NEW YORK — Given the friction and financial woes facing the Girl Scouts these days, perhaps it's time for a giant friendship circle. Under that long-standing tradition, a ring of Scouts clasp hands and give a little squeeze, accompanied by a silent wish of good will.
Just a year after its centennial celebrations, the Girl Scouts of the USA finds itself in a different sort of squeeze. Its interconnected problems include declining membership and revenues, a dearth of volunteers, rifts between leadership and grassroots members, a pension plan with a $347 million deficit, and an uproar over efforts by many local councils to sell venerable summer camps.
The tangle of difficulties has prompted one congressman to request an inquiry by the House Ways and Means Committee into the pension liabilities and the sale of camps.
"I am worried that America's Girl Scouts are now selling cookies to fund pension plans instead of camping," wrote Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, in a letter last month to the committee chairman.
Compounding the problems are tensions at GSUSA headquarters in New York, where several senior executives have quit or been ousted since Anna Maria Chavez took over as CEO in 2011. Last week, some of the roughly 325 employees there were invited to take early retirement, and Chavez said an unspecified number of layoffs were expected in August to offset the revenue losses.
Chavez insists the GSUSA is on the right track, although she acknowledged that sweeping changes in structure and programs over the past 10 years have been difficult for many in the Scouts' extended family.
"Change can be unsettling and it is not surprising that some would prefer for us to remain static," she said. "But doing so would be a disservice to girls who need us now more than ever."
Indeed, there's a common denominator between the GSUSA leaders and their critics — earnest expressions of devotion to the Girl Scouts and fervent hopes that it manages to thrive.
"I care so much about this organization, and that's why I hate to see it pulled down," said Suellen Nelles, CEO of a local council based in Fairbanks, Alaska. "We have leadership at the top who are toxic to this organization and need to go."
Connie Lindsey, the president of GSUSA's governing board, said the board had confidence in Chavez, despite the various problems.
"Our board supports our CEO," said Lindsey, a corporate executive from Chicago. "We know it's a difficult charge we've given her."
Since 2003, the Girl Scouts have undergone what they describe as a "complete transformation" aimed at making their programs and image more relevant to a diverse population of girls and parents. Changes have affected uniforms, handbooks, merit badges, program materials, even the logo and the fine print on the boxes of Girl Scout cookies.
"Our brand, as iconic as it is, was misunderstood — it was dated," Chavez said in an interview in her Manhattan office on Friday.
Yet today the Girl Scouts have about 2.2 million youth members, down from more than 2.8 million in 2003. Donations to the national office and local councils plunged to $104 million in 2011 from nearly $148 million in 2007.
The biggest change — implemented from 2006 to 2009 by Chavez' predecessor, Kathy Cloninger — was a realignment that slashed the number of local councils from 312 to 112. It was intended to increase efficiency, but resulted in the departure of many longtime employees and volunteers.
A handful of councils resisted, and one of them, the Manitou Council based in Sheboygan, Wis., sued to block its merger in 2008 after negotiations failed to resolve its concerns.
The council argued that it deserved the same protections as a for-profit franchise operator, and in 2011 the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.
"From a commercial standpoint, the Girl Scouts are not readily distinguishable from Dunkin' Donuts," the court wrote in its opinion.
Also refusing to merge was the council led by Nelles — the Farthest North Girl Scout Council in Fairbanks.
Nelles, who contended that realignment weakened local control while saddling councils with new financial burdens, says she's been ostracized by the national office.
"Questioning authority is very much frowned upon," she said. "If anyone resisted them at any point, they said we just wanted to hold onto the past."
Among other consequences, the mergers affected the Girl Scouts' national pension plan, because many employees were added to it as an inducement to take early retirement.
One council, the Nashville-based Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee, is suing to get out of the pension plan. The lawsuit contends the GSUSA added as many as 1,850 employees to the plan who hadn't contributed to it, leaving local councils with a liability they had not agreed to fund.
According to the suit, the pension plan had a surplus of more than $150 million in 2007. It now has a deficit of about $347 million, according to GSUSA figures.
One of the Tennessee council's lawyers, James Bristol, stressed that his clients were not seeking money from the GSUSA, but rather wanted to negotiate a remedy.
"They would not negotiate," Bristol said. "They've told us, 'We've got this under control.'"
The GSUSA has filed a motion for the case to be dismissed.
It is also asking Congress to pass legislation that would provide relief by stretching out the timetable for local councils to pay into the pension plan. Without such relief, councils could face a 40 percent increase in pension expenses next year, and be forced into layoffs and program cuts, according to GSUSA.
Financial stress already has prompted many local councils to consider selling off old summer camps, both to gain revenue and reduce maintenance costs.
In many states — including Iowa, Ohio, New York, Alabama and Missouri — the sell-off plans provoked intense debate. Pro-camp activists argue that camping is integral to the Girl Scout experience; local leaders contend that today's girls are less keen on camping than their predecessors.
A decision by the Girl Scouts of North East Ohio to close several camps prompted a lawsuit by disgruntled adult members, as well as calls for a boycott of cookie sales. The gap between the sides was summarized on the website of Trefoil Integrity, formed by some dissident members.
"The board believes that classes in leadership, financial literacy, and robotics competition are what girls need," it said. "Camp supporters believe that leadership is learned through the experiences of real living ... Children need camps as places of quiet, of basic challenges, of connection to nature."
