Thursday, April 3, 2008

More to Girl Scouts than selling cookies

More to Girl Scouts than selling cookies
  Apr 3, 2008 The Washington Times  
By Andrea Billups - Laurel Richie assures that the Thin Mints, peanut butter and shortbread Trefoil cookies enjoyed by millions each spring will remain the same. But as a brand, the Girl Scouts of the USA is changing.

The service organization, founded in 1912 and now boasts 2.7 million members from 236,000 troops in 90 countries, has hired its first-ever chief marketing officer (CMO) in an effort to remain relevant for today's modern girls.

"As an organization, they are doing such good, but I think the public has a somewhat limited view of the Girl Scouts today," says Miss Richie, the new CMO and a former Brownie and Girl Scout who less than two weeks ago took over the duties of revamping the iconic organization, best known for its cookie sales.

"As girls change, and their hopes and dreams for themselves change, we as a brand want to stay current with that," she says.

Among those changes is a face-lift for the skill sets the scouts are learning. While girls once earned their badges in more traditional areas such as cooking and sewing, girls today earn their patches and awards in exploring diverse interests such as aerospace, computer fun and eco-action, along with desktop publishing and conflict resolution.

The shift already is in full display on the Girl Scouts of Metro Detroit's Web site, in which preteen and teen scout members can sign up for camping and for a half-day class on how to become a CEO. How to start a mother-and-daughter business and money management are among the topics.

Such an effort in teaching entrepreneurship is spot-on, says Miss Richie, and a part of a reinvention designed to offer girls a vision of possibilities as they move forward.

"In our society, those skills are usually taught to men or to boys," she says of courses in financial literacy. "Sometimes, girls are sort of shepherded a bit toward the arts and some of the softer academic classes, and boys are geared toward math and science. This organization is encouraging girls to explore science, technology, engineering and math."

The Girl Scouts will continue its long-standing traditions of camping, hiking and community service, but it also is promoting programs that help build self-esteem and encourage healthy living choices.

"There's a broader set of skills that speak to the holistic development of young girls," Miss Richie adds. "These girls are going to have the same experiences they have always had that come from belonging and from the sisterhood of an organization that helps you bond with your fellow girls. But I think it's now taking a look at the whole girl in a whole-life context and developing multiple skills in these young women."

Key to Miss Richie's update is teaching leadership, she says. Statistics have shown that about 10 percent of girls become Girl Scouts but about 80 percent of Girl Scouts become leaders, she says.

Through the Girl Scout Research Institute (GSRI), the organization is trying to gauge girls' attitudes about becoming future leaders and send them on a path that bolsters their confidence to take charge.

"What we are learning is that today's girls are looking and aspiring to be a different kind of leader than they see in their world today," she says of a GSRI study released last month. "They look at leaders in the general population as sort of a command-and-control style of leadership. What the girls are yearning for is a more collaborative and inclusive style of leadership.

"They are also focused on leadership that leads to a common good," she adds, noting one scout's development of a self-defense class for victims of physical abuse living in homeless shelters.

While Miss Richie is focused on overhauling the image, the changes in the Girl Scouts over the past decade have been criticized by some as a drift from a traditional model into one that is described as too feminist.

Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Media Institute, says that at a national level, "the elite at the top seem dedicated to turning the scouts into a feminist liberal institution."

"As far back as 1993, they said that sexual orientation was no bar to leadership," he says. "In 1994, they pretty much dispensed with God as part of the Girl Scout oath. I think that some of those little girls out there selling cookies and the leaders along with them are doing it for the best reasons. I wish some of them would speak out a bit more against the leftward drift of national leadership."

In 1995, Patti Garibay of the Cincinnati area formed a similar but more traditional group called American Heritage Girls, which now has 185 troops in 33 states with a plan to expand into all 50 this year. The group's oath promises to love God, cherish family, honor country and serve in the community, and it freely uses Bible verses in its scouting materials.

Mr. Knight applauds its focus on faith.

"I think the reason girls and their moms go into Girl Scouting is not to become political activists," he adds. "I think they try to ignore the radical elements while retaining what is best in girl scouting. I think there are a lot of good Girl Scout leaders out there who are doing their best in spite of national leadership."

Miss Richie says her organization will keep to its mission "to build girls of courage, confidence and character who want to make a difference in the world."

In the past year, Girl Scouts have partnered with Vanessa and Angela Simmons, the daughters of hip hop Run-D.M.C. group member Joseph Simmons, whose family appears on the reality-TV series "Run's House." The girls joined their local Girl Scout troop in a November episode, which is linked to a special Girl Scouts Web site to help promote scouting in a "cool and relevant" way.

Miss Richie envisions a new brand that honors the important traditions that have kept scouting going and one that is evolving in a modern way that captures current youth interests.

"We want to be as vibrant as the girls we serve," she says.