The Evolution of a Story: Girl Scouts

Print Share on LinkedIn More

NPQ is all about understanding the real dynamics of the nonprofit sector. Because sometimes the best-laid plans . . . well, you know the rest.

This week we started to cover what has been occurring in Girl Scout Councils around the country since that network’s big push for consolidation. We are not coming at the topic without deep background—in fact, we covered it in an extensive article by Lissette Rodriguez in 2007, while the consolidation, which was to reduce the number of councils nationwide from more than 300 to 112, was in progress. In that article we detailed all of the reasons for the reorganization. The reasons seemed rational, but many things sound rational and still have unanticipated consequences. So we concluded the article with a set of questions: “Has the Girl Scouts chosen the right set of answers? Was it concentrated on the most significant questions? Will the results yield a stronger and more effective organization in the service of girls, or will the very strengths that have distinguished the organization be inadvertently sacrificed? We will have to wait and see where these changes take the Girl Scouts, other federated organizations, and the rest of us.”

Among the strengths we saw as distinguishing the organization was the existence of many nodes of local leadership. So when stories began emerging about the pitched battles over whether or not to sell the camps that the council had accumulated over the years, we paid attention. Battles were not occurring in just one location—there seemed to be a pattern. Statements made by some of the volunteers and parents were disturbing, so we wrote a short newswire about the situation a few days ago and have had an onslaught of readers, some of whom added their own perspective to the mix.

“Our Council, the Girl Scouts of North Central Alabama, voted last May, at a secret meeting held just two weeks after new Board members took office, to close 4 of our 6 camps, a direct reversal of the recommendations made by a professional property consultant and completely ignoring the facts surrounding the budgetary issues of the camps in question.

Since that time, supporters of our 88 year old camp, Camp Gertrude Coleman, have formed an organization, Friends of Camp Coleman, demanded documents and information from our Council, then filed a Discovery Motion when our requests were refused.”

“GSUSA are now lobbying Congress for a do-over with their pension plan – but there will be no do-over with these camps. I am lobbying to save ALL of the Girl Scout land across the USA. Once the land is gone – it’s gone. Who will keep donating to buy more?”

So for NPQ, this story about divisions in the Girl Scouts does not come out of nowhere. It evolved from a strategy that was to have made an organization more effective and responsive—a strategy to consolidate a federated organization—and in that regard it is one of many such consolidations that have occurred over the past decade. It is also a story about constituent activism and organizational response to constituent activism.

Understanding cause and effect as this story unfolds will be valuable to others, so we will continue to follow it but we need your help. If you have a related story about the Girl Scouts, or another consolidation, please help us with your observations. Try to be even-handed, and give us background, because we will be following this one for a while.

  • Jim Franklin

    Yesterday our Council, the Girl Scouts of North Central Alabama, issued the following statement:

    Board President Rachel Russell sent the following message to membership:

    “Camp Coleman and Camp Trico will not be ‘closed effective May 31, 2013’ as originally approved by the Board, but shall instead be ‘rested’ effective May 31, 2013. Further, it is resolved that Camp Coleman and Camp Trico shall remain ‘rested’ pending further evaluation and vote of this Board.”

    So, with the election of new Board members, plus the apparent , umm, “discovery” of information the previous had not had shared with it, this vote was held.

    We are cautiously optimistic, but will not rest until this entire idea is dead and buried.

  • Paige Mize

    One of the issues has been that Council’s have been in a “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” mode. In an effort to make the consolidation seem “fair”, every area in our largely rural council has been treated exactly the same, throwing out what works in the varied communities we serve. Of course this has negatively impacted how many girl members are being recruited. In an effort to appear different and interesting to girls who are not now members, the programs appear to have taken a turn away from the out of doors which has upset current members and long time donors. In our council, only 6 staff of over 60 are remaining from the pre merger days, leaving an enormous hole in the staff’s level of experience.