Chavez said the GSUSA respects the views of dissident alumnae and adult volunteers, but is convinced it's making the right choices on behalf of today's girls by offering a balanced program that will produce future leaders.
"Camps will always be part of our mission," she said. "But girls aren't living in the past — they're living in the future."
A Girl Scout herself while growing up in Arizona, Chavez, 45, took over as the GSUSA's first Hispanic CEO after serving as chief executive of Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas. She's pleased by a 55 percent surge in the number of Hispanic Girl Scouts since 2000.
Under her leadership, a new set of handbooks seeks to nurture such attributes as environmental awareness, healthy lifestyles and critical thinking. New programs seek to boost girls' competency with money matters and encourage them to pursue careers in science and technology.
In the fiscal realm, GSUSA has launched a campaign to raise $1 billion by 2017. To improve relations with local councils, it has created the position of chief customer officer, with the mission of assisting local leaders with operational matters so they can focus more energy on programs.
However, the changes have not stemmed the membership decline. GSUSA Treasurer Joan Wagnon reported in March that revenue from membership dues was down 3.8 percent over the past year and nationwide cookie sales for 2012-13 were down about 4.5 percent.
The national headquarters' operating budget relies heavily on efforts of the local councils, notably the $12 annual dues paid by individual Girl Scouts plus revenue from sales of uniforms and merchandise. The dues are scheduled to rise to $15 later this year.
The Girl Scouts note that many youth organizations have been losing members, for reasons including competition from youth sports leagues and a perception by some families that they are old-fashioned. The Boy Scouts of America's youth membership declined from 3.3 million in 2002 to about 2.6 million last year.
During that period, the Boy Scouts — who have no formal ties with the Girl Scouts — have been entangled in controversy over membership policies that excluded gays and atheists. The GSUSA provided a contrast with inclusive membership policies, although it suffered some defections from families who felt it had become too liberal.
Some adult Girl Scout members say the recent program changes have gone overboard in de-emphasizing traditional outdoor activities and replacing them with curricula that replicates schoolwork.
"In trying to be more relevant, they've gone too far the other way," said Cheryl Brown, former CEO of a Girl Scout council in Arkansas. She left the post in 2009, soon after her council was forced to merge with four others.
Brown also said pressure from headquarters to boost membership led some councils to recruit girls with no intention of engaging them in the full scope of Girl Scout activities.
"It no longer was about the girls — it was about the money," she said.
Booth Kammann, CEO of the Girl Scout Council of the Southern Appalachians, said she encountered membership problems when she took over the Knoxville, Tenn.-based council in 2009 after the realignment. She eliminated programs in which girls were not fully engaged.
Coupled with departures of volunteers — including some dismayed by the mergers — Kammann's council now reports a membership of 12,246 girls and 4,615 adults, compared to about 20,000 girls and 7,000 adults in 2009.
Kammann says she has a waiting list of more than 300 girls, yet can't find enough adults to mentor them. Overall, she's optimistic about the Girl Scouts' future, but says the pace of change has taken a toll.
"Do I think there's been some change fatigue? Yes," she said. "It's like rebuilding an airplane when it's in the air."
Nationwide, the shortage of volunteers is a critical problem, according to Chavez, who wants to develop new recruiting strategies as the GSUSA works to improve its finances.
"At the end of the day, we're not serving enough girls," she said.
Chavez acknowledged there is room for improved communications within the nationwide Girl Scout family, including the 59 million alumnae, and she plans new efforts to reach out to them for advice, financial support and volunteer service.
"I'm excited — we're actually going to activate our base," she said. "This iconic organization, which has given back to this country for 100 years, needs your help."
Among the skeptical alumnae is Jane Duax, 56, of Davenport, Iowa, who was a Girl Scout back in the 1960s, later served as a troop leader and cookie mom, and recently has been active fighting plans to close four summer camps.
"The leadership has taken on this for-profit mentality, and let go of the not-for-profit service," Duax said. "Maybe they can get a do-over on the pension plan, but there's no do-over with the land. Once it's gone, it's gone."
Joni Kinsey, an art historian at the University of Iowa, credits her Girl Scout experience with kindling her interest in Western art. Now, as a troop leader, she's dismayed at how changes to the organization have unfolded.
"Part of Girl Scout culture was that we make decisions collaboratively," she said. "Suddenly it's become an adversarial relationship where it's us against them."
"To those of us who dearly love this organization, having to resort to protest mode is not what we want to do," said Kinsey, 54. "We've been marginalized as this small, discontented group of dowdy older women trying to live in their memories."
The unease is shared by many younger employees, volunteers and alumnae — dozens of whom have joined a group called The Future is Ours.
The group's chair, Amanda Kremer from the Heart of Michigan Council, posted a letter to Chavez online, proposing a dialogue on how to improve the Girl Scouts' finances, boost youth membership and attract top-notch staff.
"We want to make sure that we inherit a financially sound organization poised to last another 100 years," the letter says. "We do not think things are headed in that direction currently."
Since posting the letter, Kremer, 26, says she's had two substantive phone conversations with GSUSA chief of staff Nhadine Leung. Kremer described the conversations as positive, saying the national leadership seemed to recognize the severity of the challenges.
"What we want is for everyone to feel they have a say — so girls can continue to have the wonderful experiences that we had," Kremer said.