The Little Black Dress that Could

By: Erika Burnett

Originally founded by the Junior League of London in 2014, the Little Black Dress Initiative (LBDI) has grown in representation with over 80 Junior Leagues hosting their own LBDI events. JLW was excited, and proud, when Ways & Means Assistant Council Director, Katrina Washington, with the support of JLW’s Innovation & Incubation Committee, brought LBDI to JLW last year. This year, LBDI has been integrated into its own full-fledged committee. The timing of the JLW integration couldn’t have been more challenging, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit just as the launch of LBDI was scheduled to take off, which delayed the launch for a year.

JLW’s inaugural LBDI event, held February 1-5, 2021, was incredibly successful. Participating in LBDI has a low barrier to entry, but a high reward value and impact. JLW’s 2021 LBDI raised more than $30,000 and funded six community assistance grants, during a time when the need for local support was at an all-time high. Michele Webster spearheaded this League year’s LBDI event, which was held in October 2021, and was another resounding success thanks to our members and community. We held a Q&A with her to learn about what made

LBDI successful, and gain insight into the challenges and opportunities that the LBDI Committee has had to overcome in this hybrid environment. 

*Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Was it in some ways easier to plan events/fundraisers without pre-pandemic knowledge of how to run a successful event?

This is a tricky question. I would say no, there are a lot of different moving parts to LBDI. It requires a lot of collaboration with different people, committees/councils. I think what made it feel like less pressure last year was the fact that our expectation of what a successful LBDI was in the pandemic was low. However, we raised more than 10 times our original goal! The time and effort that it took to plan LBDI was the same amount whether we raised $3,000 or $30,000. One of the main things working in our favor was that because people were inside during the pandemic and LBDI’s launch happened on a snow day, people that may otherwise have been off of social media were online due to both of those situations. 

How has LBDI adapted outreach during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Last year, we decided not to partake in the traditional LBDI button that advocates wear to prompt questions about their chosen outfit for the five-day initiative. Since most people were not out at work or out socializing because of the pandemic, there was concern the button would not be seen. Instead, we decided to use masks since everyone was required to wear masks at the time. Also, instead of the traditional black outfit that advocates would wear for the consecutive five days, we encouraged advocates to wear the same mask for five days. This adaptation was very successful during the pandemic. Now that things are more open we used both buttons and masks as well as the same black outfit. 

How is outreach now different from pre-pandemic outreach?

Pre-pandemic outreach to recruit advocates would consist of visiting JLW committee meetings in-person and talking directly to members about the importance of LBDI and their participation. This year, it has been more convenient to jump on multiple zoom meetings and talk to members about the initiative from the comfort of my own home or office. We also may have been able to reach members via virtual meetings than in-person.

Outreach leading up to and during the LBDI week on social media is similar to pre-pandemic outreach since LBDI is a social media advocacy campaign. However, since there wasn’t the in-person aspect, more advocates opted to post Instagram stories or videos on social media instead of just static posts. This helped advocates feel more connected to their community and speak candidly about what LBDI meant to them.

Does LBDI operate on a hybrid (i.e. in-person for those that are comfortable and online for those that are not) event model or are you completely in-person or completely online?

LBDI is primarily a social media awareness and fundraising campaign where the advocates post on their social media a photo of them daily in their chosen outfit and facts about poverty in our area. They also post reflections about their experiences throughout the week. It is really hybrid though because it feeds off of the interaction of other people, you talk about the statistics and reflections with the people you interact with daily so it’s a completely different experience in a normal situation outside of a pandemic. However, because it is primarily a social media campaign anyone that is not comfortable being in-person can fully participate virtually. 

Is there anything else that you believe is important for the JLW community to know about LBDI? 

We have partnered with the New Member Committee to get new members involved. In my new member year in the Junior League of San Diego, we had a fund development project. We planned our own fundraisers and then the funds were used for an event that helped one of our community partners. Integrating LBDI with our new members in JLW was a great way to introduce fund development to new members who may not have a strong fund development background. It also got them directly involved and invested in the League early in their new member year.

I would not have been able to get through the planning of a second LBDI in eight months without the support of Christina Tunison, Strategic Sustainability Assistant Council Director, Brittany SmithShimer, Communications and Public Relations Council Director, Maureen Abel & Prianka Sharma, Communications and Public Relations Assistant Council Directors, Charlyn Stanberry, Ways & Means Council Director, Kelly Hunter, JLW Secretary, Raiko Dai, Digital Media Chair, and Cassidy Herrold, Graphic Design Chair. Everyone has really pitched in to help over the last year and I am just so glad LBDI was such a huge success last year. 

You can learn more about LBDI here.