Girl Scouts CEO brings brand and cookies into the digital age

Anna Maria Chávez, Girl Scouts of the USA CEO talks to Diana Bradley about how the legacy group is leveraging digital to stay relevant.

Anna Maria Chávez, Girl Scouts of the USA CEO
Anna Maria Chávez, Girl Scouts of the USA CEO

Did you have any prior experience with the group before becoming CEO in 2011?
I was a Girl Scout growing up in Arizona. It made me want to provide opportunities to girls and families and put me on the path of public service. I came back into the movement as an adult in 2009, leading a Girl Scout council in Southwest Texas. Because of this, when I stepped into the CEO role, I had a sense of the needs of volunteers and girls.

What was the organization lacking?
When I became CEO, we didn’t have one common email system across our organization of 112 local Girl Scout councils or one centralized Web platform. And, we had not digitized any of our programmatic materials for our girls.

I hired our first chief information officer in 2012. I wanted to take an amazing legacy brand and make it relevant in the 21st century through a technology infrastructure that was new and innovative, so we began investing in a technology system called the Customer Engagement Platform.

In January, Girl Scouts’ Digital Cookie program launched nationally on the new platform. Can you tell us about it?
Through the system, the girls can digitally sell cookies across the country for the first time, and not be limited to their communities. Members get their own customizable website and a mobile app to aid them with sales.

But our traditional Girl Scout Cookies program is still running. One of the key skills girls learn from it is the ability to engage with people. Digital Cookie expands on that by extending their reach and helps them to understand what it is like to run a digital business in today’s world. PR firm Sunshine Sachs helped us to roll out the platform.

What about girls from poorer, less tech-savvy households?
We are 100% about inclusivity. The latest Pew Research Internet Project shows that the digital divide is evening out and that young people are more ahead of the curve than adults, with 93% of teens having access to a computer and 74% being mobile Internet users. In relation to Digital Cookie, we looked at the data to make sure that was not going to be an impediment or a barrier that was only going to privilege a few.

How are you ensuring Digital Cookie is safe for its users?
We trained girls and caregivers to understand we needed to build a safe space. Everyone takes an Internet safety pledge before using the platform and caregivers must approve all changes and updates girls make to their sites.

Our safety standards were already in place with our traditional program. This is just an extension of that.

Girls using Digital Cookie are only pushing out information to people they know. You won’t be able to find their personalized information online just by Googling.

In the past decade, Girl Scouts has seen a membership decline from 3 million to 2 million. What do you attribute this to?
If you look nationally, most youth-serving organizations are having the same issue with engaging youth. There is so much for kids to do. We are competing with a lot. To contend with this, we are promoting the great opportunities our organization provides.

Our programming reflects modern, fun, and new initiatives around STEM, financial literacy, and making it easier for girls and adults to participate in Girl Scouts. We launched a campaign last fall called "I can’t wait to be a Girl Scout." It was one of the first national recruitment programs we have done to get the message out there that this is a fun program where girls will make new friends, learn great things about themselves and other people, and get these people to take action in their local community.

We provided councils with materials they could use on social media and billboards to attract attention and volunteers. In one month, it generated more than 73,000 leads to local councils for girls and adults.

How do you attract and engage volunteers?
Although membership has declined, we also have 30,000 girls on a waiting list who want to join, but they can’t because we do not have enough volunteers in the system.

We estimate each new volunteer can take up to five girls from that list. Since the recession, it has become harder for people to spend their time volunteering, which is a challenge for us. We’re using our new platform to support volunteers with a toolkit and online training. This way, if you’re a busy parent who can’t come in for hours, you can do the training online in your own time.

Can men get involved?
Currently fewer than 5% of our volunteers are men. We see that as a huge growth opportunity. Our councils in Utah and New Jersey, are running "Are you man enough to be a Girl Scout?" campaigns to recruit male volunteers. In April, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wore a shirt supporting the campaign at his 120th town hall meeting.

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