Market Without Mission
drives membership.” So begins the little online video clip
of the director of the NENY Girl Scout Council explaining
their board’s decision to sell one of its resident camps in
the Adirondacks, Fort Ann’s Camp Little Notch.
It’s hard times for everyone these days, certainly. Church
camps are closing left and right; Canada’s Girl Guides are
closing half of their camps in Ontario (though mothballing
them, not selling them).
But though I’m sure finances are a large part of this decision,
what struck me about the CEO’s jargon-loaded message (seriously,
I spend a lot of time wading through wonkish policy reports
and I was floored by her ability to speak in 100 percent sterile,
euphemistic jargon), was that she wasn’t explaining a sad
but necessary decision that they were forced to by finances.
In fact, despite a massive outcry from the camp’s alumni about
how it had provided a safe haven and second home to generations
of girls (full disclosure: this group includes my wife), the
best she could think of to say about Little Notch was that
it was a beautiful piece of property.
Instead the CEO spent a lot of time discussing how a rustic
camping experience in a wilderness area such as Little Notch
is not attractive enough for today’s contemporary girl and
they need to do fancier things to attract more girls.
This is both understandable and creepy. Understandable in
that if they really have to choose between keeping two facilities
open (which she never made quite clear), they’d want a facility
with a wider range of options—winter camp experiences, for
example, and indoor plumbing.
But using the rationale of the “market,” and kids no longer
being up for camping without hot showers, reminded me of the
labels they’ve put on the old-school episodes of Sesame
Street: May not be suitable for today’s children.
News flash: Children haven’t changed. Nor has the importance
of feeling confident in and connected to nature changed. If
anything it’s escalated. Parents may have changed in what
they’re willing to allow their children to do (in fact it’s
pretty clear that they have) and in what they teach their
children to be willing to try. Scores of scholars are trying
to raise the alarm about what it does to our children for
them to be less and less connected to the natural world, and
given less and less freedom to explore it under their own
If the Girl Scouts profess that their recent realignment was
all about focusing on leadership development, one has to ask
how one develops leaders if you roll over when parents demand
swank, expensive facilities that have little to do with leadership.
I understand wanting to be membership driven and listen to
the concerns and goals of members and prospective members:
but the Girl Scouts need to be able to sort out what those
members are saying they want out of Girl Scouts, and what
they just want in order to be entertained over summer break.
And can or should the Girl Scouts really be trying to compete
on those grounds, with other groups and venues whose sole
purpose is entertainment? Won’t that only make them blend
rather than stand out, much like centrist Democrats always
running from any sort of half-controversial stand?
Will they then also adapt to the market if the market tells
them it wants badges in weight loss, makeup application, and
fashion? Better that the Girl Scouts contract but serve the
members they do have in line with their mission, and be ready
for the swell when it becomes clear that skills in group negotiation
and decision-making and heading outside of one’s comfort zone
are some of the most important things kids need to be learning.
There’s nothing a new facility can provide in the department
of true leadership development that a group of girls at camp
deciding together how to spend their days and adapting to
the challenges of being in a different environment can’t do
cheaper, and probably better.
Not that they shouldn’t adapt to the times. But why not do
so by giving the counselors iPhones loaded with iBird or other
field guides? Or get a win-win by replacing the latrines with
cutting-edge composting toilets that the girls can build themselves?
We’ve got some wonderful natural-building experts in this
region who could tell you that not being on a sewer line isn’t
a sentence to squalor. Or offer things that other places are
closing down at the instruction of chicken-hearted lawyers:
ropes courses, diving.
This is a common problem with “business-style,” market-focused
nonprofit management: Faced with challenges, the mission slips
under the guise of growing. And then membership tanks, because
the heart is gone. I don’t know that the Girl Scouts in general
are that far gone or even necessarily headed there—at least
the core philosophy of “girl planning” seems to be intact.
This may have been one questionable or at least badly justified
But it’s something we’ll probably be seeing more of in hard
economic times, and it’s worth it for all of us, in families,
institutions, and politics, to do the very difficult practice
of taking a long-term view during short-term crises. Future
generations will thank us.