and that they’re very committed to positive, bi-partisan change in their communities.”

The ambitious goal that Danish and McLeod Grant had set for themselves would require not only the collaboration of a core team from AJLI, but also a recruited Steering Committee and regular input from other League leaders. In late May, an All League Email announced the need for Steering Committee members, and, after a series of conversations and interviews, a star-studded line-up emerged:

Steering Committee

  • Tamara Ashford, Junior League of Northern Virginia
  • Laura Bassett, Junior League of Bristol
  • Sarah Berthelot, AJLI Board, Junior League of Lafayette
  • Deborah Brittain, AJLI Past President, Junior League of Greater Princeton
  • Vicki Clark, Consultant
  • Mary Stewart Crane, Junior League of Mobile
  • Kim Evans, Junior League of Little Rock
  • Marion Goard, Junior League of Hamilton-Burlington
  • Allison Hammond, AJLI Board, Junior League of Kalamazoo
  • Jennifer Johnson, Junior League of Tampa
  • Sandi Kemmish, AJLI Past President, Junior League of Fort Wayne
  • Valerie Linn, Junior League of Jackson, MS
  • Maridel Moulton, AJLI Past President, Junior League of Oakland East Bay
  • Colleen Willoughby, Junior League of Seattle
  • Anne Dalton, AJLI Chief Officer for Strategic Initiatives, Junior League of Portland, ME
  • Jean Lubas, AJLI Director of League Services, Junior League of Elizabeth-Plainfield
  • Pamela Antoine Weekes, AJLI Manager of Facilities & Operations, Junior League of Brooklyn

Collectively, the group represented what McLeod Grant calls a multi-stakeholder approach.

All hands on deck

“We knew that if members were not engaged in the design process for change and if they did not feel their voices were being heard, then they would not be invested in the change,” McLeod Grant said, explaining that the Steering Committee was carefully constructed to represent every type of League–small, large, international, urban, rural, and otherwise.

“In order for us to create a new future, we had to have a better appreciation of our history and heritage,” said Robinson. “We looked not only for women who had remained involved in the organization, but for women who also had a broad perspective on how our organization fit into the greater nonprofit community.”

By June, Monitor and the Steering Committee were busy with focus groups and roundtables eliciting ideas and concerns from the full gamut of members. By September, after several months of themed conference calls (Mission/Vision; Membership; Governance/Management; AJLI’s role, to name a few), one of them that lasted for a record-setting four hours, they’d distilled all the feedback down into five strategic questions The Junior League needed to answer if it was to survive for another hundred years:

  1. What is the Junior League’s Mission and what are the implications for our business model?
  2. How does the Association’s new Vision Statement connect to the organization’s Mission and what are the ramifications of being global?
  3. Is the concept of “lifelong membership” still realistic and meaningful and what is our value proposition to members?
  4. What should the governance and management models for both the local Leagues and for AJLI headquarters look like?
  5. What should the relationship between AJLI headquarters and the local Leagues look like and how can AJLI best support Leagues of differing sizes and trends?

The rubber hits the road

By the time The Association convened its Fall Leadership Conference in Denver in September of 2009, AJLI was ready to unveil the Steering Committee’s summary report and announced that outreach materials designed to facilitate discussions about the Roadmap at the League level would soon be available.

At the conference, members were encouraged to participate on one of 11 “Design Teams,” each dedicated to a specific topic and representing Leagues of varying sizes and geographies—Membership (3 teams), Governance & Management (3 teams), Community Impact (1 team), Online Learning (1 team), Sustainers (1 team), Civic Leadership Audit (1 team), and Communications (1 team) – and charged with vetting the feasibility of the recommendations surfaced in the Strategic Roadmap.

By the end of 2009, an official suite of outreach materials designed to stimulate conversation about the future of The Junior League was made available to all Leagues. And, in an unprecedented outreach effort, the Steering Committee and AJLI Board and Staff volunteered to visit any League that asked, at no cost to the League itself, to present the Roadmap.

By the time the 2010 Annual Conference rolled into Orlando in April, Danish and AJLI Chief Officer for Strategic Initiatives and Steering Committee member Anne Dalton delivered a progress report at the Opening Plenary before an audience of 629 delegates: 82 visits had already been made to individual Leagues by AJLI Board and Staff and Steering Committee members; there had been 35 conference calls; and the Roadmap presentation had been downloaded hundreds of times. In addition, representatives of the 150 members of the Design Teams shared their findings.

Next steps

The next phase of the process will be the Action Learning Teams, a best practices-based research and development model designed to operationalize and scale the recommendations of the Roadmap. The ALTs, as they’re known, will consist of Leagues willing to make the long-term commitment necessary to work out the kinks in further vetting the Roadmap recommendations and putting theory into practice. The ALTs will be divided among three focus areas—Membership, Governance & Management, and Community Impact. Within each in focus area, ALT Leagues will tackle the specific issues related to their area of innovation, i.e., among the Leagues addressing Membership for example, some will focus on the issue of member engagement, while others will focus on multiple points of entry, and so on and so on. In the process, they’ll be encouraged to cross-pollinate with other Leagues.

The ALT toolkit, which is currently under development, will be made available after Fall Leadership in Portland where sign-ups for participation in the ALTs also will take place.

“The Action Learning Teams are like living laboratories that will create what Junior Leagues will do in the future,” said Danish.

Transformation on the horizon

Transformative is a word that gets Deborah Brittain excited. Brittain, who is a member of the Steering Committee and who served as AJLI President from 2000 to 2002, during The Junior League’s Centennial, said, “People are afraid of change if they don’t understand it.”

She believes that for the first time, all the ingredients necessary for true transformation are in place. “If we really begin to paint a clear picture of what the transformation will look like, it will resonate with folks and it will enable existing members to feel that they have the capacity to do this, and that the Board and the administration support them in doing it.”

Staying the course, according to fellow Steering Committee member Maridel Moulton, requires having “the courage to live with uncertainty and not to hold onto the old ways that are no longer servicing us.”

Moulton, who served as AJLI President from 1988 to 1990 and who believes she may hold a record for attending the most annual conferences said, “It used to be that we had a seat at the table when big issues were being discussed.” (She should know; she accepted the President’s Award for Voluntarism on behalf of The Junior League at the White House in 1989 and was invited to be present when Elizabeth Dole was sworn in as the first female Secretary of Commerce).

“Leagues have to get comfortable with the fact that the whole process is about making the organization more contemporary and attractive to today’s member,” said Moulton. “It’s hard to step away from how we’ve always done it.”

A bright future

Anne Dalton is more optimistic now than at any other time since 1983 when she came on board at AJLI. Serving in a variety of roles has enabled her to observe, first-hand, The Junior League’s many fits and starts in attempting to modernize. This time is different she says.

“The Roadmap has allowed us to get all the data on the table, systematically and dispassionately so that we’ve got a clear picture of reality, rather than just an unconfirmed series of anecdotes,” she said. “And this time around, we have successfully engaged so many larger parts of the organization so that we are truly thinking collaboratively and tapping into so much more of our collective wisdom about what our future ought to look like.”

“Our thinking evolved from seeing the organization as hierarchical to seeing it as a network,” said McLeod Grant. “The healthiest networks tap into the capacity of the membership and engage their passions around certain issues.”

It’s hard to imagine that Mary Harriman, the archetypal networker, would have disagreed.