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

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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?”