The Girl Scouts Keep Getting Better at Selling Cookies. It’s Not Saving Them.

You remember the cookies, but do you remember the girl who sells them to you?

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Soon, satisfying your craving for Tagalongs will no longer require you to leave the house. To the delight of the cookie-loving masses, Girl Scouts of the United States of America announced this week that for the first time, Shortbreads, Thin Mints, and other favorites will be available via online orders.

The idea, GSUSA says, is to teach its scouts 21st-century skills—an exercise in e-commerce that’s part of a larger, years-long effort to revive a flagging institution. Though Girl Scouts can boast of positive outcomes—GSUSA’s research arm reports that its 59 million alumnae are more likely to volunteer, vote, and be otherwise civically engaged than the general population of American women—membership has fallen 27 percent since 2003, from 3.8 million to 2.8 million. The cookies sell, generating $786 million in 2012, but from 2012 to 2013, GSUSA’s operating revenues fell 7.5 percent.

Youth clubs by and large are losing members (the Boy Scouts aren’t doing so well, either), but the Girl Scouts suffer from precisely the problem its cookies don’t have: The organization isn’t a brand that inspires loyalty. “Girl Scout Dropouts” proudly air their delinquent status online. “After about age 12, it wasn’t cool anymore,” says former scout Laura Bradley, a Slate intern. She made it up to Junior level and then quit, as did almost all of her friends. In recent years, girl scouting has managed to retain about 57 percent of participants annually. By comparison, USA Swimming, a youth-centered sport nonprofit, retained 75 percent of its members this year, up from 64 percent 10 years ago. The Girl Scouts know how to cultivate cookie devotees, but it’s been less successful at articulating why one should remain devoted to the organization. 

Many nonprofits have worthy goals but trouble telling the story of how they plan to achieve them, says Rolf Wulfsberg of Siegel+Gale, a global branding firm. “I am helpless when I see a Thin Mint,” he says, but there’s only a vague notion that the money from buying a box or two of cookies goes to “supporting someone’s daughter”.

The Girl Scouts organization, founded in 1912 in part to instill a love of the outdoors in women, is also struggling to figure out what story it wants to tell. It has tried to stem decline by overhauling its programs to emphasize teaching leadership through business and STEM subjects. A revamped curriculum introduced in 2011 includes awards for practical skills like financial literacy. Focusing on leadership and contemporary skills is laudable, but critics have protested that the changes have pulled scouting too far from its roots.*

A big change to what a charity does can cause the brand to lose its cachet with older constituencies, says Nathalie Kylander of Harvard Business School. They become disconnected from the organization’s identity, even if the philanthropic aim (in this case, to empower girls) stays the same. Indeed, the Girl Scouts admit one of their biggest obstacles is a shortage of adult troop leaders. More than 30,000 girls are on waiting lists to join Girl Scouts but can’t due to the dearth of volunteers. It will be harder to recruit them if they don’t feel as deep of a connection to GSUSA’s purpose.

Donors are also less likely to give if a charity doesn’t offer something unique, says Wulfsberg—and robotics club, home economics classes, and internships teach business and STEM skills, too. But the bigger problem for GSUSA remains that most people’s relationship with Girl Scouts is with its cookies. When you buy your box of Savannah Smiles, all you see is an anonymous-looking uniform—or soon, a webpage.

GSUSA might solve these problems if it took a hint from the success of its cookie brand, instead of a touting a mish-mash of new and old values and offerings. The cookies come with elaborate back stories (Savannah Smiles are named for the city of Girl Scouts’ founding and represent “money management,” for example); the scout who sells them to you does not. It isn’t the sweets that deserve the spotlight.

*Correction, Dec. 3, 2014: This post originally misstated that the Girl Scouts do not have a geocaching badge, and this was cited as an example of a lag in their outdoor programming. They do. That reference has been removed.