News July 13 2009
Building a better Girl Scouts
By Crissa Shoemaker Debree | The Intelligencer
Five years ago, Girls Scouts of the USA came to a realization: The nearly century-old organization, known for its cookie sales, camping trips and merit badges, needed to change - or face extinction.
Midway through its transformation, the national council said it's already seeing results. And local councils say they're starting to see an end of declining enrollment and revenues. In Eastern Pennsylvania's case, there's been a complete reversal.
At the heart of the transformation is realigning the national organization's business strategy by merging councils, strengthening the overall Girl Scouts brand, and discovering how to add value and relevance to an organization founded in 1912. By the end of 2010 there will be 109 councils, down from 315.
"Girls at every age have a lot of competition for their time," said GSUSA vice president Cathy Tisdale. "We were losing girls to lots of other activities. Girl Scouts clearly was not a No. 1 choice for a vast majority of girls across the country."
In remaking Girl Scouts, the organization's leaders' new business strategy focuses on creating one core, national identity that focuses on creating the next generation of female leaders.
Girls from Brownie Troop 2775, (L to R) Lily Cornish, Alexa Stranix and Kayla Ackerman, walk arm and arm across the twin bridges in Lake Lenape Park as part of a Girl Scout summer camp there. Girl Scouts of America has merged with Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania and they are reversing the trend of declining enrollment.
"Many of the people who were involved in the process, whether national board members or our community leaders, in their day jobs, they are in the private sector," Tisdale said. "They automatically brought a lot of that thinking forward. And frankly, the business model says don't do what you can't pay for. Figure out what adds value, deliver value better than the next guy, and figure out how you pay for it."
In addition to consolidation, the transformation also included developing a nationwide curriculum that focuses on courage, character and confidence. This year's program - called a "journey" - was focused on leadership. Next year is science, technology, engineering and math. Girl Scouts of the USA also is partnering with Dove for a yearlong program on self esteem in 2011.
Consolidating councils began in 2005. Eastern Pennsylvania was one of the first, and was created through the merger of the Freedom Valley, Great Valley and Southeastern Pennsylvania councils.
Two years later, the Eastern Pennsylvania council has increased the amount of money it spends on programs and services from 80 percent to 90 percent, said CEO Ann Meredith. The merger saved $1.5 million.
"We've saved a lot of money on overhead that we've been able to reinvest in programs," Meredith said. "We've been able to invest more of our resources in girls and in developing our volunteers."
What's more, the council has reversed a 10-year decline in membership, and expects to add between 2 percent and 5 percent more members and adult volunteers this year alone, Meredith said.
"Now it's much easier to be a Girl Scout," Meredith said. "We have many different pathways. Not all can participate in the traditional troop model, where they meet once a week and mom is the troop leader."
Flexibility is key
Girls now can participate individually, through summer camps or even through "special interest troops" that focus on areas like science and math, Meredith said.
Mary Connell, chief executive of Girl Scouts of Central and Southern New Jersey, said flexibility will help transform the organization. Her council was formed in October 2007 through the merger of the Camden County, Delaware-Raritan and South Jersey Pines councils. With all or part of nine counties, it's the largest geographic council in the state.
"We are working at the speed of girls," she said. "E-mails, texting, Twitter. We have to get on Facebook now. It's all different. It's all about flexibility. It's also all about keeping the core values of girl scouting - service of the community, leadership - at the forefront, while making specifics of the program something that the girls are excited about."
The changes could mean more troops like Troop 2533, which is composed of 11 girls going into 10th grade at Neshaminy High School.
Unlike conventional troops, which have one troop leader, Troop 2533 is a "co-op" where every mother is a leader, said Joanne Morelli, whose daughter, Amanda, joined when she was in second grade. And while the troop stresses Girl Scout traditions, it eschews other, more rigid tenets like weekly meetings and the "old green potato sack uniform," Morelli said.
Instead, the girls made their own T-shirts to identify themselves as a troop. And they lead their own meetings, which lean heavily toward community service opportunities, said Morelli, who lives in Middletown. Keeping with tradition, though, they held a candlelit, backyard ceremony celebrating their graduation to senior Scouts.
"Most of our girls are all honor students," she said. "They get involved, and I think a lot of that has to do with Girl Scouts. They have the ambition that comes from being a Girl Scout. They're not afraid to be a leader to younger kids."
Crissa Shoemaker DeBree can be reached at 215-345-3186 or cshoemaker@phillyBurbs.com.