Tactics: Lindsey Norlander Looks Beyond the Dress

Jason E. Kaplan

The executive director of Dress for Success Oregon talks
about the organization’s commitment to supporting women and gender-expansive people in the workforce and beyond.

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Dress For Success Oregon started in 1999 in a Portland-area garage, becoming the seventh affiliate of an organization that started two years earlier in a church basement in New York City. As the name suggests, the organization provided — and continues to provide — donated clothing to women who need something to wear to a job interview or to a new job. But the scope of both the national and local organizations has grown well beyond that, to offer job training and upskilling, networking opportunities, financial education and access to other resources, including — at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic — new laptops and access to the internet for clients who suddenly found themselves working from home but without the right technology to do their jobs. The organization has served more than 30,000 clients in 25 years. A spokesperson for DFSO says that in 2022, 73% of surveyed clients were on public assistance, but two years later, only 36% of the respondents were still on public assistance. 

Lindsey Norlander became the executive director of DFSO in February, after six years with the Oregon affiliate and 11 total with the organization. She started working at Dress for Success Houston as a volunteer manager in 2014. In 2023 Norlander moved to Oregon; she worked as DFSO’s volunteer and store manager, its director of programming and community engagement, and its interim executive director before stepping into the ED role permanently. Before working with Dress for Success, Norlander consulted with nonprofits on fundraising and grant writing. Norlander’s experience also includes a stint teaching English as a second language in Thailand and acting as a liaison for a Thai orphanage, working with prospective adoptive families. 

Oregon Business met with Norlander this spring to talk about the wide variety of clients DFSO serves, the varying needs they bring to the table and what’s next for the organization. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You said that Dress for Success started in a garage in Tigard. Is that the whole organization or is that the Oregon affiliate?

We were the seventh affiliate. The original Dress for Success started in New York in the basement of a church. A woman — her name is Nancy Lublin — received a $5,000 inheritance from her great-grandfather. She went to a local church and she asked the nuns who were working there what were the highest needs that they saw. It was really the economic disparities that women were facing. Getting a job is expensive, and you need to be able to show up to that interview and be taken seriously. We now know that it’s not just that. There are so many different avenues and social determinants to getting and sustaining work that are beyond just clothing. But it really is those determinants that hinder people from keeping their jobs.

How has the pandemic affected your work? You’ve mentioned that people still associate your organization with formal wear, but most so-called white-collar workers are working from home and can wear pajamas if we want to, as long as we look OK on a Zoom call.

We were one of the first human-service agencies in the state to pivot to virtual in 2020. We knew women-dominated industries were really impacted [by COVID]: retail, hospitality, education. During that time, we were hearing from our clients things like, “I don’t need work clothes, I need access to the internet,” or “I need a computer,” or “I don’t know how to work Zoom,” or “How do I apply for a job over the internet?” Since then, things have evolved. We started to use a hybrid approach, much like other human-service agencies, so everything we do in person, we offer virtually as well. We’ve been able to support more women from different backgrounds. The amount of single parents that we’re able to support within our workforce-development program has increased because they could be making food at home for their kids while, for example, hearing from a financial adviser through our virtual programming. The cost of living in Portland — and inflation — have had a real impact on not only our clients but our donor base. We’ve had to be strategic in the ways in which we support our clients in terms of the programs we offer, and reprioritizing wraparound services. We’ve also had to be very strategic in the way we think of fundraising.

To your point, often if I’m personal shopping — which I don’t get to do as much anymore — it’s like, “Can I get yoga pants and a blouse?” But we support all industries. The most interesting request I’ve had was about a year ago, and somebody was getting a job in human services. They were doing nonemergency work, where their supervisors were asking them to be dressed in business casual, but they had to be seasonal and they had to be able to run if needed. And so they were trying on business-casual clothes, flat shoes, and were literally running right here; that’s what they needed. We see a lot of clients who come in needing scrubs and nonslip shoes. It’s also really interesting seeing trends based on time of year. January through March, we see a lot of temp work going into financial institutions because of tax season. In spring we see an influx of clients going into trades and census work. Then at the end of the year, we see a lot of needs for retail seasonal work. That kind of helps us be able to pivot and think thoroughly, annually, of what donations are needed.

Do you have storage space beyond this space? 


So you’ve got to be really mindful about what you bring in.

That can be challenging because I think the way our building is set up, you don’t see the warehouse, you don’t see the back stock and that we’re at capacity. We aren’t set up like some other nonprofits like Goodwill, that have hundreds of employees processing clothing. The same people who are scheduling volunteer groups to process clothing are the individuals who are processing clothing for here, who are working with our corporate drives, who are working with our retail partners. And so we have a very full 40 hours, and we’re able to do that because of our incredible volunteer base. But we have to be very strategic about what we ask and what we can accept just based on capacity of time and space. 

You mentioned that inflation and increased cost of living in Portland really affected both your donors and your clients.
How has that impacted what your clients are asking for?

Some of the stories I’ll hear are like, “I’ve just gotten a new job, I make $24 an hour, my rent is $1,700 or $2,000. I have two kids. That leaves me with a very small pot of funds at the end of the month.” So it gets down to meeting the children’s basic needs, and then that gets down to the nitty gritty in terms of, does that parent have access to personal-care items? Are they prioritizing buying food for themselves? So we know it has a direct effect on our clients’ abilities to take care of themselves. That’s things from shampoo, conditioner, feminine care to transportation.

What is on the horizon for Dress for Success, in terms of either needs that you anticipate or your plans? 

Our goal is that we can continue to be nimble to the needs of our clients and that we can continue to see the 1,000-plus women we do a year and the ways that are best going to support them as they’re looking for work, sustaining work and finding livable-wage jobs. One short-term goal that we have this year is, as a 501(c)3, we obviously can’t share our political views, but what we can do is empower people to vote, so in 2020 we registered 170 new voters. We know Multnomah County has that new ranking system. So we have scheduled for the summer both a voter-registration workshop and a demystifying of that new ranking system. So much of our work is self-defined success and autonomy. And so what success means to one of our clients may mean something totally different to someone else, so the question is, how do we help prioritize all the resources and information they need to be able to find the avenue that works best for them? 

What do you do when you’re not at work?

I have a baby, so that’s all-consuming. I’m an hour from my door to Timberline, and I ski a lot. And I have a border collie, because having a baby isn’t busy enough. So I run around Mt. Tabor a lot with my stroller and my border collie. I like to be outside.  

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