AJLI’s multi-phased, multi-year strategic planning process known as the Strategic Roadmap, or the Road to Transformation, is a topic you’ve been reading about in connected, hearing about—and contributing feedback to—during individual League visits by AJLI Board members and Staff, and learning about if you’ve been to AJLI conferences. You may have also read about it in the section of our member website that is dedicated to our strategic planning process.

For those of you who have not yet caught up on your Roadmap reading, here is the quick backstory: The Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc. (AJLI), prompted by research showing a decline in membership over the last several years and a desire to bolster the position of The Junior League not only as the best source for community and civic leadership training for women but also as a thoughtful leader on matters of social impact through volunteer service, has embarked on a journey to make The Junior League even more meaningful and relevant to the millions of women around the world who share its values.

“We’re planning for a long and vibrant future and working in close collaboration with Junior Leagues,” says Susan Danish, the Association’s Executive Director. “Change of this magnitude doesn’t happen overnight so we are balancing the need for action with the need to plan carefully and thoughtfully.”

AJLI’s online learning platform
In addition to spearheading several initiatives that facilitate connections among members and enable Leagues to do their work, AJLI has continued its work on its ground-breaking curriculum, which is designed to be meaningful to all members. The heart of it right now is the online learning initiative, which encompasses self-paced courses, workshops, webinars and on-demand recordings. Since last year’s update, we have delivered several products, including:

  • Webinar Wednesdays, a series of one-hour online presentations by experts from both the nonprofit and for-profit worlds on subjects relevant to Junior Leagues and their members. Open to all members who register online, they resume this fall with talks by inspiring leaders like The Junior League of Mexico City’s Jackie Rivas and JFK Profile in Courage Award-winner Elizabeth Redenbaugh of The Junior League of Wilmington, North Carolina.
  • The five-part Issue-Based Community Impact series, a comprehensive curriculum that instructs League leaders on every aspect of community impact, from selecting an issue to forging partnerships with community leaders and agencies. Formally presented at conferences, it is now available to all members online.
  • “Building Leaders and Blazing Trails: Changing the World with the Junior League,” our first on-demand learning module is now online. It’s a comprehensive review of The Junior League for new members.

Stay tuned for more updates!

Action Learning Teams address long-term health of Leagues
In 2011, the AJLI Board, Senior Staff, and its 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. 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; governance and management systems; and the membership model—from the perspective of a small, mid-sized, or large League.

Since the spring of 2011, the representatives of the 79 participating Leagues have been meeting by phone to determine their goals, refine their scope of work, and map out the steps necessary to successfully test out their innovations.

“These Leagues have been incredibly purposeful in their collaborations,” says Anne Dalton, AJLI’s Chief Officer for Strategic Initiatives who is guiding the Action Learning process. “It’s not the experts handing down directives; the work is much more meaningful, albeit messier, and it shows members’ commitment to this organization and their willingness to roll up their sleeves and continue the process.”

In May, 79 ALT representatives, the 13 coaches, all of whom are League members volunteering their time, and coordinators and Senior Staff from AJLI including Dalton and Director of Education & Programs Janine le Sueur, met in Chicago for the first time. They used the opportunity to document their work to date and identify the innovation that each team will pilot in its Leagues.

Here is a synopsis of the work currently underway on three different ALTs. It represents just a snapshot of the extensive inquiry, design, and testing that is being done collectively by the ALTs.

Community Impact ALT for large Leagues zeroes in on post-issue selection
Meleah Follen, a Sustaining member of The Junior League of Minneapolis, is representing her League on the Action Learning Team studying issue-based community impact for large Leagues—specifically what happens to an initiative after the issue has been selected.

As an outcome of the May meeting, Follen says her team determined that it would explore how community impact work can be used as an engagement tool for members across the entire League. Whether they sit on the fundraising committee or manage the onboarding process for transfer members, Follen says members want to feel connected to their communities and to one another and that their work is making a positive difference in people’s lives.

By participating on a Community Impact ALT, the League hopes it will learn how to better engage its membership in tackling the achievement gap that exists in Minneapolis schools between minority and economically disadvantaged students and Caucasian students by endeavoring to remove barriers such as hunger and homelessness that prevent them from excelling. The achievement gap in the Minneapolis schools is one of the widest in the country. The League’s efforts are aimed at supporting parents and students outside of the classroom by providing support services in areas such as self-esteem, nutrition and food insecurity, S.T.E.M., and college access and persistence.”

The ALT is working from the hypothesis that a membership that is thoroughly educated about an issue facing its community is more likely to be satisfied and engaged, and better able to form deeper ties with all sectors of the community, thus enhancing the League’s image in the eyes of the community. It will begin testing the innovation in its member Leagues beginning in early 2013. The hope is that if successful, their pilot will produce a resource kit useful to all Leagues across the Association that are looking for guidance on where to go after selecting an issue, an invaluable tool as Leagues evolve their community impact work from Done-in-a-Day project work to issue-based system development.

“At the May meeting it became evident how the pieces of the puzzle ultimately interlock to reveal The Junior League of the 21st Century,” said Dalton. “Simply redesigning a community program platform isn’t sufficient if the League’s membership model doesn’t meet members where they are in terms of their interests and schedules. And the new platform is not sustainable if the League’s Board is tangled up in managing a holiday gala rather than focusing on long-term initiatives that benefit their community while also engaging members in valuable learning experiences and garnering the support of local businesses, social services agencies and government officials.”