  • Lynn S. Richardson

    In her autobiography “Tough Cookies” , former GSUSA CEO Kathy Cloninger describes the circumstances that led to the decision to merge councils. One of the most ironic passages is on page 93 ” …at the Girl Scouts… people at every level not only have an opinion, they expect it to be listened to. Our top brass can’t just go off on their own and agree on a new process. We are a highly inclusive, participatory organization…” This is consistent with the tradition, training, and mission of the group. Insofar as possible, it is the GIRLS who make the decisions. Girl Scouting has always been unique – not because of cookies or camp, but because we were “Girl- Led”

    In Northeast Ohio, where I am a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed on behalf of the membership against our board of directors, the issue is NOT whether our members want to camp. We have already proven that the vast majority do. The issue is that the board has misrepresented several key facts- including what our girls said they want. The board is in direct violation of our code of regulations which states that we will have a democratically elected General Assembly, and that ” the General Assembly shall, in partnership with the Board of Directors , identify the general direction of Girl Scouting within the jurisdiction of the council. ” They have chosen to ignore a properly passed resolution calling for re-evaluation of the property decision ( which eliminated all but three camps of the fourteen we started with in 2007) . They refuse to allow the assembly to fill vacant board seats. And they restricted – without cause- who may run for the board. The National office advised our local board that those who opposed their plan were just nostalgic and resistant to change.

    Council records show that total camp maintenance for the 7 camps we owned in 2010 costs just under 1 million dollars per year. Volunteers committed to raising additional money needed for non-routine repair costs. The council income that year at that time was 11+ million. 8 million was brought in by the girls themselves through product sales – mostly cookies. 52% of the girls used the camps in spite of numerous obstacles with the council information and site reservation process. Had our board chosen to respect the wishes of the membership- we could have been working together the last two years to create a vibrant, inclusive program that actually served girls.

    For more information, visit

  • k. sheahan

    The closing of camps around the country have come as a surprise to many. An organization that was thought to be democratic has been anything but in orchestrating these closures. The Iowa camps announcements to the press preceded Town Halls to discuss the closings. Town Halls were tightly controlled with little dialogue allowed beyond a few scripted and innocuous topics, and security guards were present at several of them. Really? What were they expecting? We are Girl Scouts!

    When events transpire in a heavy-handed, top-down way and little is done to reach out to the actual membership and alumni, it creates a very adversarial dynamic and an environment filled with suspicion. When women who want the best for future generations of girls offer stacks of documentation on why camps and camping continue to be valuable for girls are met with silence or worse, accusations of obstructionism and trouble-making, they are left with little recourse than to bring the issue out into the public light.

    When representation on council boards has been made impossible due to cronyism, and attempts to run independent board members stymied at every turn, what is left but to believe that the Girl Scouts have indeed lost their way? I sincerely hope that GSUSA wakes up and starts listening to their membership. Girl Scouting has provided wonderful opportunities for girls for over 100 years and I can only hope that they come to their senses in time to continue to be a well-loved and valuable organization.

  • Virginia

    I feel like Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas (GSNETX) handled the Camp Property planning very well. They hired Property Consultants with a lot of experience working with Girl Scouts. They sent out surveys to girl, parents, and leaders. They talked with site staff , etc. They held numerous Town Halls in all areas of our council, and were great at explaining the utilization of our current camps, the true cost to run them (which was eye-opening), and what needs they had in order to update them (i.e. fixing ancient plumbing, etc.). Then they asked attendees to brainstorm the features we’d like to see at our camps if cost were not an issue. So when they explained which camps would be phased out, they had buy-in from the many individuals who had been part of the process. Here is a link to the detailed way they handled the project:

  • bea starr

    I’m a member of Lynn’s Council. I am not an official participant in the lawsuit but I support it because of the way the volunteers were/are being treated. The hoops we have been forced to jump would not believe. At first they told us this one camp needed one million dollars to fix up. The main cost was the dam. We offered to pay for a real study on what could be done to bring this dam into compliance since they had no figures on the cost. They turned us down. All the other items on the list were just grabbed out of the air, there was no real estimates. They also had police at our annual meetings and at the camp closing ceremony. We all learned Roberts Rules so we could change the agenda in the meeting, but they have shamed us and treated us as old emotional has been Girl Scouts to our other members. We want Girl Scouts to be strong in this area and we want the 7 camps (out of 14) that are remaining to serve all of our 40,000 girls. The fact that we are being treated as old goats really hurts. Where is the respect for us and where is there integrity?

  • SSB

    I am seriously concerned about the future of Girl Scouting. The GSUSA focus for the girls the past few years has been on leadership — forgive the rephrasing: “See a problem, get informed, do something to make a change.” There are many councils that applied that — took honest interest in what the girls and adult volunteers were saying, and tried to overlay that with the needs and finacial concerns they saw.
    What I see among the comments here is that decision-makers in quite a few councils didn’t choose that path, and it’s causing pain, bad feeling, distrust, legal entanglements, and a general waste of money, time, resources and talents better spent working toward what is best for the girls.
    Some of this attitude might be coming from GSUSA (which isn’t above making a wrong dicision every so often), and some of it might be the result of council people misunderstanding what they heard.
    But I wonder what will happen when the girls and young women who found such value in accessible camping experiences hear how their beloved camps are being sold off. Do you actually believe that they will respond favorably to a request for donations? Do you think that they will be the first in line when their daughter’s troop needs a leader? Does loyalty to a 100 year old movement last through everything?

