Best Foot Forward News | The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis

News News

Best Foot Forward

“You guys saved us. You have no idea.” That is the succinct way Dress for Success Memphis executive director Rhonda Treadwell characterized support from the Mid-South COVID-19 Regional Response Fund during the pandemic.

Founded in 1988, the local affiliate of the international organization’s mission is to empower women to achieve economic independence. Dress for Success Memphis partners with more than 80 agencies, nonprofits, and training programs for women, equipping them with appropriate professional attire and skills training to help them enter the workforce. Seventy percent of its clients are single heads of household and 98 percent are women of color.

Perhaps best known for the business suits and pearls it gifts its clients, Dress for Success Memphis also helps women in manufacturing, logistics, and service industry roles. Treadwell shares the story of a young woman hired in the Methodist Hospital cafeteria. She was issued a shirt but didn’t have the right pants or required skid-proof shoes. Shocked to find out skidproof shoes can cost as much as $300 at a uniform retailer, Treadwell shopped around and procured the pants and shoes for a fraction of the cost. “For sixty dollars, we could help her keep her job.”

Because of COVID-19 health precautions, Dress for Success Memphis had to pivot from its usual, in-person client contact. The high-touch and confidence boosting “suiting” event at which the staff builds rapport with clients turned into a contactless pick-up at the office door. The agency coached women with varying levels of technological access and abilities through virtual training events.

While needing to adapt its service offerings, Dress for Success Memphis simultaneously faced threats to its operations. Having to cancel its fall 2020 benefit contributed to a significant fundraising slump. In October 2020, Treadwell discovered its office building, which the organization had been offered rent-free, was for sale and Dress for Success Memphis would be forced to move if it couldn’t buy the building. When the outlook was looking especially dire, though, Treadwell was able to rely on resources from the Mid-South COVID-19 Regional Response Fund. Through its Phase 2 Recovery Grants, the fund sponsored 15 nonprofit professionals of color, including Treadwell, in Jumpstart, a fundraising capacity building program offered by Network for Good. Jumpstart provided a professional, one-on-one virtual coach; digital workspace and online fundraising tools; and yearlong, remote technical assistance.

In less than six months, Dress for Success Memphis raised $7,000 more (a 284 percent increase) than it did the entire 12 months prior to Jumpstart. “Through our new platform we were able to garner more awareness of our mission and services, and re-engage those who had lost touch with us,” said Treadwell. “More importantly, we were able to secure funds that we would not have gotten if we had not had this tool. It is a big deal for us.”

In December 2020, it became clear that purchasing its Parkway Village office building would not be feasible, and Dress for Success Memphis would need to incur the expensive cost of a move and becoming a rent-paying tenant. A $40,000 unrestricted operating grant from the Mid-South COVID-19 Regional Response Fund’s Phase 3 Resilience Grants made that move possible, and in April 2021, Dress for Success Memphis set up shop in a commercial space near the airport.

The new space on Directors Row is “a wonderful location, a perfect fit.” The well-secured facility on a convenient bus line is in walking distance to three agency partners and has an existing computer nook to house Dress for Success Memphis’s online Working Woman’s Career Center.

Having committed to continuing work with Jumpstart and having received a second, $40,000 operating grant from the Mid-South COVID-19 Regional Response Fund in late 2021, Treadwell is reinvigorated and inspired for the future. An unexpected and added boon: an unanticipated estate gift recently enabled Dress for Success Memphis to establish the Lynn Jaseph Jones Endowment Fund at the Community Foundation, creating a permanent source of income for the agency.

“We are absolutely in a stronger position now than at the beginning of COVID,” said Treadwell. “Some organizations have had to fold, and we have been able to flourish. It has been so phenomenal how this has all played out. I can’t say thank you enough for you guys.”

Excerpted from the Mid-South COVID-19 Regional Response Fund Impact Report