Girl Scouts of the USA is undertaking a realignment to remake its programming and brand in hopes of remaining relevant to girls in the coming years. Borne out of a strategic movement that began in 2004, the realignment of more than 300 local Girl Scout councils nationwide was approved by the national board.

“As an organization, we were looking at challenges that currently face our movement,” said CEO Kathy Cloninger, such as changing population trends and staying relevant for girls, in addition to shifts in volunteer participation during the past 20 years.

“We’re developing a very girl-driven model, rewriting programs, really putting our program out there in a whole new arena packaged around leadership,” said Cloninger. The realignment of councils is “just one of many pieces” in what she called “a journey of transformation.”

Six strategy teams sought feedback from affiliates and identified changes needed to “bridge the gap” between where Girl Scouts is today and where it wants to be in the future. The gap teams — comprised of representatives from local councils and national headquarters — focused on brand, culture, funding, organizational structure and governance, program model and pathways, and volunteerism.

National demographers then created a new draft map of local affiliates based on the criteria defined by the 300 councils and the gap teams. “It was a very objective, criteria-based process,” Cloninger said. “Very participatory.”

With the number of local councils reduced from 309 to 109, Cloninger expects to “have a lot more ability to look regionally than one small community, to do a regional strategy for girls and regional fundraising.”

If there’s one most important reason for the realignment, Cloninger said, it’s to pull Girl Scouts “together as one integrated, unified leadership movement for girls.” And, she said, it’s easier to do that with fewer moving parts.

“It will make it much easier for us to have a higher quality control with fewer councils, so we’ll get more consistent quality,” she said, ensuring the same experience for girls wherever they live in the United States.

A number of criteria were factored into creating the new councils, including incorporating entire media markets, respecting natural and geographic barriers, and aligning with established transportation patterns and state boundaries to unite areas for a geographic identification. Another key was to provide a funding base that could adequately support top-level professionals, including a chief executive officer, chief operating officer, chief financial officer and directors of information technology, public relations, human resources and fund development. The new councils also were aligned to anticipate population growth.

“There will be cost savings, but we did not go into it (reorganization) because of financial issues or troubles. We went in thinking about what structure would give us capacity,” Cloninger said. Girl Scouts will “stay true to our very grassroots, community organizations” with field offices and field managers possibly replacing CEOs. “We’re still sorting out what staffing will look like.”

The cost of realignment is expected to be about $15 million for the national office and about $10 million across all councils, or approximately $100,000 per new merged council. The estimated costs cover legal fees, travel, training, technology investments, consulting, new forms/stationary, inventory write-offs, severance and new staff searches.

There are 37 “early adopters” that already have started the realignment process and expect to be finished by the spring. As chief executive officer of the Girl Scouts of the Hoosier Capital Council in Indiana, Deborah Hearn Smith leads one of the early adopters, a group of five councils around the Indianapolis area that will become one, serving approximately 36,000 girls.

Though she doesn’t yet have a specific figure on savings, Hearn Smith said the councils should save money on administrative overheard, something that would not be achieved for another year if they waited to realign. Savings are expected in areas such as administration, technology and accounting, while councils will be able to do more coordinated and strategic fundraising.

Prior to seeing what the national demographers developed, Hearn Smith said the Hoosier Council worked with Indiana University’s Kelly School of Business and a demographer to create a preliminary map for Indiana Girl Scouts affiliates. “We were in sync with each other,” she said, “there were no areas of dispute.”

In central Indiana, Indianapolis is truly the metropolitan hub, Hearn Smith said. “Our visibility and our brand will be much more noticeable, not fragmented. Donors will see better use of donor dollars toward girls’ services.

“Realignment itself is a legal, administrative activity, but the goal of realignment is to consolidate resources so the organization has the capacity to impact more girls,” Hearn Smith said.

Early adopters have a detailed process they will ultimately go through, according to Linda Foreman, national secretary of Girl Scouts of the USA national board, who has served on the National Board of Directors since 1996 in various committee leadership positions. She serves as a team leader for the Organizational Structure and Governance Gap Team.

The Council Realignment Committee (CRC) represents the leadership of combining councils along with a series of subcommittees around the key functions of a Girl Scouts council. The committees, consisting of board chairs and chief executive officers from each of the councils merging, start working through all the decisions that need to be made to effectively bring together the councils, their cultures, operating procedures — every aspect of operation, Foreman said, “That includes involving their membership at every step of the way, their board, as we’ve laid out timetables, their critical decision-making points along the way.”

Girl Scouts will provide assistance and guidance in the form of negotiation and/or mediation should the process get stalled along the way to creating a new council.

“It’s natural when any change is proposed like this that there will be some who embrace it more readily than others,” Foreman said. “We’re a large and complex organization, our councils are independent 501(c)s. Sure, there have been some more enthusiastic than others, but this has been such an inclusive process, folks have been so engaged in dialogue, and in casting their own fates, formulating their own jurisdictions, that in the vast majority of cases, people are going into this very positively, and that was a very intentional process.”

Foreman estimated that the average realignment will take nine to 12 months, depending on when councils begin and the degree of complexity. In addition to the early adopters, there are councils that started the process in October 2006 that can expect to be fully merged by October 2007, and more starting in six-month increments. By the end of 2007, the bulk of councils will have initiated the realignment process, Foreman said, with a goal of everyone “at least well into the process” by the fall of 2008 and completion by early 2009.

Once realignment is complete, Foreman expects the smallest councils to still be around 3,800, with the largest serving more than 100,000, but there “still will be a significant range in number of girls served.

The last time Girl Scouts went through such a nationwide reorganization, according to Cloninger, was during the 1950s when about 1,800 councils were reduced to 500 councils, a process called Green Umbrella. The difference at that time, she said, was that it was a “top-down” movement, which may have contributed to some resistance in the field and one reason why perhaps it took 20 years to complete. Since then, Girl Scouts has “done some tweaking,” reducing further the number of councils to the current 300 or so.

“This is really the first time we did a full clean sweep of the entire country at once in partnership with local councils,” Cloninger said.

“The significant thing is people are finally starting to see mergers as a legitimate strategic option, right up there with other potential strategic options,” said Thomas McLaughlin, a national nonprofit management consultant with Grant Thornton in Boston. “It’s increasing, and there’s a lot of drivers for it, economic drivers in a lot situations, because funders are saying, ‘There’s too many of you.’”

McLaughlin worked with the Girl Scouts on the initial study. There were councils that needed to be stronger and others that were really strong that needed to be maximized, he added. “It’s good to see they’re taking the next logical step and actually getting serious about that, restructuring in this way.”

One of the “inevitable conclusions” of the study was that there were “enormous opportunities” for increased collaboration among councils, including mergers. “At virtually any of the name-brand organizations, if you have 500 affiliates around the country, do you really need 500 back rooms? The answer is probably not,” McLaughlin said, adding that there is no ideal number of affiliates for a national organization.

“This was very complex strategy, a learning process that ended up with five key priorities. One of them had to do with how we’re organized. But when looking at others (volunteerism, brand, funding, program), it became clear we probably needed to address the structural piece first,” Foreman said. “Realignment in my mind is really about positioning ourselves to be able to deliver on all the rest of it.

“I think in all of its stages this gives us and the local councils a tremendous opportunity to reconnect to donors and with the general public around this new invigorated Girl Scouts brand and image.” NPT