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Continued: Amid an overhaul, Girl Scouts cope with fiscal woes, declining membership, grassroots dismay

  • Article by: DAVID CRARY , AP National Writer
  • Last update: June 24, 2013 - 9:45 AM

In the fiscal realm, GSUSA has launched a campaign to raise $1 billion by 2017. To improve relations with local councils, it has created the position of chief customer officer, with the mission of assisting local leaders with operational matters so they can focus more energy on programs.

However, the changes have not stemmed the membership decline. GSUSA Treasurer Joan Wagnon reported in March that revenue from membership dues was down 3.8 percent over the past year and nationwide cookie sales for 2012-13 were down about 4.5 percent.

The national headquarters' operating budget relies heavily on efforts of the local councils, notably the $12 annual dues paid by individual Girl Scouts plus revenue from sales of uniforms and merchandise. The dues are scheduled to rise to $15 later this year.

The Girl Scouts note that many youth organizations have been losing members, for reasons including competition from youth sports leagues and a perception by some families that they are old-fashioned. The Boy Scouts of America's youth membership declined from 3.3 million in 2002 to about 2.6 million last year.

During that period, the Boy Scouts — who have no formal ties with the Girl Scouts — have been entangled in controversy over membership policies that excluded gays and atheists. The GSUSA provided a contrast with inclusive membership policies, although it suffered some defections from families who felt it had become too liberal.

Some adult Girl Scout members say the recent program changes have gone overboard in de-emphasizing traditional outdoor activities and replacing them with curricula that replicates schoolwork.

"In trying to be more relevant, they've gone too far the other way," said Cheryl Brown, former CEO of a Girl Scout council in Arkansas. She left the post in 2009, soon after her council was forced to merge with four others.

Brown also said pressure from headquarters to boost membership led some councils to recruit girls with no intention of engaging them in the full scope of Girl Scout activities.

"It no longer was about the girls — it was about the money," she said.

Booth Kammann, CEO of the Girl Scout Council of the Southern Appalachians, said she encountered membership problems when she took over the Knoxville, Tenn.-based council in 2009 after the realignment. She eliminated programs in which girls were not fully engaged.

Coupled with departures of volunteers — including some dismayed by the mergers — Kammann's council now reports a membership of 12,246 girls and 4,615 adults, compared to about 20,000 girls and 7,000 adults in 2009.

Kammann says she has a waiting list of more than 300 girls, yet can't find enough adults to mentor them. Overall, she's optimistic about the Girl Scouts' future, but says the pace of change has taken a toll.

"Do I think there's been some change fatigue? Yes," she said. "It's like rebuilding an airplane when it's in the air."

Nationwide, the shortage of volunteers is a critical problem, according to Chavez, who wants to develop new recruiting strategies as the GSUSA works to improve its finances.

"At the end of the day, we're not serving enough girls," she said.

Chavez acknowledged there is room for improved communications within the nationwide Girl Scout family, including the 59 million alumnae, and she plans new efforts to reach out to them for advice, financial support and volunteer service.

"I'm excited — we're actually going to activate our base," she said. "This iconic organization, which has given back to this country for 100 years, needs your help."

Among the skeptical alumnae is Jane Duax, 56, of Davenport, Iowa, who was a Girl Scout back in the 1960s, later served as a troop leader and cookie mom, and recently has been active fighting plans to close four summer camps.

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