Girl Scouts membership decreases; organization tries to revamp itself

NEW YORK (AP) - Given the friction and financial woes facing the Girl Scouts these days, perhaps it's time for a giant friendship circle. Under that long-standing tradition, a ring of Scouts clasp hands and give a little squeeze, accompanied by a silent wish of good will.

Just a year after its centennial celebrations, the Girl Scouts of the USA finds itself in a different sort of squeeze. Its interconnected problems include declining membership and revenues, a dearth of volunteers, rifts between leadership and grassroots members, a pension plan with a $347 million deficit, and an uproar over efforts by many local councils to sell venerable summer camps.

The tangle of difficulties has prompted one congressman to request an inquiry by the House Ways and Means Committee into the pension liabilities and the sale of camps.

"I am worried that America's Girl Scouts are now selling cookies to fund pension plans instead of camping," wrote Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, in a letter last month to the committee chairman.

Compounding the problems are tensions at GSUSA headquarters in New York, where several senior executives have quit or been ousted since Anna Maria Chavez took over as CEO in 2011. Last week, some of the roughly 325 employees there were invited to take early retirement, and Chavez said an unspecified number of layoffs were expected in August to offset the revenue losses.

Chavez insists the GSUSA is on the right track, although she acknowledged that sweeping changes in structure and programs over the past 10 years have been difficult for many in the Scouts' extended family.

"Change can be unsettling and it is not surprising that some would prefer for us to remain static," she said. "But doing so would be a disservice to girls who need us now more than ever."

Indeed, there's a common denominator between the GSUSA leaders and their critics — earnest expressions of devotion to the Girl Scouts and fervent hopes that it manages to thrive.

"I care so much about this organization, and that's why I hate to see it pulled down," said Suellen Nelles, CEO of a local council based in Fairbanks, Alaska. "We have leadership at the top who are toxic to this organization and need to go."

Connie Lindsey, the president of GSUSA's governing board, said the board had confidence in Chavez, despite the various problems.

"Our board supports our CEO," said Lindsey, a corporate executive from Chicago. "We know it's a difficult charge we've given her."

Since 2003, the Girl Scouts have undergone what they describe as a "complete transformation" aimed at making their programs and image more relevant to a diverse population of girls and parents. Changes have affected uniforms, handbooks, merit badges, program materials, even the logo and the fine print on the boxes of Girl Scout cookies.

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