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Girl Scouts Transform to Recruit New Members

"Mom's Not Home" workshop helps Girl Scouts learn skills they can use when they're on their own.
Shannon A. Mullen for NPR
"Mom's Not Home" workshop helps Girl Scouts learn skills they can use when they're on their own.
Girl Scouts learn to cook on a hot plate as part of a workshop called "Mom's Not Home" aimed at teaching them skills for college life.
Shannon A. Mullen for NPR /
Girl Scouts learn to cook on a hot plate as part of a workshop called "Mom's Not Home" aimed at teaching them skills for college life.

A new study released Thursday by the Girl Scouts found that more than half of American girls are ambivalent about leadership. The report comes while the nearly 100-year-old organization is revamping its methods for training tomorrow's women leaders and tries to buck its image as a cookie, camping and crafts organization.

The Girl Scouts know they face more competition than ever for young girls' attention, but the group's officials point to activities such as whitewater rafting, running Web sites and survival camping as ways the organization continues to evolve in its offerings.

Not Just for Girly Girls

"I've never been a Girl Scout," says 16-year-old Caroline Funkhauser. "Never had much interest in it. I always thought it was a girly thing, and I'm not much of a girly girl."

But Kaela Gisherman, one of 60 middle- and high school-aged girls at a recent Girl Scout workshop near Boston where they used pretend budgets to practice money management, disputes that description of the organization.

"This February I slept out in 13 degree weather, and I think that's really cool," the 17-year-old says. "There's nothing girly about that."

During the workshop Gisherman and other girls also learned to unclog a toilet, change a fuse, and cook on a hot plate — skills program director Wendy Garf-Lipp says they'll need when they leave home for college.

"We try and present a variety of different programs that will give the girls the strength of character to move on when they leave Girl Scouts and live independently," Garf-Lipp explains. "I don't think we've done the best job possible in getting the word out there what Girl Scouts really is."

Less Control, More Change

Only about 10 percent of American girls are involved with Girl Scouts — a number that's held steady for decades. But the organization plans to start targeting the other 90 percent with their most aggressive public relations strategy to date. This week CEO Cathy Kloninger hired the organization's first-ever marketing director to revitalize its brand and has charged its in-house Research Institute with studying how girls feel about the organization's core mission to train future women leaders.

"What we heard from thousands of girls is that they're really turned off by the command and control top-down type of leadership they see so much around them," says research director Judy Schoenberg. "They really aspire to a type of leadership that's about making a difference in the world and social change."

Let the Troops Lead

The Girl Scouts want to give members more say in how they learn to be leaders, so this spring there'll be new programs called "Leadership Journeys" that will be planned and directed by the Girl Scouts themselves.

"We're working to help adults to step back a bit and encourage girls to step up," Kloninger says.

This fall the Girl Scouts plan to roll out new television, magazine and Web content, and they're focusing on attracting more black, Hispanic and Asian members.

The Scouts say they'll be watching closely to see who takes notice.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shannon A. Mullen