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Adapting to change – Leadership training

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By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Nineteen years ago, after her mother-in-law suggested she join the Junior League of Charlotte, Lisa Tomlinson had to attend a tea party and then wait for a secret vote on her membership.

Times have changed. After a decade of remaking itself to meet the needs of working women and mothers, the league continues to look for ways to be more flexible in fitting itself to members’ tight schedules.

“We’re trying to put a good message in the community that we’re not a white-glove organization,” says Tomlinson, league president this year. “We’re a work-gloves organization.”

The league, which celebrates its 75th birthday in 2001, trains women to be leaders by placing them as volunteers with nonprofit groups.

The organization also raises money through its thrift shop and other activities such as cookbook sales, and makes grants to causes it supports.

Based on a five-year mission adopted in 1997, the league focuses its volunteer efforts and funding on adolescents, particularly teen-pregnancy prevention; early childhood education, especially parenting skills for at-risk youngsters; and family preservation, mainly self-sufficiency.

The league has 2,500 members ranging in age from 23 years to more than 90.

Of those, roughly 1,000 are active volunteers, with about 700 of those employed full-time or part-time.

The league’s toughest challenge is attracting and keeping members.

“Retention is a problem because young women today are so stressed by time and responsibilities,” says Wardie Martin, the league’s administrative director for 25 years and a member since 1964.

This year, the league has its biggest class ever of new “provisional” members – 200 women who will spend the year learning about the league and community before going to work as volunteers for nonprofits four to six hours a month.

Because of the demands on their time from work and family, members typically are staying in the league for only two-and-a-half to three years, compared to seven to 10 years two decades ago.

“That is our challenge,” says Tomlinson, who volunteers about 20 hours a week as league president – and is employed part-time as lay ministry coordinator at Christ Episcopal Church.

To make volunteering more convenient, the league has adjusted its rules and scheduling. Teachers, for example, can do their league work in the summer, and members who also are heavily involved with other nonprofits or fundraising can count that work to fulfill their league commitments.

The league, says Tomlinson, builds members’ leadership skills, and plugs them into the community.

          “The league provided me with all of my community background,” says Tomlinson, who in her own job coordinates about 850 volunteers and recruits leaders for the largest Episcopal church in North Carolina.

To help raise awareness about its work, the league has hired the marketing firm Steedman/Wilson to produce materials that will be displayed throughout Charlotte as part of the group’s anniversary celebration.

The celebration will begin Jan. 8 with a membership meeting at the North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, and continue with a fundraising gala Feb. 2.

The league also is stepping up its fundraising. It has hired Winston-Salem consulting firm Whitney Jones Inc. to assess the feasibility of a campaign to raise $2 million to create an endowment.

The campaign’s quiet phase could begin next September, with the public phase kicking off in January 2002.

And the league has hired its first permanent development officer. Deborah Denny, a former fundraiser at Queens College during its $100 million capital campaign, will work part-time as the league’s director of gift planning.

Not only has the changing workforce challenged the league to make itself more attractive to members, but members’ changing skills are giving the league more to offer to the community, Tomlinson says.

 And the league aims to market those skills, she says.

The league, for example, hopes to develop a leadership-training course to be offered at the McColl Business School at Queens College.

The league also hopes to team up with Communities in Schools to train school children to use computers, which will be donated to the schools by Bank of America and First Union.

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