At 112 years of age The Junior League leverages its experience, its network and cutting-edge technology to plot a deliberate course toward relevance and meaning for its members and the world.
When an organization that is more than 100 years old undertakes a major strategic transformation, it’s no quick maneuver. It’s a complex and thoughtful process that moves in discrete phases from research and fact-finding to the implementation of new ideas.
As you may recall from last year’s printed edition of connected or from your previous exposure to the Strategic Roadmap, several years ago The Association of Junior Leagues International embarked on such a journey to reposition the organization and ensure its health, vitality and viability for years to come.
“What’s exciting is that all of our initiatives originated out of the five burning questions articulated in the Strategic Roadmap,” says Susan Danish, AJLI’s Executive Director. “We learned that we needed to address things like community impact, League governance, member satisfaction and engagement, knowledge management, diversified fund development, thought leadership and member networks. And we’re making progress on all of it.”
The Five Burning Questions
- What is the focus of the three-part Mission of The Junior League?
- What does “women around the world” in The Junior League Vision Statement mean?
- What should the membership model be for women today?
- What form of League governance and management works best today?
- What is the relationship of AJLI to the Leagues?
INNOVATION THROUGH ACTION
In 2011, AJLI Senior Staff and strategic consultants determined that a methodology called Action Learning would be the most viable way to design and implement the transformational initiatives necessary to secure the future of The Junior League. The work focused on Strategic Roadmap Questions 1, 3 and 4. Leagues were invited to participate in this exciting process by joining one of 13 Action Learning Teams (ALTs) that would study one of three subjects—Issue-Based Community Impact (four teams); Governance and Management Systems (three teams); and Membership (six teams). Having identified their goals, determined their scope of work and mapped out the steps necessary to test their innovations. The teams, which are comprised of representatives from 79 different Leagues from all three League size categories, are now piloting the models in their home Leagues.
“The teams have done a very purposeful deep dive into the change process,” says Anne Dalton, AJLI’s Chief Officer for Strategic Initiatives who is overseeing the ALT work. “We began with the assumption that we fundamentally needed to rethink community impact, member engagement and League governance and management. The ALTs grappled with very tough questions in the process and what has emerged are dramatically new models for how Leagues will operate in the future. The whole process has been incredibly important. The Leagues have been testing the very innovations that together will form the backbone of what the transformation seeks to accomplish.”
During the Annual Conference Service Dialogue in May, Dalton provided a progress report on the initiative, much of it recapping the outcome of a pivotal meeting of the ALT representatives in mid-April in Chicago.
“The message really is that a couple of years ago we launched a radical experiment to create a new Junior League in a new world,” says Dalton. “And we are delighted to say we’re coming out on the other side of the hardest part of the work. In Chicago, the ALT representatives had a lot of ‘a-ha’ moments once they got together across disciplines and League size. They discovered how choosing the right issue platform for community impact could favorably affect engagement among Sustaining members. Or how basing community impact programming on issues rather than on projects would help them build the League’s brand and credibility in the community such that the community begins to know the League for its expertise in that area.”
As for the next steps to be taken by the ALTs, piloting of developed programs continues into 2014 while concurrently, new Governance and Community Impact resources will be available by fall. In addition, the Organizational Development Institute curriculua in Community Impact will begin in the fall as will an ODI track focused on Governance and Management. A mentoring toolkit and toolkits on a variety of topics—including issue education and selection and program development to support greater community impact, board development and nominating—will be available in the coming year as will new League bylaw templates. The plan developed by the ALTs will be rolled out to all Leagues beginning in the fall of 2014.
WHAT YOU WANT, WHEN YOU WANT IT
“Junior League members are busy women with active lives that include careers, families and volunteer commitments, so they have to be able to access AJLI resources and learning on a schedule that is convenient for them,” says Danish. “Our curriculum initiative is a high priority for us and it’s designed to meet the needs of all members, not just League leaders, which is big news.”
As part of its learning initiative, AJLI will unveil the first of six curriculum modules this fall. The Community Impact module features a learning path that guides the user through the curriculum, presenting a synopsis of the knowledge to be gained, suggesting actions to be taken in real life and recommending the most helpful resources on the subject from AJLI’s robust resource library.
The other concentrations focus on organizational management, fund development, member engagement, governance and marketing and communications. Each curriculum is based on 100-plus years of Junior League experience combined with the prevailing best practices in a particular field, and again, will be available to all members of The Junior League, a departure from the organization’s tradition of providing resources only to members who attend conferences.
According to Danish, the Association chose to introduce Community Impact first because research completed during the Strategic Roadmap process revealed it to be the most important endeavor and yet the greatest source of frustration for many Leagues.
“Time and again we hear community impact is the reason members join the League,” says Danish. “If they feel they are making lasting changes in their communities they also tend to feel a deeper connection with the League and to participate more fully in the League’s internal and external activities. It’s the core of a satisfying member experience.”
