Let’s talk about the administrative structure of Girl Scouting!!
Whenever I give talks about Girl Scouting, I quickly realize that the audience does not understand how councils relate to our national organization, Girl Scouts of the USA.
Let me put on my political scientist hat and explain. I’ll explain the structure first, then look at examples of recalcitrant councils of the past.
Girl Scouts is not a monolithic corporation. The councils are not subsidiaries of GSUSA, but independent 501(c)(3) companies governed by separate boards of directors.
Federated National Movement
The more accurate description is a federated national movement. These are:
characterized by autonomous local member organizations that share a common purpose, mission, and history and that have joined together under the auspices of a national organization that articulates this mission at the national level and provides leadership for the movement.
Dennis R. Young, “Local Autonomy in a Franchise Age: Structural Change in National Voluntary Associations,” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 18, no. 2 (Summer 1989): 104.
Federated organizations, especially multi-site nonprofits, tend to suffer from tensions between national offices and affiliates, which vary in degree and intensity but rarely vanish entirely.
If poorly managed, they suffer from uneven performance among local organizations, costly administrative duplication, and cumbersome national offices that deliver insufficient value.
Stephanie Myrie, “The Girl Scouts: Uncharted Territory,” Nonprofit Quarterly (September 21, 2007).
However, the more accurate description of the relationship between GSUSA and councils is an asymmetrical federation: power is distributed between headquarters and councils, but not equally. GSUSA holds the ultimate trump card—the council charter. Without a charter, no group can legitimately claim to be part of Girl Scouting.
The national organization, Girl Scouts of the United States of America (GSUSA) grants charters to local councils, typically for three years at a time. In return, local councils become the designated, sole providers of Girl Scouting in a specific geographic area. They are permitted to use the official name, logo and other branding elements, to participate in national product sales, and to sell the uniforms, handbooks, badges, and other insignia developed by the national office. They also may send delegates to the National Council, the main governing structure, which meets every three years.
Councils, in turn, must adhere to administrative, program, and camping standards set by GSUSA. Diverging from the national guidelines, such as admitting boys, could result in having a charter revoked or renewed on a probationary, year-by-year basis.
The GSUSA “Blue Book” contains the organization’s Constitution, Bylaws, Policies, Credentials, the Criteria and Standards for an Effective GS Council, and the Congressional Charter granted in 1950.
The 2020 edition of the Blue Book states the purpose of granting a charter and the rights and obligations imposed on a chartered council:
A Girl Scout council charter is issued by the National Board of Directors of Girl Scouts of the USA to an organization exclusively devoted to the Girl Scout Movement in the United States, granting it the right to develop, manage, and maintain Girl Scouting in a specified area of jurisdiction, which is established by the National Board of Directors, and to call itself a Girl Scout council. A Girl Scout council charter is issued for no more than four years.
By definition, charter revocations redraw council boundaries. The dissolved council–including its members, assets, and debts–will be absorbed by one or more neighboring councils. Action may be taken on a case-by-case basis, such as councils in financial peril, or toward dozens of councils, such as during a campaign to redraw (or realign) all council borders.
Given the profound impact of a charter revocation, they are a rare, out-of-other-options, action. It would be highly unusual for GSUSA to revoke the charter of a financially stable council, for example. Instead, they would likely be invoked for violations of national policies that could have a ripple effect across the movement.
I won’t go into further detail here about revocation versus non-renewal, as the outcome is the same. (For a deep dive, explore the Girl Scout Governance site.)
As this site explores history, let’s look at how councils resisting the Council Coverage program were disciplined.
In 1945 the GSUSA board of directors authorized the “Council Coverage” program to create a seamless network of councils spanning the entire country. Existing councils could be expanded geographically or consolidated into a larger, new unit to combine human, financial, and property resources to provide better, more consistent services for girls. The consolidation program, popularly known as the “Green Umbrella” movement, lasted nearly 20 years, ending officially in 1963 with 696 councils.
While the “Green Umbrella” name suggests welcoming fellow Girl Scouts into the efficient, protective arms of professional staff, many volunteers did not see it that way. They believed they had been running their local councils just fine, thank you, and did not want a distant national organization butting in on local affairs.
To prevent GSUSA from seizing local camps and properties, some councils took extreme actions. Such as divesting
themselves of properties and transfer[ing] them into citizens’ trusteeships so that if they are forced to join in a district council, they can withdraw from National Girl Scouting and remain an organization on their own.
“Girl Scout Leader Defends Councils,” Daily Herald [Chicago] (July 11, 1963): 99
Council-owned property was a particular sticking point; local camps had been built and funded by local people, who did not want to turn them over to outsiders. At least 20 councils chose to affiliate with the Camp Fire Girls instead.
Thank you, but we’ll pass.
Even more problematic, the Council Coverage program was not optional. Dissenters could end their affiliation with the Girl Scouts, but they could not take assets with them.
The unilateral mandate was not well received, and the program was reviewed at the 1957 National Council Session. Delegates passed a motion that gave councils the right to present their concerns to the National Board of Directors before a final decision on combining councils.
We are not against council coverage as plan, but we object to the compulsion here.Virginia Schoof, “Delegates Vote Council Plan for Scout Units,” Philadelphia Inquirer (November 15, 1957).
Among the unhappy campers, the Mount Vernon (Illinois) and Donora (Pennsylvania) Councils sought to preserve their independence through the judicial system.
Donora Council, located near Pittsburgh, served just the city of Donora. Plans were to combine it with the surrounding Allegheny County council and nearby community. Donora’s president appeared before the National Board’s Executive Committee on September 20, 1962. The Committee rejected Donora’s case and pulled its charter. The council filed suit, demanding that GSUSA explain its decision. The court ruled for GSUSA, but Donora appealed, arguing that National Board should not have delegated National Board Executive Committee to hear their objections, thus the revocation of their charter was not valid. The Supreme Court of New York rejected Donora’s complaint in December 1962. To continue in Girl Scouts, Donora’s 500 members must join the new council.
Mount Vernon also went to New York to argue its position before the National Board and was also turned down. GSUSA canceled Mount Vernon’s charter. The council filed suit in the Circuit Court of Jefferson County, Illinois, which issued an injunction that kept Mount Vernon’s charter in place until the lawsuit was settled.
The status of these two councils became an issue at the 1963 National Council session in Miami. With the injunction—and therefore its charter—in place, Mount Vernon’s delegate was admitted to the session. But Donora, whose charter had expired, was denied delegate status. A motion to seat the Donora delegate failed, 1406-1248.
Aware of the mounting tensions around Council Coverage, the president of the Scarsdale, NY, council suggested a proposal for consideration at the 1963 National Council session in Miami:
Remove the disturbing distrust of the national volunteers and staff and the general indignation that is sweeping the country over the threatening nature of the national [leadership] directives.
“Girl Scouts Anticipate Council Coverage Clash,” Oshkosh Northwestern (October 21, 1963): 9.
The question was not put on the agenda.
Two Councils Bite the Dust
Mount Vernon ultimately was granted a new charter in 1966. But their victory was short-lived. GSUSA refused to renew that charter, and Mount Vernon ultimately joined Shagbark Council in 1968, as the Council Coverage plan had originally intended.
Donora joined the Allegheny Council, which soon became the Southwestern Pennsylvania Council.
Sometimes the smallest councils make the biggest waves.
©2021 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian