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Arizona Girl Scouts Are In The Business Of Staying In Business

Girl Scout cookie season just ended in Arizona on Friday, and with it, the biggest source of revenue to pay for Girl Scout programs across the state. A nationwide decline in membership and changing attitudes towards scouting have threatened the program’s future, but the Girl Scouts’ Arizona territory seems to be too big — in land size — to fail. 

“Would you like to buy a box of girl scout cookies?” said a group of Brownies and Girl Scouts in front of the Walmart on 75th Avenue in Glendale on a Saturday in February. It’s an area where Girl Scout membership is growing. 

“So what is the top seller?” I asked to the girls behind the booth.

“Thin Mints are the top seller,” all the young girls replied at once.

Girl Scout cookies are an $800 million annual business, running January through April nationwide. Girl Scout cookie sales top Oreos, Chips Ahoy and Milano cookies. The staggering numbers make  this nonprofit, the “largest  entrepreneurial program for girls in the world.”

Of course, I bought a few boxes of cookies for myself from the young girls, first-year brownie Jordan and Girl Scout Jacqueline, who also showed me their swag.“Um, the back is the fun patches and the front is the ones that you work hard for,” said Jordon, who just earned a cooking badge.

“These ones are journeys. I just need one more and then I get my junior journey pin,” said Jacqueline.

Jacqueline and Jordon are two of the 20,000 girls in the  Cactus-Pine Girl Scout region that covers two-thirds of the state. It’s one of the largest in the country - and despite steadily declining membership nationally for two decades, its membership is actually increasing in rural parts areas of the state. 

“I’ve been a leader for 22 years in November,” said Ana Colombo, a troop leader and grandmother to Jordon and Jacqueline, and also to junior girl scout, second-year brownie, Emilia, who sold cookies that day to shoppers exiting the store.

Ana is heavily involved with troop business and serves on the Girl Scout council that makes decisions about membership drives and  troop revenuecampaigns, a volunteer position designed to help grow this non-profit business model. 

At $5 a box,  cookie sales are, by far, the largest funding source for scouting programs. Money is divided with about $1 going to the troop. Another $1 goes to the cookie manufacturer while the remainder goes to the Girl Scouts. 

“We depend on our cookie sales. That’s how we get our money to do many activities. That’s how we get the money to go and get the badges that the girls earn, the patches for fun activities they do,” said Colombo. “We’ve got a lot of unique challenges in our council to serve that many people with different backgrounds and locations and barriers,” said Heather Thornton, Communications Manager of Girl Scouts-Arizona Cactus-Pine Council. 

Eighty percent of its members are in the Valley.  But the other 20% cover a lot of geography across Arizona including the Navajo nation, military areas and national parks. Covering 75,000 square miles of Arizona, the council has one of the largest territories in the country - and 20,000 girls in grades K-12.  

If the way that girls experience programming is different from one community to another, that’s ok, as long as they have access to it,” she said. 

Access to those programs, according to Thornton, requires a very clear public messaging campaign about what the Girl Scouts is and what it isn’t. 

The Girl Scouts are in the middle of a fierce marketing campaign to reinvigorate and redefine community engagement in the program. 

Nationally, the Girl Scouts reported record low membership of 1.76 million girls in 2019 — down more than 1 million since a peak in 2003. And as a nonprofit, image and perception of the entity itself is really the key to success of the business model, according to Ruth McCambridge, editor-in-chief of Nonprofit Quarterly. 

“Girl Scout cookies are a great thing. They are probably not the decider in the Girl Scouts future,” said McCambridge who attributes the problem to the changing view towards scouting, noting that scouting is becoming less central in American culture. 

In a top 100 ranking of nonprofits based on public perception and recognition including social media likes and Facebook followings, The Girl Scouts ranked 68th.

“Whether or not the Girl Scouts continue to grow and I’ve got plenty of Girl Scout cookies right here in my house, but whether or not the Girl Scouts continue to grow is really about whether or not what they’re doing feels incredibly relevant and useful to people in communities. For both organizations, that’s true,” McCambridge said.

By both organizations, McCambridge is including the Boy Scouts, which ranked 75th on the nonprofit list. In October 2017, the Boy Scouts of America began admitting girls as members. But the two agencies never merged and have no plans to do so — a message the Girl Scouts have spent a lot of time — and money —  to make very clear.

