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No Market Without Mission

‘Market 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 steam.

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 decision.

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.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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