Governance & Management ALT for mid-sized Leagues to test separation model
Karen Young, a Sustaining member of The Junior League of Toronto and a past President of The Junior League of London, is a member of the ALT studying governance and management for mid-sized Leagues. Her League decided to use the ALT opportunity to focus on governance and management as a way of addressing a challenge that is common among many Leagues: that the dual responsibility of charting the long-term vision of the League and managing day-to-day operations often falls to the same small group of dedicated leaders. This combination of responsibilities, when added to their volunteer commitments and obligations outside of the League, can be tremendously burdensome.

“Governance and management was the next opportunity for us,” she says. “We saw the dedicated Board of Directors as a way to engage a very talented group of Sustaining members who can bring to the discussion their passion for the League, their deep knowledge of the community, and their experiences in fiduciary management, fundraising, and nonprofit board service, without having the intensive time commitment that is required on a joint governance/management Board.”

Very quickly, her work group within the League, which consists of the Past President and incoming President as well as some very engaged Sustaining and new members, realized that they had a communication challenge. In order to cengage the general membership about the work of the ALT, the ALT itself needed to be re-branded because most members had no understanding of what it meant. The group coined the name “Governance and Management Excellence,” or “G.A.M.E.,” and developed a logo that now appears on all ALT-related communications. It’s been adopted by a handful of other Leagues.

When in Chicago, Young says she was encouraged to learn that the other ALTs in the same group, despite never having met in person and despite moving at different speeds, all seemed to be on the same path. They were able to zero in on the innovation they will test in their Leagues: a leadership model that separates governance responsibilities from management responsibilities and frees up the leadership to optimize its effectiveness and make the most of limited resources.

To test the viability of the separated leadership structure, the ALT will now take action in the following areas, with the goal of putting the innovation in place for the 2013-2014 League year:

  • Redefining the roles and responsibilities of the members of the separated Board of Directors and management team and moving toward two-year terms for the Board of Directors
  • Mapping changes to League bylaws and operating policies and procedures to reflect the new structure and proposing these changes to the membership for approval
  • Considering a Board composition that includes Sustaining members as a way of broadening the perspective of League leadership and inspiring them to meet the needs members in all stages of League service. This would enable the Board and League to benefit from the expertise of these Sustaining members and leverage their limited time
  • Requiring that the nominating director and committee be elected and integrating the director into the Governance Board; refining the nominating process to recruit a broader variety of candidates and encourage more candidate-initiated nominations
  • Developing a strategy for communicating ALT progress to League membership
  • If successful, Young says, her G.A.M.E. Team’s innovations will create “a virtuous cycle” in which Sustaining members are engaged and Active members feel more connected to League and that their work in the community is making more of an impact through the Board’s dedicated focus on strategic engagement.

Membership ALT for large Leagues focuses on mentorship and coaching
It was the opportunity to examine that tricky period between a member’s Provisional year and her first Active year when so many Leagues across the Association see a drop off in membership that compelled The Junior League of Birmingham’s Taylor Davis to serve as her League’s representative on the Membership ALT for large Leagues that is looking at mentorship.

Davis says that in the 48 hours her team spent in Chicago they found the common thread that had been illuminated in the Strategic Roadmap process. “We need to move the League into a position in which it better reflects its current membership, who we are today.”

That reflection, Davis says, shows a flexible and scalable organization where women can meet others with common goals and acquire skills they didn’t have before they joined, whether they’re civic leadership skills or just leadership skills in general.

“The Junior League has always been there to fill a need in the community—and members worked primarily in service to the organization,” she says. “Now that so many of the agencies and the nonprofits that we have helped develop over the years are effectively responding to community needs, we have the opportunity to rethink our role a bit and become an organization that offers women opportunities for connection and growth through that community service.”

Having identified its long-term goal, the ALT is now engaged in a very detailed action plan that will determine how to put in place a mentoring, coaching, and engagement system that will excite and retain young Actives.

Specifically their work consists of designing processes and procedures for identifying, training, and supporting coaches and mentors. They are also developing mechanisms for matching mentors and coaches with First Year Actives; developing evaluation and benchmarking tools; and designing communications and marketing products that will support the mentorship initiative.

“We’re looking at what resources we need,” says Davis, who explains that budget, outside consultants, and training models, are among the subjects under discussion.

Over the next year The Junior League of Birmingham and other Leagues participating on this ALT will begin testing a pilot program.

“Women should care about this because it’s a bottom-up process,” says Davis. “The work has been done by individuals and by work teams and it’s being filtered up, not down—it’s based on reality and the true membership experience; it’s not a decision that’s been handed down by AJLI.”

In addition she says her team’s work truly embodies the research that showed the Association must do a better job of serving its members.

“This represents a profound shift in how Junior Leagues have been run. These types of systems allow Leagues to provide new options for membership development and engagement, whether a member is interested in becoming an expert in childhood literacy or working in fund development, or simply connecting with other women in the same stage of life.”

For Anne Dalton, the ALT endeavor has been compelling on many levels, first and foremost because it has given the organization a chance to reinvent itself, which she says is a testament to its health.

“The research has affirmed how important a role Junior Leagues play in their communities and why, particularly in today’s world, their work is more important than ever before.”