Dress for Success Columbus gains a new understanding of its clients and donors


Dress for Success Columbus, celebrating its 10-year anniversary, has been on quite a journey, says Founder and CEO Vicki Bowen Hewes. The first five years were about survival, but as the nonprofit settled in, obstacles changed.

“You’re no longer fighting for the day-to-day survival. You’ve got some revenue in the bank to make sure that you meet payroll and that your lights stay on, but your challenges change. You want to be able to serve a greater number of people and the demand for our program just continues to grow year-over-year,” she says.

Each Dress for Success franchise raises funds for its local market. Chapters have to be open a minimum of three days a week and provide suiting, but many like Columbus do more.

The suiting boutique remains an important piece, but Bowen Hewes says the other programs started because clients wanted to use the computer in the corner rather than at the library. They liked how they were treated at Dress for Success Columbus.

Over time, the organization added a career center and employment retention programs. Clients wanted to interact with other women who were learning how to go from food stamps to cash or surviving without childcare vouchers. Dress for Success Columbus also offers one-on-one mentoring.

A bridge of understanding

As Dress for Success Columbus grows, Bowen Hewes says more staff and volunteers mean the message or mission can get diluted or changed. The organization has six full-time employees, one part timer and more than 600 volunteers.

In order to have consistent client experiences, Dress for Success Columbus has changed its training. All clients from the suiting boutique, career center or employment retention programs are surveyed, but feedback showed that some of the women being served felt pitied.

“They weren’t here for a handout. They were here for a hand-up,” she says.

Volunteers were asking questions about benefits with the good intentions of connecting clients to services. This created an us-and-them mentality. In other cases, their tone reminded clients of what they don’t have.

To change that, Bowen Hewes says they added the aha! process to the volunteer training, which is from “Bridges Out of Poverty.” Volunteers go through three worksheets that give different scenarios for surviving in poverty, middle class and wealth.

“It helps people who are in the middle class understand how they would feel if somebody from wealth was interacting with them the way they are interacting with somebody in poverty,” she says. “It’s this huge aha moment. OK, if I’m invited to Les Wexner’s house for dinner tonight, how would I act? How would I feel?”

The training made volunteers more compassionate, understanding and sensitive to the situation because it was relatable to their experience.

“It helped those people who want to do good and they want to do the right things, but often times they’re disconnected with what’s happening day-to-day in poverty. It helped them build a bridge of understanding that these people are really like me,” Bowen Hewes says.

The new approach helped bridge a gap that people just don’t talk about.

“Good intentions can do a lot of good when they’re framed the right way,” she says.

Meeting the demand

Like many nonprofits, Dress for Success Columbus struggles to increase its revenue to match the demand for services. Over the past several years, Bowen Hewes has worked to diversify that revenue.

“When we first launched, my main focus was having corporate stakeholders. It was really important to me that we engaged those retailers that are headquartered here in Columbus,” she says.

Bowen Hewes wanted to sustain the organization through corporate contributions, fundraising and foundations, but that model ignored an important group.

“As we have grown, what we have learned is we’ve left out this significant, sustainable revenue stream of people who come to our organization and they donate clothing, but they don’t write a check,” she says.

Over the past 18 months, Dress for Success Columbus has had conversations with those passionate individuals — people who drive an hour just to donate clothing.

“They were never asked for a financial contribution so they didn’t think we needed it,” she says.

It doesn’t help that the location’s high-end boutique feel doesn’t look like it needs funds. It’s different than going into a food pantry

“I’ve got to look like I could rock an interview every day because if I’m not looking that way how are we communicating that to the women that we serve,” Bowen Hewes says.

The organization integrated a customer relationship management system to better understand its donor base and have transparent conversations with them, while building engagement. Dress for Success Columbus also will use the CRM to track client progress and communicate that to the community for annual campaigns.

It’s a delicate balance to allocate resources between donors and clients, Bowen Hewes says.

“If you don’t have any donors, you can’t have the mission. But if you don’t have any clients and the clients don’t feel as if they are heard and they are not getting the services they need, then they’re not going to come back,” she says.