Mary Harriman was not like other New York City debutantes in 1901.
Concerned by the poverty-stricken settlement homes on the Lower East Side of the city and, we can assume, rather bored with the endless cycle of tea parties and cotillions in her daily life, she delivered food and medicine to the mostly immigrant population in the area.
Harriman, only 19 years old at the time, founded the Junior League with about 80 of her debutante friends. Eleanor Roosevelt became one of its first members in 1903. Today, the charitable organization has 296 chapters in four countries with more than 193,000 members.
Most of today's members have little in common with Harriman. They are young executives and working mothers from a much more ethnically diverse background than its founders. The organization has been forced to change to suit its members' hectic schedules, but not ignore its mission of community service.
The Junior League of Cleveland was founded 85 years ago, and is one of the oldest in the country. Thanks to the changes it's made, membership has held strong, with 75 to 100 new members annually. It has also discovered that having a membership well-connected in the business world reaps benefits for the League itself.
"In our League, about 75 to 80 percent of our women members work outside of the home, so you can see how that would automatically require a major change in how you do your business," says Denise Naskali Grcevich, president of the Junior League of Cleveland. "Most of our women are coming in equipped with skills: attorneys, lawyers, physicians, architects, schoolteachers, nurses, they're already equipped with business savvy to run an organization."
Done in a day
The Junior League used to schedule some of its community projects at 10 a.m. every Tuesday. Then organizers found it was almost impossible for members to commit to that kind of long-term event, especially on a weekday morning.
Some community projects were rescheduled for weekends, and presented well in advance to the members so work and family appointments could be planned around them.
"We still do have the ongoing projects, but we also do more of a one shot kind of approach," says Bonnie Marcus, the League's sustainer membership representative.
The organization's most popular one-day event, Race For The Cure, a 5K fund-raiser for breast cancer, started seven years ago at the Junior League's headquarters with fewer than 5,000 runners. Today, more than 20,000 participate, making it the largest footrace in the state.
Although it is an organization dedicated to community improvement, the League has also served as a business networking opportunity for the hundreds of women executives who are members. Those connections have helped the organization raise funds, save money on events and streamline League operations.
"It's interesting, because a few years ago, we might have relied on our spouses more for those opportunities," says Grcevich. "But with the way our membership is now, the majority of our members are working, and those are the folks making those connections."
One of the Junior League of Cleveland's prominent members, Jacqueline Woods, is the former CEO of Ameritech of Ohio, and led a fund-raising effort to raise $100,000 for the League's community center.
What makes the Junior League different from some of the 2,000 other nonprofits in the Greater Cleveland area are the broad-based training courses available to members. The Junior League Leadership Institute offers classes and seminars in investing finances, educating children, drug prevention and awareness, fund-raising, business collaborations and teambuilding.
The training isn't Junior League specific, either, says Grcevich.
"You learn about a whole array of nonprofits and you have those general skills to apply in any one setting," she says. "At another nonprofit, you might only learn about that organization."
Business skills are built informally as members take on leadership roles within the League.
"I'm an engineer and all I do is sit and design all day, but I don't do a lot of presentations," says Katherine A. Ott, who works for HNTB in Cleveland and is the treasurer of the Junior League. "I found that I needed to take more of a leadership role and interact with more people and this organization has helped me build those skills." How to reach: The Junior League of Cleveland, (216) 321-6300
Morgan Lewis Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a reporter at SBN.