Western Girl Scouts make new friends, keep old

[Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts on Girl Scouting in Western North Carolina.]

By Elizabeth Floyd

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — It’s Girl Scout cookie season in Western North Carolina, but beneath the seemingly unchanging surface of this mid-winter ritual brews organizational change.

Like so many long-established nonprofits, the 95-year-old youth organization, which seeks to nurture and develop girls ages 5 to 17, is restructuring and re-branding.

And that means change on the local level, even though for the girls it’s still cookies, canoes and summer camp.

Based in Asheville and serving 15 western counties, the Girl Scouts of Western North Carolina Pisgah Council is small, with a staff of 16 and a volunteer base of slightly over 1,000.

In comparison, the newly consolidated Raleigh-based council boasts 10,000 volunteers and over 80 employees serving roughly 32,000 girls.

Pisgah, with nearly 2,800 girls, soon will merge, too.

This April, the council joins four others in Greensboro, Charlotte, Hickory and Gastonia.

Theirs is one of the last mergers in a process of centralization mandated by a new business strategy Girl Scouts of the U.S.A adopted in 2004 to address declining membership and a diminished brand image.

Eighty percent of national staff time was being spent bailing out smaller councils, Pisgah CEO Molly Keeney says, so the decision was made to slim down from 315 councils nationwide to 110 high-capacity groups.

Keeney predicts her group’s upcoming merger will result in a new headquarters and the eventual centralization of human resources, finance and technology departments for the five western councils.

The new council will serve over 40,000 girls in almost 50 counties, trimming the number of Girl Scout headquarters in the state to two.

While Keeney predicts the girls and general volunteers will see little change, pressure on board members and staff has intensified.

“Board and staff are being pulled in different directions,” says Gwen Hughesm Pisgah Council board president. “We’re being asked to attend maybe three times more meetings than before. I did have a full-time job, and I’ve kind of gone part-time as a result of the realignment.”

The early effects of the national realignment have been largely behind-the-scenes — streamlining the volunteer process, reworking governance and upping the ante with fundraising tactics.

“One of the things that Girl Scouts traditionally have been comfortable with is their ability to raise money,” Keeney says. “We haven’t had to do the good-old-boy-network.”

Yet as the focus of long-time donors changes, she says, Girl Scouts groups are having to update their fundraising strategies.

The girls themselves raise more than half of the Pisgah Council’s roughly $1 million annual budget through the sale of cookies and nuts, with the rest coming from individual and corporate donors and 12 local United Ways.

But United Way funding has gone down in recent years, Keeney says.

Hughes says declines in the stock market are “frightening people,” and that United Way is “cutting back for agencies that are not seen as servicing at-risk people.”

As a result, the nonprofit, which has no development staff, is redoubling its fundraising efforts.

Currently, board members and other volunteers manage all fundraising activities at the council, from prospecting to special events, but that may change.

Citing the difficulty of hiring full-time staff with a merger looming, Hughes says the council is considering hiring fund-development consultants to assist with special events and campaigns.

And the council’s Juliet Gordon Low Society, created eight years ago to foster giving among former board members, most of them women, now is targeting younger women with two new, more affordable levels of annual giving.

“When the re-alignment process started, there was kind of a lull in fund development,” she says.  “I think people were kind of reluctant to give to a group that might not exist in a couple years.”

“But now we’re not feeling this,” she adds. “People are seeing the bigger picture of Girl Scouts.”

Next: Searching for a new message and a more diverse membership, the Girl Scouts are touting their traditional values.

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