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Girl Scouts In Rough Water

After 100 years, organization facing decline in membership, $347M pension shortfall

June 24, 2013
By DAVID CRARY, AP National Writer , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

(AP) - Given the friction and financial woes facing the Girl Scouts these days, perhaps it's time for a giant friendship circle. Under that long-standing tradition, a ring of Scouts clasp hands and give a little squeeze, accompanied by a silent wish of good will.

Just a year after its centennial celebrations, the Girl Scouts of the USA finds itself in a different sort of squeeze. Its interconnected problems include declining membership and revenues, a dearth of volunteers, rifts between leadership and grass-roots members, a pension plan with a $347 million deficit, and an uproar over efforts by many local councils to sell venerable summer camps.

The tangle of difficulties has prompted one congressman to request an inquiry by the House Ways and Means Committee into the pension liabilities and the sale of camps.

Article Photos

AP Photo
Dressed in boxes emptied from earlier cookie sales, Girl Scouts from Troop 20337 in Eugene, fan out on the University of Oregon campus near the Erb Memorial Union in Eugene, Ore., Feb. 18 in search of customers for their cookies.

"I am worried that America's Girl Scouts are now selling cookies to fund pension plans instead of camping," wrote Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, in a letter last month to the committee chairman.

Compounding the problems are tensions at GSUSA headquarters in New York, where several senior executives have quit or been ousted since Anna Maria Chavez took over as CEO in 2011.

Last week, some of the roughly 325 employees there were invited to take early retirement, and Chavez said an unspecified number of layoffs are expected in August.

Chavez insists the GSUSA is on the right track, although she acknowledged that sweeping changes in structure and programs over the past 10 years have been difficult for many in the Scouts' extended family.

"Change can be unsettling and it is not surprising that some would prefer for us to remain static," she said. "But doing so would be a disservice to girls who need us now more than ever."

Indeed, there's a common denominator between the GSUSA leaders and their critics - earnest expressions of devotion to the Girl Scouts and fervent hopes that it manages to thrive.

"I care so much about this organization, and that's why I hate to see it pulled down," said Suellen Nelles, CEO of a local council based in Fairbanks, Alaska. "We have leadership at the top who are toxic to this organization and need to go."

Connie Lindsey, the president of GSUSA's governing board, said the board had confidence in Chavez.

"Our board supports our CEO," said Lindsey, a corporate executive from Chicago. "We know it's a difficult charge we've given her."

Since 2003, the Girl Scouts have undergone a thorough transformation aimed at making their programs and image more relevant to a diverse population of girls. Changes have affected uniforms, handbooks, program materials, even the logo and the fine print on the boxes of Girl Scout cookies.

"Our brand, as iconic as it is, was misunderstood - it was dated," Chavez said in an interview in her Manhattan office Friday.

Yet today the Girl Scouts have about 2.2 million youth members, down from more than 2.8 million in 2003. Donations to the national office and local councils plunged to $104 million in 2011 from nearly $148 million in 2007.

Financial stress already has prompted many councils to consider selling off old summer camps, both to gain revenue and reduce maintenance costs.

In many states - including Iowa, Ohio, New York, Alabama and Missouri - the sell-off plans provoked intense debate. Pro-camp activists argue that camping is integral to the Girl Scout experience; local leaders contend that today's girls are less keen on camping than their predecessors.

"Camps will always be part of our mission," Chavez said. "But girls aren't living in the past - they're living in the future."

 
 
 

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