As the Girl Scouts' membership continues a sharp decline, its leaders are betting on technology to reverse the trend, including a major expansion of its year-old program enabling Girl Scout cookies to be sold via mobile apps and the girls' personalized websites.
The Digital Cookie upgrade, announced on Tuesday, comes amid persisting challenges for the 103-year-old organization. According to figures provided to The Associated Press, youth membership for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 was 1.88 million, down nearly 6.2 percent from 2014, and adult membership was 784,120, down 3.1 percent.
The total membership — now 2.66 million — is down more than 15 percent over three years, and down 30 percent from a peak of more than 3.8 million in 2003.
The Girl Scouts also are struggling in terms of financial support. The latest compilations by the Chronicle of Philanthropy show that the organization received $103.2 million in private donations in 2014, down from $194.6 million in 2006. Back then, the Girl Scouts ranked 83rd among U.S. charities for such donations; the Chronicle now ranks it 257th.
Some other major youth groups also face revenue and membership declines, due in part to societal trends. However, Anna Maria Chavez, CEO of Girl Scouts of the United States of America, contends that her organization is capable of rebuilding its ranks through technological improvements.
For paid staff and volunteers, these include online toolkits — one streamlining the process for joining the Girl Scouts, another empowering volunteer troop leaders to plan a full year of meetings and activities with a single online visit.
“Our volunteers need more tools to serve more girls,” Chavez said. “So we're really doubling down on technology.”
For the girls themselves, Digital Cookie is the flagship initiative. Chavez said it was input from some scouts a few years ago that inspired the initiative.
About 160,000 Girl Scouts participated in the program over the past year, and were credited with selling nearly 2.5 million boxes of cookies beyond those sold through traditional in-person methods. For the coming year, about 90 percent of the GSUSA's 112 regional councils will be engaged in Digital Cookie, and various new features have been added to make it more educational and more fun.
These include on online game called Cookie Booth Bounce to help girls improve decision-making and budgeting skills, and a ``Learning to Run a Business'' section of the website. Girls also can post their own videos, explaining who they are and what the plans are for their proceeds.
Digital Cookie's fans include Claire Houston, 18, who spent 13 years with the Girl Scouts in Dutchess County, New York. She's now a freshman at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, studying computer science and serving as co-coach to a Girl Scout robotics team.
Digital Cookie “is a great way to connect with how the world is changing right now, ” she said. “Technology is such a big part of our lives. ”
Overall, the technological evolution has not been problem-free. A memo from the Girl Scouts' communications office said some councils across the U.S. experienced membership declines and "disruption in service capabilities'' while adjusting to the new systems.
"GSUSA had to make the decision to accept the short-term impact for the necessary long-term investment in necessary tech improvements,” the memo said.
Some complaints about the program changes and the cost of program materials have circulated on "GSUSA, Are You Listening?” — a Facebook page that serves as a sounding board for Girl Scout volunteers who are uneasy about the organization's direction. Some worry that the GSUSA is going too far in de-emphasizing camping, the earning of badges, and other traditional activities.
The Facebook page recently served as a vehicle for Suellen Nelles, the most outspoken dissident among the 112 council CEOs, to distribute a detailed "white paper'' criticizing the national leadership and urging it to work more collaboratively with staff and volunteers at the councils.
"The leadership is fine with maintaining all the power and being a top-down organization, ” said Nelles, who heads the Farthest North Girl Scout Council in Fairbanks, Alaska. "We have forgotten our foundation and that we are only as strong as our all-volunteer membership.”
However, Nelles said she's received little support for her stance from other council CEOs, and Chavez insisted that collaboration between the national office and the councils was more vibrant now than at any point in her seven years as a Girl Scout executive.
"We know we'll continue to have challenges,” Chavez said. "But here's out secret power: We're a family with a clear purpose — creating girls of courage, confidence and character. The girls are going to lead the way for us.”