Are Girl Scout Camps Collateral Damage in Consolidation?

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January 12, 2014; Daily Beast


NPQ recommends that any reader interested in 1) what is going on with the Girl Scouts, and 2) what the unanticipated consequences of a forced merger of a federated network can be should read this excellent and nuanced article written for the Daily Beast by Alessandra Rafferty. Last year, NPQ did a number of stories on the dissent within the ranks of Girl Scout families focused on the selling off of their historic camps. There have been few issues we have ever written about that elicited so many impassioned comments.

As you may recall, since 2007, GSUSA has been consolidating their council structure—merging 312 local into 112 “high capacity” regional councils. (Since then, they have started to refer to the girls as “customers”). At that time, NPQ wondered aloud about the unintended consequences of the consolidation and suggested that one possible loss might be the alignment with and support of local families. Now much of the network is in conflict, with one of the flash points being the camps, which many of the new “high capacity” councils have been trying to sell off. This story in the Daily Beast says that more than 200 camps in 30 states have been put up for sale in the past five years, and that this constitutes more than a third of Girl Scouts properties.

Rationales for selling those properties seem to fall into two groups: the camps are a too-costly resource for too few girls, and the outdoor experience is not forward-thinking enough. Both rationales set the teeth of many constituents on edge because they do not believe the motivation has much to do with the girls. Alessandro Rafferty writes:

“That the 101-year-old organization reportedly has a woefully underfunded pension plan—currently down by $347 million—at the same time regional councils are trying to unload valuable land assets—has put the organization in the hot seat. While many pension funds took serious hits during the 2008 recession, critics, including one Tennessee council, contend that GSUSA made poor decisions, such as a massive realigning of councils and excessive buyouts, that exacerbated their loss.”

And in general, constituents charge that too much of the money made through cookie sales, etc., are being used for administrative costs. For instance, as cited here, “Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa’s proposed 2013 budget, for example, shows $2,000 allocated to replace roofs most in need at camp properties, but nearly a quarter of a million dollars for upgrades at offices and program centers, including parking lot repaving and landscaping. Tax forms for 2010, the last year released, showed that out of the more than $6 million in revenue, $3.53 million went to staff and benefits.”

Lawsuits related to the selling of the camps are pending in Alaska, Ohio, Iowa, and Alabama. Last year, plaintiffs in Indiana won a case against the council. 

GSUSA insists that there is “no master plan” to sell the camps, but a memo dated May 24, 2013, from then-CFO Florence Casilles to GSUSA council CEOs indicates that “GSUSA was actively considering the sale and leaseback of council properties to fund the pension plan as well as donations of property to the plan, and the ‘identification of a national real estate broker to assist councils in selling property with use of funds to contribute to the plan.’” Despite being called a “potentially good service” in the same memo, the national agent idea was “not deemed to be a good strategy for funding pension because of the likely perception in the community of the use of property to fund non-girl related programs.”—Ruth McCambridge

  • Gerard Kelly

    A few points of clarification. The mergers eliminated many council boundaries. In the case of the Girl Scouts of North East Ohio five councils mergered into one. There were two camps within 8 miles of each other but, formerly, there was a council boundary between them. Both had aging infrastructure and use had diminshed through the years. Except for summertime these camp sit idle through much of the three remaining seasons but the camps still require maintenance. The decision was made to sell one and upgrade the other. Where the council failed was not involving the leaders more thoroughly in the process. The Board and CEO gave the leaders a cursory chance to provide feedback but utlimately pushed the process forward, alienating many leaders and girls who loved the camp that was sold. The Board and CEO did a horrible job of “selling” the need.

    The camp properties belong to the individual councils, not to Girl Scouts USA. Girl Scouts USA is the organization responsible for the pension system. The article appears to create a link between the camp sales and the pension system issues, leading the reader to believe the camp sale monies go directly to Girl Scouts USA. They do not. Much misinformation has been circulated by disgruntled leaders who are still fuming about the camp sale. In 2012 many leaders in Northeast Ohio had their troops boycott the cookie sale. Cookie proceeds where 78% of council income. The boycott and concommitant loss of proceeds resulted in a layoff of about 30% of the council staff.

