You Can Write a Check—Or Give a Skirt. Inside Fundraising at Dress for Success

Earlier this year, we were surprised by a Walmart Foundation grant of $2.6 million to Dress for Success. That's some serious money from a foundation with a growing focus on women's empowerment and workforce development. And it got us wondering about Dress for Success, a nonprofit that sees a better wardrobe as one key to a better life.

What's this group up to? And how does it raise money for its work? 

“We educate women to reclaim their lives,” Joi Gordon, chief executive officer of Dress for Success Worldwide told Inside Philanthropy. “The education we provide to them consists of finding employment, because the majority of the women we serve are single moms. The only way to get a child out of poverty is to get her mom back to work. We have a real opportunity to eradicate poverty by helping people find employment so that they can succeed both in work and in life.”

Dress for Success is based on a simple idea: Prepare disadvantaged women for the workplace by upgrading their wardrobes to a professional level. In the large universe of workforce development, the group's main niche is career readiness, or what is sometimes called "pre-employment training." But the charity’s impact on people can be far greater. Gordon put it this way:

The bottom line for women is, how you look is how you feel. If you look great, you feel fabulous. When she puts on a suit and we stand her in front of a mirror, for many women who walk through our doors, they’ve never worn a suit before. It’s a symbol that she is the person she knew she could become, and so she stands taller and feels more confident. When she walks into the interview, we hope that confidence helps her nail the job. It’s mentally important for her to prepare for the interview looking and feeling prepared, and the suit really helps her get there.

Dress for Success also offers hair and make-up advice. “We do everything from head to toe, doing a mock interview, reviewing the resume, modifying the interview style. We need to prepare her for the most important performance of her life, which is the job interview,” Gordon said.

From its founding in a Greenwich Village church basement in 1996 by law student Nancy Lublin, Dress for Success has now expanded to more than 141 affiliates in 20 countries. “We have now served more than 850,000 women,” Gordon said.

Of course, an enterprise this big requires a lot of fundingnot to mention, clothes. Where do these resources come from?

Gordon explained that while the charity’s headquarters remains in New York, the affiliates are essentially franchisees, and that their funding sources vary from Lackawanna to Portugal. Gordon focused on funding for the umbrella organization, Dress for Success Worldwide. “There are three pieces of the pie. One is corporate, mostly cause-related marketing, like putting a hang tag on a scarf sold at a register at Talbots (a sponsor) stating that 80 percent of the proceeds goes to Dress for Success. About a third of our money comes in that way. About a third comes in from foundations, mostly corporate foundations.”

The Walmart Foundation has been one of the group's biggest funders and, overall, it has given millions of dollars over the past several years to Dress for Success Worldwide. Other corporate foundations, such as the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, have given widely to affiliates from Boise to Atlanta, while some funders like the Boston Foundation and Central Indiana Community Foundation have also focused their contributions on local affiliates.

Interestingly, Dress for Success gets very little money from the most well-known anti-poverty grantmakers like the Ford, Kellogg, and Annie E. Casey foundations. Why is that? Perhaps because the group focuses on transforming individual lives as opposed to making broader changes in policy and communities. 

The final third of Dress for Success’ operational budget comes from special events that vary depending on the city, state and country. “Each affiliate creates something that’s unique, that the community can get behind,” Gordon said. One event of note is a diamond dig in Las Vegas, during which participants use a shovel to scoop sand out of sandbox to find the precious gems. “It can be from a lunch to a dinner to a women, wine and wardrobe event, or a big gala in New York City,” Gordon said.

One of the charity’s most popular fundraisers is a 5K power walk mounted in 30 markets annually. “We give our affiliates permission two to three times a year to move their excess inventory out, but our focus, there, is making the clothing affordable and to promote that sale to our client demographic, women who are disadvantaged—so we sell pants for $5, shirts for $3,” Gordon said. “We have a lot of events and the opportunity for our clients, donors, volunteers and supporters to come together under one tent to celebrate the success of the women we serve.”

Oh, and then there are all the clothes. 

The products donated are actually more significant than the operating budget. Gordon said that about $10 million worth of in-kind donations comes in the form of clothing, shoes, beauty and other brand-new products that are donated to the Dress for Success offices, both in the U.S. and around the world.

Our individual donations are mainly donations of nearly new handbags, shoes. etc. We struggle, because our donors give something tangible and get a tax receipt. For many, that’s their gift to Dress for Success, so we haven’t done as good a job as I think we need to do to convert in-kind donors to financial donors. There’s an opportunity, there. We have to tell these donors what Dress for Success does beyond clothing.

Gordon, who was trained as an lawyer and was once an assistant district attorney, has been the CEO of Dress for Success since 1999, and before that, served on its board. So she's been involved in the fundraising game for a long timethrough two economic downturns and a technology sea change.

So what fundraising advice would she give to others in the nonprofit sector?

It’s very competitive now. Over the past 18 years, I’ve watched it shift. The more we in the nonprofit sector can learn to collaborate with each other, I think the better off we’ll be. A lot of people come to me with great ideas. I first say to them, ‘Before you create a nonprofit organization, could you see if there’s an existing organization where your idea could be a program of theirs, rather than set up a separate 501(c)(3)?’ We need to do more research to see if we can support existing nonprofits, rather than simply create more.

We all struggle and go after the exact same pots of money. We need to be more strategic and a lot more collaborative with each other to find those dollars. We need to figure out how to work together, and alongside each other. We’re all trying to serve the same purpose, which is to make the world a better place for anyone to live in.

Gordon is hardly alone in her view of a fragmented nonprofit sector where everyone is tripping over each other in the chase for funding. We've written about this problem before at Inside Philanthropy here

That said, Dress for Success has a pretty unique niche. And Gordon notes that the organization doesn't just get women ready for work; it tries to ensure that they succeed once they're in they're in the workforce. "Our goal is not only to help a woman find a job, but ensure she keeps it, so we have a lot of professional development courses we offer to women who are now employed to give them the tools they need to succeed,” Gordon said.

Organizations that can tell vivid stories about their impact have a big advantage in fundraising, and Dress for Success has no shortage of these, some of which are posted on its website. Gordon said:

To see women who came to Dress for Success who were formerly incarcerated, who have gone on to find jobs, who have stable employment, who watch their children graduate from high school when they didn’t, who watch their children go to collegethose are great stories for me. All you have to do is give a person a second chancesometimes a thirdthat’s when you know you’ve made a difference in somebody’s life.

These are wise words from a woman who began her professional career as a prosecutor in the Bronx.