By Grace Austin
When one thinks of Girl Scouts, one may think of Thin Mints, overnight camps, and sashes and uniforms. But Girl Scouts is much more than that. The female-centered organization is one of the largest and most successful non-profit organizations in the U.S., and responsible for the development of young girls as early as age five. Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, Girl Scouts has undergone many changes over the years but at its essence remains an organization dedicated to “building girls of courage, confidence, and character.”
Girl Scouts was founded by Juliette Gordon Low in 1912 in Savannah, Georgia as an offshoot of the Boy Scouts. At a time when most girls and women stayed inside, and physical activity was often looked down upon, Girl Scouts hiked, played basketball, and studied first aid. Feminist before feminism was invented, Girl Scouts reflected changing morays in society as a revolutionary leadership organization designed only for girls.
“Girl Scouts was always about empowering girls. One of the most radical notions in the world is girls as leaders, and this is one of the pinnacles of Girl Scouting. We are still relevant to girls today because we ask girls what they want and we believe girls can do anything,” said Media Manager Michelle Tompkins.
Besides selling cookies (a practice begun in 1917 as a fundraising opportunity), Girl Scouts camp outdoors, perform community service, learn first aid, and earn badges by acquiring practical skills like cooking. Girl Scouts are divided into troops which are grouped by location, which in turn are overseen by a council. Girl Scouts’ achievements are recognized through rank advancement, beginning with the Daisy (Kindergarten age) through Ambassador (16-18) and special awards. A wholesome outlet for girls, many famous leaders have been Girl Scouts, including Lucille Ball, Martha Stewart, and Hillary Clinton. Today there are 3.2 million members and it is estimated more than 50 million alumni.
“Girl Scouts afforded me an early opportunity to learn about team work, leadership, and healthy competition. It was a great foundation and resonates within me today as a leader,” said Julie Kampf, CEO and founder of JBK Associates, a talent sourcing firm headquartered in Englewood, New Jersey.
Girl Scouts has made considerable changes since it beginning a century ago. Girl Scouts was structurally reorganized in 2006, significantly decreasing its number of councils, changing its age levels, and adding a “New Girl Scout Leadership Experience,” which involves leadership journeys.
In recent years, Girl Scouts has faced external criticism for the usage of “God” in the Girl Scout Promise. To adapt to changing times, the organization now allows omitting the word and substituting the word for one’s individual beliefs.
“Our program has undergone a whole new renovation within the past few years. The content has been totally updated to be totally relevant to today’s girls, like environmental issues; mind, health and body; and focus on careers and STEM. The other area [we have changed] is how girls participate. Our delivery is 100% dependent on adults and volunteers, and through research we have realized adults have become busier within the past ten to 20 years. While we are continuing to offer year-long troops, we recognized as girls grow older they want more flexible options,” said Susan Swanson, Vice President of Membership for GSUSA.
Over the years, Girl Scouts has remained relevant by constantly evolving. With emerging demographics like the Hispanic/Latino population, Girl Scouts has faced new challenges, including the task of introducing themselves to a group unfamiliar with their organization.
“We have approached that challenge by instead of using a flyer sent home with their daughter, we have small meetings with trusted adults like ESL teachers and church leaders. We have to make people comfortable and get to know our organization. The results are incredibly exciting, because when we find we take the time, the interest in belonging is huge not only for daughters but for adults themselves,” said Swanson.
Another major issue has come from the basis and key to the organization’s sustainability—the volunteers. “We have made a significant effort within the past five years to say volunteers first, and it needs to be a part of the fabric of the community. It’s work, but it’s worth it and it is working,” added Swanson.
Reaching out to new demographics is not new; Girl Scouts bears a long history of diversity. The organization has a long history of multi-racial troops; in 1954, Martin Luther King, Jr. called the Girl Scouts a force of desegregation. Girl Scouts welcomed girls with disabilities early in their history at a time when they were not included in most other activities.
“It’s been part of us since the very beginning. There’s never been a part of Girl Scouts when we haven’t been reaching out to new organizations. Diversity is as much a part of us as leadership,” said Tompkins.
Diversity also translates into the staffing at Girl Scouts. The senior management is comprised of 30% underrepresented groups, while the overall staff is approximately 45% underrepresented groups, a term that includes Asian Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanic/Latinos.
“We feel like its important to look like America. Diversity has been very important since we were founded in 1912; there were no barriers to participation in terms of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic group, and the like, and that’s been something we try to build on. We are continually trying to work on new strategies to attract diverse staff; we are also engaged in collaborative recruiting with other nonprofits. We take a lot of strides to make sure that we try to reach different areas of the labor market to recruit diverse talent,” said Michael Watson, Senior Vice President, Human Resources and Diversity at GSUSA.
Girl Scouts hopes to keeping changing and modernizing, continuing to offer exceptional leadership opportunities for girls. “The challenges that the world faces right now are going to continue to face us for the next 20-30 years,” said Swanson. “We have much opportunity for more and more girls to develop their leadership and take on bigger and better roles to make the world a better place. We will continue to connect to what girls tell us, and we will continue to change to meet the girls’ needs.”
The Girl Scouts is in need of volunteers of all ages and genders throughout the country. If you would like to give back, please go to girlscouts.org today.