Local Girl Scouts take lead in national consolidation: Larger councils to mean more opportunities for girls

Last year’s merger of five area Girl Scout councils into one central Indiana organization has gone so well that it’s being used as a model for others to follow. Local staffers are being flown around the country-at national Girl Scouts’ expense-to coach other councils on how to achieve the same results.

The local merger was the first in a national drive to consolidate far-flung and often uneven Girl Scout councils, reducing their numbers by almost a third. With the local staffs under one roof, national leaders thought, more resources would be available to offer a broader range of programs to girls.

In central Indiana, for example, Girl Scouts from 33 counties have access to an array of activities that once were limited to individual councils-everything from technology classes in Lafayette to swim camp in Brown County.

Five former central Indiana Girl Scout councils, all of which had their own executive directors and support staff, now are part of an Indianapolis headquarters office and four service centers.

Although the total staff count of 100 is unchanged, eliminating overlap allowed the consolidated council to specialize more. The Indianapolis office now has a full-time fund-raising staff and other employees who focus on getting the word out about scouting.

The changes appear to be making a difference. Donations increased more than 25 percent in 2007, the number of adult volunteers grew nearly 20 percent, and local Girl Scout membership also is up slightly.

“We really had visionary leadership” in the consolidation, said council Executive Director Deborah Hearn Smith.

High-capacity councils

The consolidation push began in 2004, when the national Girl Scout leadership did some introspection to make sure the 96-year-old organization was still strong and relevant. Its studies suggested that one weakness was the disparity among its councils, the governing bodies that oversee the nation’s 236,000 national Girl Scout troops.

The 312 councils it had then ranged in size from as few as 1,000 girls to as many as 60,000. Some offered deluxe camps and programs, while others were threadbare. What it meant to be a Girl Scout in one town was a world away from what it meant in another.

“The scope and quality of the programs girls [received] was vastly different” from council to council, said Vicki Wright, Girl Scouts USA’s project director for the realignment strategy.

To ensure that each council could offer a similar level of programming-and raise the money to support its activities-leaders proposed reforming the councils into larger groups centered in a hub city, like Indianapolis.

Instead of 312 councils, the Girl Scouts would have 109, each encompassing a diverse area that included at least 150,000 girls ages 5 to 17-those who could become members.

“We wanted large councils that combine urban, suburban and rural areas together,” Wright said.

National leaders asked local councils to draw up new maps for themselves, and at the same time hired demographers to draw boundary lines. That map was unveiled at a national meeting.

“There was a big silence and then a gasp in the room,” Wright said. “Most said what the demographers drew was exactly right for their area.”

If the locally drawn maps differed from the demographers’ suggestions, councils could submit an appeal asking for changes. Once the boundaries were finalized, local councils formally approved the changes.

Central Indiana was one of 10 regions termed “early adopters” because their locally drawn maps matched the demographers’ suggestion. Local leaders got to work immediately because they wanted to complete the merger before hosting a national Girl Scout convention in Indianapolis this fall.

Embracing change

The consolidation meant some staff was asked to move or take on new jobs. To smooth the way, the national Girl Scouts partnered with local councils to offer early-retirement packages to longtime employees.

“For the most part, if staff was doing a good job, there was a place for them in the new council,” Wright said.

A year into the revamp, more than half of the planned mergers are already done and the rest are scheduled to be complete by the end of 2009.

“We’re dealing with a huge, transformational change,” Wright said. “There were some areas of push-back, but most people jumped on the bandwagon fairly quickly.”

These types of realignments are increasingly common for large organizations. Not-for-profits go through business cycles just like the private sector, said Beth Gazley, assistant professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University. The Girl Scouts are in a good position, she said, because they are making changes as they look to the future, rather than reacting to a crisis.

“They’ve planned ahead so they can do this in a way with the least negative impact on employees and so that it’s driven by programmatic goals,” she said. “Good for them.”

Other groups haven’t been so lucky. The American Red Cross, for example, said it will begin laying off employees as it copes with a $200 million budget deficit.

Every institution must adapt to its environment and the Girl Scouts are no different, Gazley said. Scouting in general has seen membership changes as its traditional strength in suburban communities has waned. So the organization must recruit different girls.

“The suburban strength isn’t there anymore, so they’re thinking strategically about services,” Gazley said.

Locally, Girl Scout programs that used to be held at schools after hours have declined because more girls are heading to community centers or other afterschool care programs, said Deana Potterf, director of communications. So the central Indiana council is doing more to take its programming to girls, teaching classes at YWCAs and Girls and Boys Clubs, for example.

Local experience

Central Indiana is set to host the national Girl Scouts convention in October, when more than 10,000 girls and adults will swarm downtown Indianapolis. Although the site was selected before the merger efforts began, local leaders were inspired to lead the pack so they could be done before the convention.

Local leaders went to a national realignment training session in May 2006, set up a working group that summer, and had all council votes and bylaws changed by Jan. 1, 2007.

“We did it quickly,” said Deb McCloud, chairwoman of the central Indiana board and leader of the consolidation committee. “It was one of the biggest things that made it go smoothly. It’s more painful to drag it out forever.”

Most of the outlying council employees moved to the Indianapolis headquarters, though some service staff stayed in the regional offices, some staff retired early, and some left the organization.

Among the challenges: a concern about regional programs’ being “controlled by Indianapolis,” said Hearn Smith. Leaders solved that by being deliberate about decisions, making sure they kept the entire region in mind. They also were quick to update T-shirts, Web sites and pamphlets to make certain all programs and events were included.

Leaders said it’s too early to tell yet what the true cost savings will be from the merger. The new Indianapolis headquarters had some new expenses, like installing a phone and e-mail system, but other expenses dropped. For example, the five councils spent a total of $100,000 to do annual audits before the merger. The combined organization spent $40,000.

For the girls, the main change is access to a wider range of programs. Formerly, they generally could choose from activities within their council boundaries, but now they can take part in anything from Lafayette’s student exchange program with its sister city in Japan to Morgan County’s arts camp.

With its revamped staff, the central Indiana council wants to reach out to even more girls, especially immigrants and those in economically struggling areas.

It soon will add troops from Howard and Carroll counties, which were spun off from northern Indiana councils to find a better fit. The northern third of the state is still in the process of merging, while southern Indiana groups are scheduled to be in the last round of mergers completed in 2009.

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