Danish’s goal is to unroll the curriculum as quickly as possible to meet the needs of today’s members. All material is presented in the ‘just enough, just in time’ model that enables members to learn at their own pace and in the setting of their choosing. The organizational management curriculum is the next concentration to be introduced. It will go live online before the end of the 2013-2014 service year.
BUILDING THE JUNIOR LEAGUE BRAND
In marketing and communications, AJLI has adopted a multi-pronged approach to build its profile and amplify its message. This is an aspect of how we are addressing Strategic Roadmap Question 5 with regard to what AJLI provides to Leagues. Among the initiatives that have been completed or undertaken since our last edition of connected are the introduction of a new public-facing website with a modern look and feel replete with elements such as an interactive timeline illustrated with historical photographs excavated from our archives and a motion-graphics video that energetically makes the case for the value of The Junior League in today’s world.
In addition, the website features the Civic Lede blog, which offers commentary on the events of the day as well as columns by Susan Danish who also has been writing for the Huffington Post about issues such as the state of philanthropy in down-sized times, the media’s lack of reporting on the not-for-profit sector and the transformation of human services. For Leagues interested in streaming AJLI’s up-to-date content to their individual websites, a full suite of widgets was developed earlier this year. The widgets, available at no charge to Leagues, come in full-screen and sidebar formats and offer content such as background on AJLI, a Help Desk interface, and access to the digital edition of connected among other great resources. All of the widget content is provided in real time and is automatically refreshed without intervention from League administrators.
HARNESSING OUR ASSETS
Our strategic transformation is underpinned by technology, which will make our network exponentially more powerful by making access to critical information easier.
“We live in an age of shared resources, shared services and shared efficiencies,” says Danish, who adds that prior to this database integration initiative valuable information was stored in separate locations, or not captured at all. “We haven’t been capitalizing on all of the experience our members possess, or the enlightening materials that could be helpful to our members in their development as civic leaders focused on the substantive work that helps their communities.”
The centerpiece of this work is our Database Integration Project—a multi-year initiative designed to leverage the collective assets of our 293-League, 155,000-member network. The integration initiative will consist of two components. One will be a robust networking platform conceived to enable powerful collaborations among members and Leagues. It will allow all members to connect and align with one another to trade ideas and insights that can enrich their philanthropic and professional pursuits, enabling them to make a deeper, more sustainable impact in their communities. Member profiles, League profiles and League project summaries will be available to all members for the purposes of building expertise on behalf of a common cause, cultivating relationships with sponsors, making League initiatives more effective and providing a more rewarding and personalized experience for members. The network will roll out in phases starting in the 2014-2015 service year when League members will begin testing it.
The other aspect of the database integration initiative is the development of a centralized repository of resources on topics ranging from human trafficking to not-for-profit tax codes, which will be accessible to all members with a single sign-on recognized at both the League and Association levels. In addition, a powerful and sophisticated search tool will allow members to find an abundance of information on League-related topics that interest them.
BRINGING VARIETY TO THE FUNDING PIPELINE
Diversified funding for AJLI and for our member Leagues is another aspect of Strategic Roadmap Question 5. Faced with the challenge of running a significant not-for-profit in a contracted economy and attuned to the inadequacy and hazards of single-source funding, AJLI convened a task force to study an array of options for fund development. The outcome of those meetings was a clarion call for diversification, i.e., that AJLI’s reservoir must draw upon funds not only from members’ dues, but also from individual benefactors, corporate sponsors, charitable foundations and even a revitalized online JL Boutique.
To move into Phase 2 of the fund development initiative, Laurie Dodge, AJLI’s Director of Marketing & Development, and Carol Scott, a Junior League of Pasadena member and development expert, recruited a group of past Board members of the Association who are not only members in their Leagues but in some cases also engaged in significant philanthropic roles in their communities. Along with current AJLI President Toni Freeman, the women, known as the AJLI Past Governance Advisory Group, are pooling the wisdom, intuition and contacts they’ve amassed during their tenure in The Junior League to execute a development strategy.
Along the way, Dodge hopes to make the case to outside donors of all kinds that The Junior League is the crucible of civic leadership training for women passionate about making an impact on their communities.
“Kashi is a great example of the type of corporate partner we would like to have,” says Dodge. “They grasped our commitment to fighting obesity among children and saw that it aligned with their goal to address The Real Food Deficit™, the gap between Kashi’s vision of healthy communities and reality. There are more partners just like that out there, including Colgate, which is partnering with Leagues in several cities in its ‘Bright Smiles, Bright Futures’ campaign to offer free dental screenings and oral health education to children via its fleet of mobile dental vans, and Evite Postmark, which enables Leagues to promote events through custom digital cards, which can be branded with the JL logo.” (AJLI receives 2.5 cents on every card.) Foundations and individuals are among the other prospects to which Dodge is tailoring her outreach efforts.
“Ultimately we will have put all the pieces together and fulfilled the goals embodied in the notion of a Junior League for today and tomorrow,” says Danish. “Then we’ll be better empowered to make the kind of impact and exert the kind of influence in our communities and the world that we aspire to.”This article originally appeared in the print edition of connected, August 2013 edition.