  • Erika White

    I am a third generation girl scout and am so ashamed of how this organization is being run! Many of these lands that were given or bought by the girl scouts were for conservation purposes. Roughly eight years ago, I first became aware of this problem of camps being sold when the camp my grandmother helped put under an irrevocable trust, Camp Singing Hills in Wisconsin was some how pulled out of trust and put on the market. Very concerned alumni got together and started digging, we discovered the then current head of the local council was a previous employee of Johnsons’s Wax (and rumored to maybe still somehow be on the payroll), guess who gave a super high bid on the property for an upper management retreat as soon as it went on the market… yep Johnson’s Wax. The alumni were able to fight it long enough so that another group who would use the land as a camp could occupy it. Phew…but one by one this is happening across the nation and it is so sad. Never mind all the studies of how beneficial the outdoors are for kids. Never mind countless studies where the girls say they want to camp that are brushed under the rug. One of our major goals is to help protect the even if we don’t utilize the camps we should at least keep the land protected.

    And don’t even get me started on the poor programming at camps, often the person who does the programming is not an outdoor person, so they have no clue what to offer. When I went to camp as a girl we had the high adventure unit, backpacking, orienteering, gymnastics, horseback riding, canoe tripping, etc. Our local Florida camp this year is reduced to 3 sessions one of which is water fun and is awesome a second choice is bring your brother to camp! Really!!!! This goes against another fundamental girl scout idea which was take the girls away from there family to learn to be self reliant and to learn to work with her peers not to have the added responsibility of a sibling. Every girl I have asked, and many were close with their brothers said NO WAY!! Its like the councils want them to fail so they have a reason to sell them.

    The organization is too top heavy and let’s face it the largest child labor industry in the world. Think about it council gets money either from cookie sales (troops get 63 cents per $4.00 box) or from money raised which is based, at least as far as the united way is concerned on ohm volunteer hours the girls do. Mean while the girls pay their annual membership to cover their insurance while doing gs activities, the girls pay for their uniforms, books, patches, meeting activities and any council “sponsored” event. “sponsored” being it own joke…events are mostly thought of, funded, and staffed by volunteers.

    So I urge all of you to start asking what is my council doing for me really??? And seriously get involved! It was a worth while organization till they began to run it like a corporation

  • Jim Franklin

    Well said, Erika!

  • Save Our Girl Scout Camps

    The divesting of the Girl Scout Camps across the USA bear some striking similarities in State after State.

    1. The “10% Factor.” The justification given for the sale of camps was that only 10% of its members were using the camps. However, …in Council after Council members vehemently disputed this as false and grossly misleading, and also claimed that they were told there were “no openings” when they tried to reserve the camps for troop camping during the year. (In Iowa 57% of girls uses camps year around. In Ohio it was 52%).

    2 “Material Upgrades too Costly.” “Cabins, full restroom facilities, climate control, and technology access are important to them and our volunteers, but aren’t available through our current facilities. To bring each property up to speed would require a major redesign of our property infrastructure.” (In Iowa all four camps already have ALL those things.)

    3 Replace camps with an indoor “center.” that upon selling its camps, the Councils wanted to build a “premier leadership center” for girls or create an “urban center” for use by Girls Scouts, Boys Scouts, church groups, & anyone else. Note using the old GSEIWI HQs bldg. in Rock Island:

    OR build a new “outdoor center” that would “blend rustic experiences with modern amenities,” such as a computer center, flush toilets, air-conditioned cabins.

    In Iowa all four of our camps already have ALL those things -we might not have the computers for the “center” but all 4 camps already have wifi available, lots of flush toilets and air conditioning for girls to stay in. But see the brilliant business plan to build these premier the new “outdoor centers” outlined by GSUSA consultant architect Greg Copeland in his article “A Shift For Survival: The Impact Of The Girl Scout Realignment On Camps” published in Camp Business magazine” Jan/Feb 2010. In GS of Eastern PA Domokur Architects stamped all over on of their early versons of their Long Range Property Plans.

    4. Hold back on the sale of one camp to appease those protesting the sale. Same deal in Council after Council. See the following from the QC- Times article of 2-17-13 re the sale of GSEIWI camps:”Rather than liquidating all remaining camps, it is possible one could be saved, and the proceeds from the sale of the others used for updating.”