  • FionaWink

    I’m not sure how you can say that there isn’t a link between camp sales and pension issues. I took this from the Future is Ours FB page:

    From 2013 statement by Anna Maria Chavez to U.S. House Ways and Means Committee for hearing on charitable giving tax reform:

    “Girl Scout councils, which used to offer a multiple employer- defined pension plan for more than 13,000 participants, had to freeze the defined-benefit plan. We currently project that for the 2014 2016 plan years, GSUSA will be required to contribute approximately $145 million—a 33 percent increase in expenses—to fund the pension deficit. This is resulting in Girl Scout councils considering options such as layoffs and program cuts, which could have far-reaching and unfortunate consequences, chief among them that councils will be able to serve fewer girls.”

    view full statement:

  • Lynn Richardson

    Gerald, Thank you for your comment about Girl Scouts of North East Ohio. It is true that Camp Ledgewood ( formerly of Akron Council) and Camp Crowell Hilaka ( formerly of Cleveland Council) are only hiking distance apart. But it is NOT true that either camp sat idle during the fall, winter, and spring. Both camps accomadated troop camping, Core Camp, Service Unit camporrees, and multiple short programs throughout the school year.

    IN spring of 2008, I submitted an application for my Daisy troop to reserve a shelter for a day at Crowell Hilaka: any of three weekends – any site, even a full tent unit or one of the cabins. We were told that there were no vacancies of any kind. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but the following year the council office announced Crowell Hilaka would be temporarily closed because “hardly any one was using it”. It was this discrepacy and many others like it that led volunteers to become proactive. In response, the board of directors set up the Vision 2012 Committee and invited volunteers associated with each camp to be part of the process. We ALL accepted that there would likely be more camp closures because they told us only 10% of the girl members were using the camps. But using the information the council provided to the committee, we realized that 10% of the girls participated in council-sponsored programs at camp. An ADDITIONAL 42% participated in non-council sponsored programs – most with their own troops. We duly reported the error to the Board.

    Meanwhile, Friends of Crowell Hilaka was formed – at the suggestion of a GSNEO board member – to promote usage at that camp. Since most of C/H had been the estate of inventor Jim Kirby who had included many facinating structures at the site, we thought this would tie in well with GSUSA’s new emphasis on STEM. We knew that Kirby’s Mill – long a source of interest for the girls – had been built to generate electricity. We began writing programs to tie this in with the Junior age level Journey program on Energy. We raised money for camperships, sold cookies, contacted conservancies to discuss conservation easements. We raised interest from the surrounding community and brought more girls and families into camp. The board-sponsored survey on camps showed that Crowell Hilaka was by far the favorite camp in GSNEO. But there were enough girls between Cleveland and Akron ( let alone the rest of the council ) to support BOTH of the centrally- located camps as well as the other 5 in other regions.

    Everything changed when the board announced that they were selling 5 more camps in order to turn the last remaining two into Premier Leadership Centers. It was no longer a matter of promoting Crowell Hilaka. It was a matter of saving Girl Scouting . The announcement was filled with inaccuracies and misrepresentations. The most stunning was the claim of the property chairman that they had “crunched the numbers every way they could be crunched” and there were no other options. He further claimed that it would cost over 30 million to make all the needed repairs and bring all 7 camps up to ACA standards. This was a shock because the council staff had submitted a deferred maintance estimate of roughly 2 million which was included in the final Vision2012 report. Eventually we found out that the 30 million covered luxuries and redundancies no one asked for.

    We tried to deal with this through the council democratic process. But altho the GSNEO General Assembly passed a resolution calling for a re-evaluation of the property decsion; it was ignored. The Camp Planner hired to design the Premier Leadership Centers informed the board that two camps would have enough capacity for all of the girls in the rustic settings they wanted. So the board kept a third camp. So much for “no other options”

    It’s obvious that the original decision was not not well-thought out. The numerous discrepancies throughout the process should raise many , many red flags.

    At the time of this writing, three camps have been sold. Crowell Hilaka is on the market and the Friends groups is working buy it themselves or help a conservation group purchase it.