The Junior League of London

by Elizabeth Harrin (London)

“I believe that there is always time available for volunteering,” says Lily Dey, an IT Analyst for Merrill Lynch’s Global Technology Services division. “It’s just a matter of keeping on top of my personal diary and being willing to sacrifice the requisite evenings.”

Lily sacrifices plenty of evenings to The Junior League of London (JLL), an organization of women volunteers committed to promoting voluntarism in all its forms, developing the potential of women and improving communities through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers.

“It’s called the ‘Junior’ League,” Lily explains, “because it was founded by 19-year-old Mary Harriman in New York City, who mobilized 80 other young women to work to improve child health, nutrition and literacy among immigrants living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.” That was 1901. Since that first group in New York, Junior Leagues have sprung up in the UK, Mexico and Canada as well as across the rest of the US and there are now 292 Junior Leagues, counting Eleanor Roosevelt, Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Bush among their famous alumni.

“There is an umbrella organization known as The Association of Junior Leagues International that is a charitable nonprofit organisation that provides continuity and support, guidance and leadership development opportunities to all of the member leagues,” adds Lily. “Through this, there have been opportunities to attend training internationally and work with other Leagues. I haven’t personally taken advantage of these opportunities because I don’t have the flexibility to take additional time off work but I know others have and feel it was a worthwhile experience!”

The JLL has a training program that lasts about two and a half months. Each woman must complete the course before becoming an active member. “This involves completing projects for community partners, and is a great way to learn about what the League is about while also getting to know the other members in your class,” Lily explains. “I worked on projects for IntoUniversity and Family Friends during mine and the latter in particular was especially rewarding as we organised a carnival funday for the children and also fundraised to create a goody-bag style backpack for each child, including those that couldn’t make the funday.”

Now a full member, Lily sits on the Transition subcommittee. “We look at how to transition our members internally from our previous focus of Arts Education to Poverty, so that they are trained and aware of the challenges of volunteering in the poverty area,” she says. “We also focus on the external issue of either maintaining relationships with our community partners or wrapping up old programmes and establishing new ones.”

The new focus on poverty in London is going to be a challenge, but the JLL chose it for a number of reasons. “We originally began by evaluating a number of different issues as our potential focus, but poverty won out,” Lily says. “Apart from being a cause that many of our members felt passionate about, it is something that allows us to volunteer during out of work hours and is receiving a lot of ‘mainstream’ attention at the moment. We hope to leverage this to make an impact in our chosen areas of better access to education and increasing opportunities for employment.” All of which are critical to support families during difficult economic times.

Being able to fit volunteering around a day job is also important. “The Junior League is particularly convenient because a large percentage of its members are working women, so meetings and activities are scheduled around the workday,” Lily says. “The JLL is also very accommodating about work requirements popping up at the last minute so there are opportunities to contribute in different ways.”

One of the best things about this particular form of volunteering is that the JLL is a women-only organization. “As I work in IT, which is a male-dominated environment, it is great to have the opportunity to turn around and volunteer with a large group of women, many of whom also have demanding jobs at international firms,” Lily explains. “I find the atmosphere incredibly motivating and inspirational – it’s a rewarding experience.”

Lily would definitely recommend volunteering to other working women. “It’s worth it to take the time to look at the opportunities available in your area and try to get involved,” she says. “Lots of companies also have philanthropy divisions and try to encourage employee volunteering so that may be another route which may also help enhance your career within your firm. It’s a great way to use specialist skills that you may have developed through work into benefiting communities that wouldn’t otherwise have access, and for you to expand and strengthen your existing networks. I found that there were a few other women that work at Merrill Lynch through the Junior League, which was a pleasant surprise.”