    This is what they are going to do in Eastern Iowa – have one Super-Outdoor Learning Center” (no longer calling it a camp to serve a Council of 38 Counties in a Bi-State area.)

    5. Members cannot vote re sale of the camps.

    GS Councils contended that the camps may be sold solely upon vote of its Board of Directors, without the necessity of votes by the members of the Council.

  • Heather

    When I was a girl we had at least 10 GS camps that were easy to get to on a Friday night for a weekend of troop camping (around an hour drive). We looked forward to seeing new camps, sleeping in different kinds of shelters, and accessing the local sites and events. We didn’t worry about the lack of showers or the fact that we had to do our business in a pit latrine. Now there are only 2 GS camps within that same distance. To me, that represents a loss of experiences for the girls. In four years of Girl Scouting, my daughter’s troop has only been to one camp. Yes, they’ve been there multiple times, but only one camp in four years.

    The national program continues to de-emphasize traditional Girl Scout activities which tells me it sees less need for traditional camps and the kinds of programs that girls get there. But in our very, very connected world it is so nice to see a group of young women enjoy nature: walking/hiking, bird-watching, canoeing, kayaking, archery, swimming, horseback riding, weather watching without being plugged in to some kind of electronic device. And in that same world where girls are judged by how they look and what they wear it is refresing to see girls in flannel shirts and rubber boots tromping through the mud with their hair up under a hat and dirt speckled on their faces. That’s why we need Girl Scout camps. We need a place for our girls to be free from the constraints of the modern world. Free to learn and have fun and exercise their bodies and their minds. We need more camps, camps accessible to every troop and every girl, every weekend that they want to be there. The girls lucky enough to get to camp are the girls I want as our future leaders.

  • Teresa H. Mason Pool

    Outdoor activities across the country is in decline with the younger generation, that is obvious everywhere. However, in our area, camp attendance has increased due to the fantastic programs offered at several camps with a wide diversity of emphasis for horses, nature, crafts, science, technology and environmental. Our council, GSNCA, went against the recommendation of the national organization, GSUSA, to NOT sell Camp Coleman in Trussville, Alabama and made a surprise announcement only days after the Annual Meeting in 2012 that the camp would be sold. Only when investigation revealed that camp attendance had increased over last couple of years, program fees for camp programs almost covered the camp expenses, NO capital improvements or major repairs had been made to Camp Coleman in over three years, but paid staff increased, volunteer staff decreased and with salary increases, $6 million inflated budget could not be support by the annual cookie sale done by the Girl Scouts (ages 5-18). The board failed to provide funding needed to keep up with the increasing salaries of the staff and questionable priority spending of the council and allowed the girls to not only fund the operation of the council, but not have funding for programs that they want and need because the funds they raised went to pay for huge staff salaries and benefits and now are being penalized by the board’s lack of financial leadership in closing camps. In addition, not informing the members of the proposal to sell Camp Coleman, REFUSING to accept endowments and significant financial support and REFUSAL to allow members access to public documents made the adult members question the ENTIRE operation of the council. The day to day program for the girls involved in Girl Scouts continue, they have learned more about the history of Girl Scouts now thru this action, learned more about the diversity of the programs available to them and the government side of a working Girl Scout council. The girls have strengthened their support of their program and the right to make their own choices. After all, Girl Scouts builds girls of courage, confidence and character. What a shame that the executive staff and board leadership has proven to NOT be the mentors these thousands of young Girl Scouts need!

  • Suellen Nelles

    For a little perspective, this entire selling of council camps and service centers came about when councils were forced to realign between 2006 and 2009. By making 312 councils into 112, each was now supposed to be a highly effective, high-capacity council and be able to offer MORE camp experiences to MORE girls. Just the opposite has happen due to several factors. Councils have never recovered from the financial toll it took to merge councils, regions of large councils lost local control which produced in-fighting, and most importantly the realignment tanked the national council pension plan and sales of properties are assets that can be liquidated to solve that problem. I’m tired of hearing that girls are just not interested in the camping experience anymore. Girl Scouts was founded on enjoying the out-of-doors and it is still an important and vital part of the experience. And, yes, girls love camp today as much as yesterday. I challenge anyone to call me and debate this issue. I have all the facts because I have lived the ten years of changes to the Girl Scout movement that will be our demise if clear leadership at the national level doesn’t step forward soon. Respectfully,
    Suellen Nelles
    Executive Director
    Farthest North Girl Scout Council, Fairbanks, Alaska