In mid-February, Girl Scout “cookie season” was interrupted by news that the Boy Scouts of America was filing for bankruptcy protection amid its ongoing sexual abuse scandals. 

It was a very public announcement that the Girl Scouts responded to with a very public announcement of its own, reminding the public the Girl Scout program is not affiliated with the Boy Scouts “in any way” and that the two scouting organizations have been separate “for their more than 100 year history”, according to the Girl Scouts. 

"One of the things we do at nonprofit quarterly is just pay attention to the degree of integrity with which nonprofits go about their work and this disturbed us mostly because it seems like not just a violation of what should be general accountability expectations but also kind of a violation of their own principles," said McCambridge. "The way that the nonprofit status has relevancy, of course, is because it is responsible to the public and to the public good," she said.   

The marketing effort was swift and effective — and the latest in a series of well-planned marketing shots to reinvigorate Girl Scout troop membership, focusing exclusively on female membership and promotion of female leaders. 

The public campaign included  “ Famous Formers” - notable women who were Girl Scouts growing up. The list includes former first ladies Michelle Obama and Laura Bush,  The Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, late performers Bette Davis and Mary Tyler Moore and tennis icons Serena and Venus Williams — all, of course, with photos of Girl Scout cookies.

“We talked about the needs, the wants, what we need for life ... oxygen, a house, food and water. Some people don’t have those. Some people do.” Srija is 7-years-old and has been in Girl Scouts since kindergarten. She is now a brownie in Chandler, where she is learning basic life skills and communication skills — along with her mom, Padmaja. “Coming from a background, from India, you know, I never needed, I never smile at somebody, some stranger, and say ‘hello’ and give a shake hand and say anything,” said Padmaja. “Now, along with her, when she is going on a cookie sale — most of the times, I was too shy to ask people, like ‘do you want to buy cookies?’ and she’s up there asking everybody, you know, ‘how many do you want?’ and she starts like that!”

“I was like, what, you need to ask first, would you like to buy some cookies?” Padmaja continued.  “She’s like how many cookies do you want? Sometimes, I’m like, wow, this is how I should talk to people.  So, in this journey, I feel like, along with her, it’s changing my life, too, for the good,” she said.  

Ana Colombo says there is no replacement for the programs if the Girl Scouts go out of business.

“We have a lot of single parent children who don’t get involved in after school activities. So a Girl scout program gives them, especially for girls, gives them a safe place to be at. At the same time they are learning skills, they are developing, they are being outspoken, they are being assertive,” said Colombo. “And there’s people like us, volunteers, willing to step up, and give our time to them.” 

This season, the Arizona Cactus-Pine Council reached its 3 million box goal, matching a previous record for the area.

Heather van Blokland moved to Phoenix in March 2016 to join KJZZ as a host/producer, after working as an on-air host/producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland, covering middays, weekends and most everything in between. van Blokland previously worked as a Morning Edition host and reporter at Florida NPR affiliate WUFT-FM, covering business and agriculture beats. She was also the local producer and editor for StoryCorps’ story booth.Like many in public media, van Blokland brings a diverse background to her daily duties. Her first career was in the private sector as a financial analyst manager in commercial and investment banking. She also used to teach canoeing and kayaking on the local rivers in North Central Florida. Her education includes a master’s in mass communication from the University of Florida, a bachelor’s in finance, marketing and multinational business from Florida State University, and a diploma in acting for film and television from Vancouver Film School in Vancouver, British Columbia. She wrote and produced a film, later submitted to the Vancouver International Film Festival.In her free time, van Blokland enjoys exploring the outdoors, everything from a hike on South Mountain to Vancouver's Butchart Gardens to a ride through Swaziland’s Mkhaya Game Reserve. Her travels have included South Africa, Swaziland, western Canada, Australia, the British Isles, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay and summers on the outskirts of London. She is also a certified open-water diver, and still looking to apply that skill in Phoenix.Half Southern and half English, van Blokland enjoys using phrases that surprise people. She does not enjoy steak and kidney pie or Monty Python. You can send your ardent disagreements with this statement to her directly at [email protected].