NPR logo Girl Scouts Look For A Way Out Of The Woods

Girl Scouts Look For A Way Out Of The Woods

Girl Scouts model contemporary uniforms. From Girl Scouts of the USA website hide caption

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From Girl Scouts of the USA website

The Girl Scouts organization wants s'more — members and leaders, that is.

Membership in Girl Scouts of the USA is on the decline. In the past year, according to the group's official blog, there has been a significant drop nationwide — down 400,000 girls and adults — from 3.2 million to 2.8 million.

But perhaps even more alarming, those who do want to sell cookies and wear sashes — an estimated 30,000 young girls — do not have enough qualified adults who are willing to volunteer as troop leaders or cookie moms.

The New York-based organization offers several reasons for the downward trends. Girl Scouts spokeswoman Kelly Parisi says of the membership spiral: "There is an increased demand and competition from other organizations, school, and extracurricular activities for the attention of girls. It's an exciting time to be a girl — with so many choices of how to spend their time, it would be impossible to do everything."

And of the shortfall of adult leaders: "To me that is heartbreaking. These girls are looking for fun opportunities that will help them throughout their lives, and our society is not able to provide it. We all understand the unfortunate effects of the 2008 financial crisis and its lingering impact on the time and resources adults have today, but girls need this."

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Do they?

Change Of Emphasis

Long known for promoting camping skills and cookie sales, the Girl Scouts underwent a makeover a few years ago. The group developed STEM, an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and a revamped "National Leadership Journeys" program.

"The redesign eliminated some traditional badge pursuits and relegated others — like painting and simple meal preparation — to 'legacy status,' " the New York Times recently reported. The Scouts also "added a host of new pursuits, including digital filmmaking, financial literacy, eating local, social innovation and business etiquette. Outdoor activities and skills development did not entirely disappear — there are still badges to be earned in camping, hiking and adventure sports — but many believe the role of the outdoors in fostering leadership was diminished."

Some people are uncomfortable with the change. In fact, an online survey posted by some of the Girl Scout volunteers shows that fewer than 50 percent of about 2,000 respondents — people who identify as members and supporters of the Girl Scouts — are satisfied with the direction of the organization. Nearly one-third of respondents say the Journeys, as designed, are horrible and should be scrapped. Many of those surveyed want more emphasis on outdoor activities.

Smart Cookies

So where will the necessary volunteers come from? Parisi tells NPR: "In a world where more than one-third of Boy Scout volunteers are women, we at GSUSA believe it is important to look outside the box for adult volunteers."

Adult guides "come from all walks of life; they are women, men, young professionals, retirees, college students, and more. You don't need to be a mother or a father of a daughter to be a volunteer — you just need to be a responsible and fun adult who wants to impact the next generation of female leaders."

Recent data, she says, show that "88 percent of volunteers believe their life is better because they volunteer with Girl Scouts. And an astounding two-thirds believe that their volunteer experience has helped them professionally."

The group must be doing something right. After all, a significant number of influential Americans were members, including Laura Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, Martha Stewart, Venus Williams, Katie Couric, Natalie Morales, Lisa Ling, Taylor Swift, Mariah Carey and Sandra Day O'Connor.

Scout's honor.

(Note: As a veteran reporter, I have long been aware of the limitations of my craft. You reported a story, you wrote it, people read it. But the result sometimes fell short – and felt incomplete. There was just no way to get in all the voices, all the experts, all the experiences, all the scenes, all the angles. Limits imposed by space and time and resources seemed insuperable.

With The Protojournalist, I have been trying – for almost a year and a half – to explore the ever-evolving technology to get everyone on the same page. To help me tell the story. So perhaps the result, the story, will not feel so limited. Will feel more multi-sided and complete.

When it works well, we are all writing the story. The reporter plants an acorn. Then the listeners, users, readers, viewers come along and help tend the story. You fertilize and prune and shape it with pertinent and personal comments, value-adding links and striking photos, videos and other visuals. And together we grow an oak of a story.

The Girl Scouts story is such an oak. Somehow, reading the small part I wrote and the voluminous and heartfelt comments that have come in from all over the country, I feel like we are closer to an ideal. The observations – many with firsthand knowledge and experience — are thoughtful and fact-packed and on point. The way excellent storytelling should be. And together we are telling a complicated story in a complex – but very gripping and graspable — way. Thank you. — Linton Weeks)

This post has been updated.

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The Protojournalist: Experimental storytelling for the LURVers — Listeners, Users, Readers, Viewers — of NPR. @NPRtpj