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Transforming the Junior League

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Dr. Brenda Summers

Faced with the changes in women’s lives and a decline in membership in some of the local Junior League chapters, leaders of The Association of Junior Leagues International (AJLI) decided to take a look at how to position the organization for the future. “The world was changing and women’s lives were changing, but we were not changing,” says Susan Danish, Executive Director of AJLI. “We needed a new vision that would keep us on the cutting edge for the future.”

To identify this “new vision” AJLI began a process called the Strategic Roadmap for the Future, which involved research and analysis on how the organization could have greater community impact through its 155,000 members in the 293 Junior Leagues. AJLI tried to engage as many members as possible as well as non-members to understand the diverse issues affecting women and members.

As they began their process of planning for the future, AJLI focused on five areas:

  • The Junior League’s mission and the implications for its business model.
  • The connection of a new vision statement to the organization’s mission and the ramifications of being a global organization.
  • An investigation of the concept of “lifelong membership” to see if it is still realistic and meaningful and to determine its value proposition for members.
  • Governance and management models for the Association and local Leagues.
  • The relationship between the headquarters and local Leagues and ways the Association can best support diverse Leagues.

Danish said that the process of investigating those areas involved scenario planning “to anticipate how to handle whatever changes come our way.” She added, “The scenario planning made us step back and look at things differently.”

As part of the process of creating a new vision for the future, the AJLI used four different “stories” as models to guide development and procedures. While the first two are the preferred models, Danish says the organization needs to prepare for the last two as well. These stories allowed for the development of different scenarios depending on what is happening in the world.

  • “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a story that focuses onrenewal. This models represents a world in which the prevailing mindset is “our community’s wellbeing is up to us.”
  • “Fusion 2027” focuses on global change. In this model, the organization is developing in a world in which the prevailing mindset is “our world’s survival is up to us.”
  • “Home Alone” represents a focus on survival. With this model, individuals see a world in which the prevailing mindset is “my survival is up to me.”
  • “1CLK4U” is a story of complacency. This responds to a world in which the prevailing mindset is “our well-being is up to someone else.”

Community impact was an important aspect of the scenarios. Junior League chapters have been involved in a variety of community issues over the years, including literacy training, the arts and museums, clean water, human trafficking, and foster care. Laurie Dodge, AJLI Marketing and Communications Director, notes that the Leagues have been involved in very important issues. She also says that more than 70 percent of the members are working women who make volunteering a priority.

Since so many of the members do work, membership, community impact, and governance and management are the key areas for transforming the future of the Leagues. To address these issues, seventy-nine chapters are working on innovations and models through Action Learning Teams (ALT). The teams share information and collaborate on design work for best practices that other chapters may want to implement.

Julie Elginer, with Junior League of Los Angeles, is serving as a coach of seven Leagues, piloting new approaches for membership. “The women are identifying critical factors in membership, testing what works and looking at what can be replicated,” Elginer said. “They are in a dual process of representing their chapter and looking at how transformation can work across the Leagues.”

The Junior League of Charlotte, NC, is one of the chapters participating in an ALT. President Whitni Wilson-Wertz, says the Charlotte group is looking at several membership options. She notes that provisional membership, available to those just joining the League, is no longer just for younger women. Last year, the winner of the annual award for the provisional class was a woman in her sixties. “We had four women in their sixties who joined and found this was a good time for them to be involved. Those who finished are now sponsoring other women the same age.”

Another outcome for the Roadmap is a new curriculum on leadership for the Junior Leagues to use in their chapters and possibly with other local groups. Danish says, “We want women and The Junior League involved in lasting community change.”


Dr. Brenda Summers teaches nonprofit management courses at North Carolina State University and offers consulting services.

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