By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 2, 2009
Long associated with images of dorky vests and singalongs around the campfire, the 97-year-old Girl Scouts of the USA is trying to become cool. Or at least cooler.
With enrollment dropping sharply, the organization is experimenting with a total makeover of the Girl Scout experience.
What's in: books and blogs written in girls' voices on topics such as environmental awareness and engineering; troops led by college students; videoconferencing with scouts in other countries.
What's out: textbook-style lessons on the value of helping others; shunning the Internet; moms as troop leaders for teenagers.
Thin Mints are not in jeopardy, but -- OMG! -- badges will be de-emphasized.
"We took a step back and asked, 'What do girls need from us right now?' " said Eileen Doyle, the Girl Scouts' senior vice president of program development. "There is consistency in our goals throughout our history, but we can maintain that while being fun, edgy and challenging for modern-day girls."
Last year, the Girl Scouts hired its first-ever brand manager, Laurel Richie, a former senior partner at advertising powerhouse Ogilvy & Mather who oversaw campaigns for Campbell's soup and American Express. Richie said the group's image was stuck in an earlier era, the main reason for a more than 8 percent decline in membership, to 2.5 million, during the past 10 years. The organization has faced a particular struggle attempting to attract urban and minority girls.
"It's no different from preparing an ad campaign for a classic brand that needs a bit of a facelift to show that it's still relevant," Richie said.
The Girl Scouts is not alone among social groups with its declining membership trend. The Boy Scouts, which has lost members since its peak in the 1980s, has worked to balance traditional camping and knot-tying with robotics and other 21st-century pursuits. Adult organizations such as Rotary clubs and Elks lodges also have lost members.
But few have gone as far as the Girl Scouts in attempting to keep up with the times.
"The rise of a vibrant coed youth culture after World War II meant single-sex organizations felt a little old-fashioned even back then," said Susan A. Miller, a University of Pennsylvania historian who has written a book about the rise of girls' organizations. "It would be silly for them to try to run counter to the dominant culture that girls are embedded in."
The biggest change is last year's debut of Journeys, a pilot curriculum that will mostly replace the system of earning badges on specific topics. Girls still will be able to earn badges if they want, but Journeys rarely mentions them, focusing instead on broader themes, including teamwork and healthy living. Rather than scouts earning a badge for cooking a single nutritious meal, for example, the books emphasize fruits and vegetables whenever food is mentioned.
Several girls said they appreciated that Journeys talks to them as a friend rather than as a teacher or parent. Washington Girl Scout Maritza Jones, 9, said her favorite fictional character in the books is one with a single mom and a little brother, like herself.
"It's not like a schoolbook, because there are fun games and they talk about people like me," Maritza said. "The girls talk like my friends and I do about movies and playing on the computer and animals and stuff."
Many lessons focus on changing the world in measurable, modern ways. Recycling is still an important part of lessons on helping the environment, but some troops also install solar panels and test water quality in rivers.
In Boston last year, fourth- and fifth-grade scouts conducted an energy audit of the city's convention center using sophisticated engineering equipment and then offered recommendations on how to make the building more efficient.
At a gathering in Southern Maryland last week, 13- and 14-year-old girls stopped by six stations dedicated to financial literacy. At one, professionals taught financial discipline by using free T-shirts to lure girls into a credit card offer that was too good to be true. Nearby, girls drew up a budget for a hypothetical family based on its income and needs.
Increasingly, such discussions are taking place online. Once reluctant to direct scouts to chat rooms, the Girl Scouts now encourages girls to use the Web as a resource.
The Girl Scouts and Microsoft have just unveiled a student-driven Web site dedicated to blogs, videos and discussions on topics such as social networking and Internet safety. Called LMK, text-speak for "let me know," the Web site aims to capitalize on girls' love of all things Internet.
On a page about Internet predators, the site's authors emphasize that the risk isn't nearly as great as many parents think. But the next page shows that some seemingly innocent messages can carry hidden risks, using a story of a girl who thought she was invited to an exclusive party of movie stars but was actually being scammed.
Camping and singing will remain part of the scouting experience, and because the Girl Scouts organization has always given wide autonomy to individual troops, leaders and girls will be able to choose which of the new programs to embrace.
Troop autonomy is a major part of the sales pitch to immigrant parents and children, who, research shows, are looking for a different kind of benefit from the Girl Scouts. That research has resulted in several initiatives aimed at Hispanics, who represent more than 15 percent of the U.S. population but just 6 percent of Girl Scouts.
Focus groups showed that many immigrant parents didn't know what the Girl Scouts organization was, and if they did, they didn't consider it appropriate for their children.
"They associated us with the cookies and the camping, and those were both scary concepts," said Amelia de Dios Romero, the Girl Scouts' multicultural marketing manager. "Selling cookies, to them, meant going door-to-door to strangers, and camping was sleeping in the woods with danger there."
In response, Richie, the brand manager, hired Grupo Gallegos, a marketing firm that focuses on Hispanic Americans. Girl Scout leaders began meeting with mothers one-on-one to talk about how the program can help their children integrate into American culture.
Neither Jahaziel Rodriguez, 16, nor her mother, Nury Tamayo, had heard of the Girl Scouts when they moved to Fairfax County from Colombia three years ago, and Tamayo initially was nervous that the group would be more about partying than education or service. Now, she said, she thinks Girl Scouts helped her daughter acclimate to her new country more quickly.
"At first I came here and I didn't know the language or the people or how to do things like apply to college," Jahaziel said. "And they helped me learn."
Many of the Hispanic girls are involved in a new Girl Scouts program called "Twinning," which allows them to videoconference with troops in South America and then travel to meet their new friends. Jahaziel's troop partners with one in Ecuador, which they plan to visit next year.
"Just like taking programs online," Romero said, "now we're talking the language they're used to."