Girl Scouts try “digital cookies” to increase membership Girls listen during the Girl Scout Troop 582's cookie training session at Beach Vineyard Church in Panama City Beach, Fla. (Heather Leiphart/The News Herald via AP/Amy Sancetta)
Girl Scouts try “digital cookies” to increase membership
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The Girl Scouts continue to lose members. Their leaders are betting on technology. They hope it can help to change the trend. A major growth of a year-old program letting Girl Scout cookies to be sold via mobile apps and the girls' personalized websites is planned.
 
The Digital Cookie upgrade comes amid ongoing challenges for the organization. It is 103 years old. According to figures given to The Associated Press, youth membership for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 was 1.88 million. That is down nearly 6.2 percent from 2014.  Adult membership was 784,120.  It is down 3.1 percent.
 
The total membership is 2.66 million. It is down more than 15 percent over three years. And it is down 30 percent from a peak of more than 3.8 million. The Girl Scouts reached that number in 2003.
 
The Girl Scouts also are struggling in terms of monetary support. The latest numbers by the Chronicle of Philanthropy show that the organization got $103.2 million in private donations in 2014.  The donations are 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 money and membership drops. This is due in part to societal trends. Anna Maria Chavez is the CEO of Girl Scouts of the United States of America. She feels that her organization can rebuild its ranks. She thinks it can be done through technological changes.
 
For paid staff and volunteers, these include online toolkits.  One simplifies the process for joining the Girl Scouts.  Another empowers volunteer troop leaders. They can 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 are really doubling down on technology."
 
For the girls themselves, Digital Cookie is the top program. Chavez said it was input from some scouts a few years ago that inspired the program.
 
About 160,000 Girl Scouts took part in the program over the past year. They were credited with selling nearly 2.5 million boxes of cookies.  Those sales were in addition to those sold through traditional in-person methods. For the coming year, about 90 percent of the GSUSA's 112 regional councils will take part in Digital Cookie. A few new features have been added. They will make it more educational.  And it will be more fun.
 
These features include an online game. It is called Cookie Booth Bounce. It can help girls improve decision-making and budgeting skills.  And there is a "Learning to Run a Business" section of the website. Girls also can post their own videos. They can explain who they are. And they can describe what the plans are for their proceeds.
 
Digital Cookie's fans include Claire Houston. She is 18. She spent 13 years with the Girl Scouts in Dutchess County, New York. She is now a freshman at Mount Holyoke College. The school is in Massachusetts. She studies computer science. She also serves 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 change has not been problem-free. A memo from the Girl Scouts' communications office said some councils saw membership drop.  Some had a "disruption in service capabilities" while getting used 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 gone around on "GSUSA, Are You Listening?" It is a Facebook page. It 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 taking the focus off of camping, and the earning of badges. And also on other traditional activities.
 
The Facebook page recently served as a vehicle for Suellen Nelles. She is the most outspoken person among the 112 council CEOs.  Nelles passed out a detailed "white paper." It criticized the national leadership. The paper urged the national Girl Scout leaders to work together with staff and volunteers at the councils.
 
"The leadership is fine with maintaining all the power and being a top-down organization," said Nelles. She heads the Farthest North Girl Scout Council.  It is in Fairbanks, Alaska. "We have forgotten our foundation.  And that we are only as strong as our all-volunteer membership."
 
However, Nelles said she has gotten little support for her views from other council CEOs.  And Chavez insisted that teamwork between the national office and the councils was more lively now than at any point in her seven years as a Girl Scout executive.
 
"We know we will continue to have challenges," Chavez said. "But here is our secret power. We are a family with a clear purpose. Creating girls of courage, confidence and character. The girls are going to lead the way for us."

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