The red numbers in a recent Associated Press report on the life and health of the Girl Scouts are pretty blunt. It's rare, these days, to see these kinds of crunch paragraphs right at the top of a report -- literally.
For the second straight year, youth and adult membership in the Girl Scouts has dropped sharply, intensifying pressure on the 102-year-old youth organization to find ways of reversing the trend.
According to figures provided to The Associated Press, the total of youth members and adult volunteers dropped by 6 percent over the past year -- from 2,994,844 to 2,813,997. Over two years, total membership is down 11.6 percent, and it has fallen 27 percent from a peak of more than 3.8million in 2003.
While the Girl Scouts of the USA have had an array of recent internal difficulties -- including rifts over programming and serious fiscal problems -- CEO Anna Maria Chavez attributed the membership drop primarily to broader societal factors that have affected many youth-serving organizations.
In other words, how do you keep them down on the farm (or at a campground) digging in the dirt (even when the goal is to earn environmental badges) after they have seen edgy fashion sites on their smart phones and tablet computers?
This story interested me because I have friends who are active in the Girl Scouts, while they have concerns about the direction of the organization, and others who are not, because their concerns crossed the line into a danger zone. I know, from years of talking to them, that they have had concerns about a number of issues linked to morality, values and religion, to be blunt about it.
For example, there are religious groups that love Planned Parenthood and there are those that do not. And some people were concerned about the whole "define the god of your choice" decision a few years back, while other people were not as worried about that. Some atheists still think the group is too God-friendly.
There is just a hint of that side of the Girl Scout culture wars near the end of the AP report:
The Boy Scouts of America lost 6 percent of its membership last year; its youth membership has dropped from 3.3 million to about 2.5 million since 2002. The Boy Scouts alienated some conservatives last year by deciding to accept openly gay boys for the first time, while angering gay-rights supporters by maintaining a ban on gays serving as adult leaders
By contrast, the Girl Scouts have long had inclusive membership policies, although there have been some defections by families who felt the organization had become too liberal. American Heritage Girls, formed in 1995 as a Christian-oriented alternative, now claims more than 35,000 members.
In other words, this may not be a huge element in the decline picture, but it is there. We live in a country in which many, many religious groups and nonprofits are going to be logical homes for Scouting efforts. Religious youth groups are also logical places to seek members, especially in places like, well, Utah and the Bible Belt.
Clearly, as the story rightly notes, there are crucial debates taking place about the rise of Barbie badges, Eating Local badges, computer badges, filmmaking badges and Eating For Beauty badges. Clearly there are debates about the decline of "legacy" subjects -- that's the Girl Scout word for them these days -- linked to camping and outdoorsy activities. Clearly, Scouting faces challenges in an age dominated by computer games and Facebook.
But I think the Scouting debates about sex, God and country have to be in there, too. That has been a factor in the small but steady stream of parents and girls over the years.
Which brings me to a New York Times report on the same topic: "Girl Scouts Debate Their Place in a Changing World." The membership numbers are there, again. So are many of the other topics from the AP report.
What is this fight all about?
Changing times and fashion are unlikely to alter the appeal of the Thin Mint, but that may not be as true for other aspects of the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., an organization that some say has spent nearly a decade moving away from its tent-pitching, campfire-building roots to embrace the more modern-day themes of technology and science, media and social issues in order to keep girls interested.
“They did need to transform the organization, and when they decided to focus on leadership opportunities, I said, ‘Hot-diggity, that’s exactly what we need,’ ” said Marty Woelfel of Louisville, who has spent 41 years working with the Girl Scouts of Kentuckiana Council. “But outdoors, as leadership, fell off the map at that point.”
The change left out an important leadership opportunity for the 2.3 million girls who wear the well-known green vests and shiny, gold trefoil pins, said Ms. Woelfel, who was in Salt Lake City for the movement’s international convention. Ms. Woelfel is part of a yearslong grass-roots effort by scouts and their leaders nationwide to persuade the nation’s largest organization for young girls to rethink its priorities.
By all means, read it all.
What is missing from the Gray Lady's version of this drama? Want to guess?