They launched their first fundraiser in 1938, selling carnations on the streets of Alexandria. That springtime effort earned the women's auxiliary $140, which Alexandria Hospital used to buy equipment to treat patients with bronchitis and to fund blood transfusions for the needy.

Seventy years after its founding by a group of young, at-home mothers, the philanthropy is still raising money.

A lot of money.

Affectionately named The TWIG, as in the "little branch" that supports the hospital, the women's auxiliary has given more than $1.5 million to what is now called Inova Alexandria Hospital -- making it the fifth-largest corporate donor in the hospital's 130-year history.

Not too bad for a twig.

"They've done a phenomenal job," said Ken Kozloff, administrator of Inova Alexandria Hospital, who works closely with the group as gift proposals are developed. "They understand how important philanthropy is, that without it we wouldn't be able to do some of the things we do."

Proceeds from the auxiliary's latest, $150,000 campaign helped fund an expansion of the hospital's emergency department, including construction of two rooms for biohazard decontamination. The project was chosen after the September 2001 terrorist attacks to improve the community's disaster readiness.

Patti Hobson, president of The TWIG, said, "We try to do things the hospital won't get if we don't get involved . . . particularly things that are pertinent to what's happening" locally.

For example, she said, the group gave money to buy the 339-bed hospital a system to improve security for infants after the 1998 switched-baby case at the University of Virginia Medical Center.

The group's next campaign will be its largest: On Monday, it pledged to raise $250,000 to add an eight-bed stroke unit.

Women's auxiliary groups, once synonymous with bake sales and at-home fashion shows, can be highly lucrative enterprises today. Many have grown with the times to include men and to increase donor dollars and volunteer hours.

The Inova Fairfax Hospital Auxiliary, for instance, has more than 1,000 members. Since its founding in 1956, it has given more than $15 million to Inova Fairfax Hospital and Inova Fairfax Hospital for Children and Women's Center.

The Inova Mount Vernon Hospital Auxiliary, begun in 1976, has more than 400 members and has raised more than $2.5 million.

The women who started The TWIG, the largest of the Alexandria hospital's three women's auxiliaries, were mothers looking for a diversion and an opportunity to do community service. Today, the roster of 125 active members is richly diverse -- it includes entrepreneurs, business owners and professionals along with at-home mothers -- which the group said has dramatically improved its ability to raise funds.

"They have the will, the ability and the passion to go out and be innovative and creative and think of new ways to make money," Kozloff said.

Indeed, it would take a lot of flower peddling to raise $1.5 million.

Today, the Alexandria auxiliary takes in most of its money from its thrift store at 106 N. Columbus St. (the shop grossed $85,000 last year and recently paid off its mortgage), a historic homes tour in Old Town that raised more than $28,000 last year, a partnership with the annual Antiques Alexandria show and sales of a homespun cookbook, "Seaport Savories."

The group meets monthly at the hospital to plan fundraisers. Last year, Kozloff gave the auxiliary a lectern, personalized with a gold plaque engraved "The TWIG."

"I gave it to them as a small thank you," Kozloff said. "They were so appreciative you would have thought I'd given them $10,000."