Federations, Charters, Dissent

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.

Subsidiary? No.

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).

Charters

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. Councils 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. If a council ignored the national guidelines, such as admitting boys, its charter could be 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.

Council without Charters

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.

Council Coverage

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.

Penn Laurel Council was formed during Council Consolidation

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 citizens had built and funded local camps, and they 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, Pennsylvania

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, Illinois

Mount Vernon also went to New York to argue its position before the National Board. But GSUSA canceled Mount Vernon’s charter, too. 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

Making New Friends, Again

Why is “Make New Friends” such a popular Girl Scout song?

Because staff come and go so quickly that we’re always dealing with someone new.

Four years ago, when Anna Maria Chavez resigned as GSUSA CEO, I wrote a blog post about “If I Were CEO.” I listed five steps that could be done to strengthen the Girl Scout movement. It was a popular post, and GSUSA used the framework for its own blog.

Now we are saying goodbye to CEO Sylvia Acevedo, and the points I made four years ago are still relevant.

One directly addressed the perpetual issue of staff turnover:

3. Invest in Staff Stability

Girl Scout councils have become pass-through workplaces. Few staff stay as long as two years, regarding the jobs as temporary stages in their careers. But younger doesn’t necessarily mean better in terms of employees; it simply means cheaper. How do we get them to put down roots? We could ask new hires to make a two-year commitment. We could also recruit from another demographic—current volunteers. Would empty-nesters, long-time volunteers whose troops have graduated, be interested? They are already  familiar with the program, so they would have less of a learning curve. We can’t build strong relationships and continuity with fleeting partner.

Another point asks you to consider your own communication style:

4. Promote a Culture of Collaboration

The various components of our movement must commit to improving communication, treating others with respect, and not going off to pout in our tents. This is OUR movement. It is up to us to find ways to perpetuate it.

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The old recipe for Brownie Stew applies in the conference room as well as the campsite: everyone brings something to the table—new ideas, hard-earned experience, and enthusiasm, to name a few. Just because an adult wasn’t a member as girl doesn’t mean they can’t contribute today.

We must eliminate the fear of being expelled or fired that intimidates leaders and staff into silence.

Staff must learn to value the contribution of volunteers—that means recognizing the hours they serve as well as the dollars they give. Both forms of contribution are equally vital to the future of our movement.

National, council, staff, volunteer, girl—we’re all part of the same big troop.

…But Keep the Old

Girl Scout careers seem to be getting shorter and shorter. Most of our early CEOs (or “National Directors”) spent a decade or more in one position. But now, programs are launched then fade away because the driving force has hit the road. Who is left to clean up the crumbs?

Past CEOs of GSUSA

The result of staff churn is an unfortunate feeling among volunteers that we can wait you out. Why listen to new procedures when we can be fairly sure that the presenter won’t be around for next year?

No wonder there are so many, many verses for “Make New Friends.”

©2021 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian

Bear Creek Flashback

This week I was contacted by someone doing research on the former Bear Creek Girl Scout Council.

She had done an internet search for Bear Creek and found me. That is where I began Girl Scouts, as I mentioned in another post a few years ago.

We talked a bit about Bear Creek’s merger into the Kentuckiana Girl Scout Council. I also offered to search my home town newspaper for anything relevant.

A quick search of the Paducah Sun archives produced a detailed article, as I expected:

But wait….what’s that on the page next to the article?

It’s a photo! An old photo with very little contrast. Plus the three figures are in shadow since they are standing under a canoe.

But if the faces aren’t clear, those three names sure are. That’s my old troop! I know those girls!! Heck, Laura Terrell sang at my wedding!!!

The photo is accompanied by a detailed article about the troop’s 1978 canoe trip to the Boundary Waters area on the US-Canadian border.

No, I didn’t make the canoe trip. I joined the troop a few weeks after they returned home. Even if I had had the opportunity to go, I’m positive my parents would not have let me. (Don’t even get me started on that subject….)

I already knew some of the girls from Junior Girl Scouts, the others I met at day camp later in the summer. After two weeks at day camp I felt like I had gone on the trip. That’s all they talked about! And they sang…the canoe songs… the car songs…the tent songs…. So many songs!

We’ve lost a few troop members over the decades, but I’m still in touch with many via Facebook. (Ladies, please leave a comment!)

Finally, I have to share another photo gem that turned up in my search. Nothing to do with canoes, but I need to recognize two women who were very important parts of my early Girl Scout years: Aleta Worthen, my Junior leader, and Mary Henry, my Cadette and Senior leader.

Does anybody remember Mrs. Henry with that hair??

Happy Throwback Thursday!

©2021 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian