Girl Scouts Transform to Recruit New Members

Girl Scouts learn to cook on a hot plate. i i

hide captionGirl Scouts learn to cook on a hot plate as part of a workshop called "Mom's Not Home" aimed at teaching them skills for college life.

Shannon A. Mullen for NPR
Girl Scouts learn to cook on a hot plate.

Girl Scouts learn to cook on a hot plate as part of a workshop called "Mom's Not Home" aimed at teaching them skills for college life.

Shannon A. Mullen for NPR

Scout's Honor

As the Trefoils, Thin Mints and Samoas crumble in your mouth this Girl Scout cookie season, instead of lamenting the calories, think of the lofty ideals behind the creation of the organization causing your guilty pleasure: leadership training and community service.
Read about the history of the Girl Scouts and the role they've played from World War I to the civil rights era.

Workshop prepares Girl Scouts for independence. i i

hide caption"Mom's Not Home" workshop helps Girl Scouts learn skills they can use when they're on their own.

Shannon A. Mullen for NPR
Workshop prepares Girl Scouts for independence.

"Mom's Not Home" workshop helps Girl Scouts learn skills they can use when they're on their own.

Shannon A. Mullen for NPR

A new study released Thursday by the Girl Scouts found that more than half of American girls are ambivalent about leadership. The report comes while the nearly 100-year-old organization is revamping its methods for training tomorrow's women leaders and tries to buck its image as a cookie, camping and crafts organization.

The Girl Scouts know they face more competition than ever for young girls' attention, but the group's officials point to activities such as whitewater rafting, running Web sites and survival camping as ways the organization continues to evolve in its offerings.

Not Just for Girly Girls

"I've never been a Girl Scout," says 16-year-old Caroline Funkhauser. "Never had much interest in it. I always thought it was a girly thing, and I'm not much of a girly girl."

But Kaela Gisherman, one of 60 middle- and high school-aged girls at a recent Girl Scout workshop near Boston where they used pretend budgets to practice money management, disputes that description of the organization.

"This February I slept out in 13 degree weather, and I think that's really cool," the 17-year-old says. "There's nothing girly about that."

During the workshop Gisherman and other girls also learned to unclog a toilet, change a fuse, and cook on a hot plate — skills program director Wendy Garf-Lipp says they'll need when they leave home for college.

"We try and present a variety of different programs that will give the girls the strength of character to move on when they leave Girl Scouts and live independently," Garf-Lipp explains. "I don't think we've done the best job possible in getting the word out there what Girl Scouts really is."

Less Control, More Change

Only about 10 percent of American girls are involved with Girl Scouts — a number that's held steady for decades. But the organization plans to start targeting the other 90 percent with their most aggressive public relations strategy to date. This week CEO Cathy Kloninger hired the organization's first-ever marketing director to revitalize its brand and has charged its in-house Research Institute with studying how girls feel about the organization's core mission to train future women leaders.

"What we heard from thousands of girls is that they're really turned off by the command and control top-down type of leadership they see so much around them," says research director Judy Schoenberg. "They really aspire to a type of leadership that's about making a difference in the world and social change."

Let the Troops Lead

The Girl Scouts want to give members more say in how they learn to be leaders, so this spring there'll be new programs called "Leadership Journeys" that will be planned and directed by the Girl Scouts themselves.

"We're working to help adults to step back a bit and encourage girls to step up," Kloninger says.

This fall the Girl Scouts plan to roll out new television, magazine and Web content, and they're focusing on attracting more black, Hispanic and Asian members.

The Scouts say they'll be watching closely to see who takes notice.

In Every Girl Scout Cookie, a Dash of Idealism

Girl Scout founder Juliette Gordon Low with a parrot. i i

hide captionFounder of the Girl Scouts of America, Juliette Gordon Low (1860-1927). Known as Daisy, Gordon Low organized the first troop in her hometown of Savannah, Ga., in 1912.

Helen North/Getty Images
Girl Scout founder Juliette Gordon Low with a parrot.

Founder of the Girl Scouts of America, Juliette Gordon Low (1860-1927). Known as Daisy, Gordon Low organized the first troop in her hometown of Savannah, Ga., in 1912.

Helen North/Getty Images

As the Trefoils, Thin Mints and Samoas crumble in your mouth this Girl Scout cookie season, instead of lamenting the calories, think of the lofty ideals behind the creation of the organization causing your guilty pleasure: leadership training and community service.

Before the cookies and green uniforms, the Girl Scouts — which was founded in 1912 by Juliette Gordon Low — helped young girls learn how to develop self-reliance and resourcefulness through exposure to the outdoors and engagement in their communities.

Gordon Low, a widow and native of Savannah, Ga., decided to start the organization after meeting Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, while traveling in Europe. Gordon Low, who was deaf, worked with the Girl Guides in Scotland, then decided to take the idea back to America. She returned to her hometown and organized the first meeting of what would eventually become Girl Scouts of the USA.

"I've got something for the girls of Savannah, and all of America, and all the world, and we're going to start it tonight!" Gordon Low told a friend on her return to the states.

The first troop consisted of 18 girls; Gordon Low's niece, Margaret, signed on as the first registered member. A skilled painter and sculptor, Gordon Low encouraged her young charges to prepare to be homemakers but to also consider that they might lead professional lives. She urged them to engage in their community; in those early days, Gordon Low and her troop members helped with the war effort in their community. They learned about food production and conservation and worked in hospitals. They also baked and sold cookies to help pay for their activities.

By 1920 there was a troop of physically challenged girls, a fundraising plan, a national director, a training program for troop leaders and a troop of African-American girls. The organization would later desegregate its troops.

Members could earn more than 25 badges, which Gordon Low called "a symbol that you have done the thing it stands for often enough, thoroughly enough, and well enough to be prepared to give service in it."

"You wear the badge to let people know that you are prepared and willing to be called on because you are a Girl Scout," Gordon Low said.

During its first eight years, Girl Scouts Inc. grew to nearly 70,000 members nationwide. Before Gordon Low died from breast cancer in 1927, she saw membership grow to 200,000. The organization also extended its reach to China, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Syria, allowing American girls living there to participate. A radio troop was started in Pittsburgh; it partnered with station KDKA to broadcast the local meeting every Monday. A Native American troop formed in central New York.

Girl Scouts stepped up during the Depression, leading community relief efforts and gathering food for the poor. The group also established the Helen Keller Scholarship to help train leaders to work with blind girls. During World War II, many troops taught women survival skills and operated bicycle courier services.

In 1956, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described the organization as a "force for desegregation"; in 1969, the Girl Scouts launched a nationwide project to help support civil rights and fight against prejudice. A few years later, in 1975, the first African-American national president took the helm of the Girl Scouts.

Throughout its existence, Girl Scouts has received many accolades — in 1981, corporate management guru Peter Drucker declared it the best-run organization in America.

"The Girl Scouts help youngsters become confident, capable young women who respect themselves and other people," Drucker wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 1989.

In recent years, Girl Scouts has continued its legacy of community outreach: It's created mother-daughter prison visitation programs, promoted an anti-drug campaign, encouraged young people to be active and launched a literacy program. But the group has never been able to attract more than 10 percent of American girls to join its ranks.

On Tuesday, the organization appointed its first chief marketing officer in an effort to transform the organization to meet the needs and changing interests of girls in the 21st century.

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