The tight-belt economy means even tougher-than-usual times for new nonprofits. Competition for businesses' financial backing and professional support is stiff.

Which may make it all the more remarkable that the Philadelphia branch of Dress for Success had the productive first year it did.

As it enters its second year, there is high demand for Dress for Success' services: free business attire for disadvantaged women looking for work or starting new jobs, mentoring programs, and advice on topics such as networking and to how to ask for a raise.

This month, the group will outfit its 3,000th client with everything from a business suit to stockings, purse, shoes, jewelry, makeup, and a heavy dose of encouragement.

Of the organization's 94 affiliates worldwide, Philadelphia is the second-largest suiting program behind New York City, which has three "boutiques."

"The clothing is the sexy part of who we are," said Dress for Success executive director Marjorie Nightingale. "But the heart and soul of what we do is work retention and helping women be more self-sufficient."

Nightingale hopes to raise 40 percent of her operating budget for the next fiscal year at a "Diamonds and Denim Summerfest" Thursday at the Water Works restaurant on the Schuylkill, which is donating food, drink, and entertainment. Featured will be a "diamond dig," with $32,000 worth of diamonds donated by Zales Jewelers.

Given the economy, Water Works owner Anastasia S. Karloutsos said her restaurant/lounge was "thankful to be celebrating our third anniversary, and we want to say thanks by giving back to the community."

Said Zales' Theo Killion, "In our business, people buy jewelry to celebrate or to mark a milestone. At [Dress for Success], it is the same. There is a celebration and a milestone to getting a job and becoming self-sufficient."

Nightingale, a former child-welfare lawyer-turned-corporate executive, was hired in May 2008 to head the new Philadelphia branch of Dress for Success and had two months to find office space, staff, and clothing.

To help the "boutique" open its doors, Dress Barn donated suits, Lia Sophia sent jewelry, and Bobbi Brown Cosmetics, which has a seat on the Dress for Success corporate board, sent a makeup kit for each client. In the first month, 168 women were outfitted.

Since then, Destination Maternity has sent four boxes of clothing for the seven to 10 maternity clients Dress for Success sees each month. For those working in health-care, Aramark has donated 75,000 sets of scrubs.

But beyond arranging merchandise donations, Nightingale's biggest challenge is just keeping the doors open.

"I still have to pay the rent and the salaries of my [2 1/2] employees," she says.

Recently, the Philadelphia Foundation awarded Dress for Success $28,000 for board development, strategic planning, and database development. When Nightingale wrote to the Phillies for help in the fall, the team sent $5,000, then tickets to thank the volunteers. A suit drive at the ballpark is under discussion.

Still, not every door Nightingdale knocks on presents an opportunity. And it's hard to say how the nonprofit has been affected by the recession, because it was born just as the economy was going bust.

"Starting in this economic climate is challenging, but we don't know any differently. Two years ago, [some businesses] may have given," said board president Alison Brody-Smith. "The difficulty is that we are new to the block, and many corporations have relationships with other charities. They will give us volunteers, but what we need more is money."

The group has already outgrown its office/boutique space at 11th and Spring Garden Streets, for example.

A client partner for Korn/Ferry International, Brody-Smith has helped Dress for Success get assistance from Comcast, Independence Blue Cross, and CBIZ Network Solutions, the professional-management and financial-services company, among others.

Alice Niles, vice president of CBIZ in Plymouth Meeting, is mentoring Shontae Cross of East Falls, a married mother of five who came to Dress for Success looking for business attire for a new job.

Later, Cross met with Niles for business coaching and to present her mission statement for a safe haven for teenage parents.

"This is not just a three-month stint; it's a commitment," Niles said of her role as Cross' mentor.

Cross works for Family Support Services in Upper Darby, providing life and safety skills to families in the area.

"This is a dream job, but my goal is to own my own business some day," Cross said. "The people I want to help are our future. They need someone to help them think differently and break the generational welfare chain.

"The people at CBIZ and DFS [Dress for Success] are helping me find out who I am," she said, "and I feel like my dream is tangible now."

If You Go

What: Dress for Success' "Diamonds and Denim Summerfest" fund-raiser.

When: 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: Water Works restaurant and lounge, 640 Water Works Dr., Philadelphia 19130.

Admission: starts at $150.

Highlights: Event includes the Diamond Dig, and live and silent auctions.

Tickets: Go to https://dressforsuccessphiladelphia.ticketleap.com/ diamondsanddenim

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