Editor's note: This article was sponsored by Girl Scouts of Western Washington.
Like a lot of youth organizations, Girl Scouts had to completely re-engineer its recruitment and engagement efforts during COVID-19. Pivoting a 109-year-old organization built on face-to-face friendships to an entirely virtual platform wasn’t without its challenges. But the process had unexpected upsides: Girl Scouts of Western Washington (GSWW) found that the shifts made during the pandemic paved the way for a more equitable, accessible organization in 2021.
Long before COVID-19 impacted its operations last spring, Girl Scouts was developing more inclusive, culturally relevant programs. Collaborating with other regional Girl Scout councils and about 100 partners, from Tacoma Nature Center to Redmond-based DigiPen, GSWW worked to infuse updated content into its programming across the organization’s five “pillars”: life skills; entrepreneurship; college and career readiness; outdoors; and science, technology, engineering arts and math (STEAM).
“This work to modernize Girl Scout programming laid the groundwork for a successful shift to a virtual environment in 2020,” says GSWW Vice President of Program Julie Wendell. “We were fortunate that we were able to pivot quickly to a virtual space, incorporating feedback from our members. Our staff and program partners really stepped up to the challenge. We’ve seen a lot of wonderful participation from local, national and international Girl Scout members. Connecting virtually has given them a new opportunity to expand their world.”
During the early weeks of the pandemic, GSWW staff paused programming to develop a thoughtful approach to virtual programming. Families needed well-designed online programs that offered enrichment and connection, not extra stress.
“We wanted to make sure that we were addressing parent feedback about what families needed,” says Wendell. “Parents said they wanted online programming that was plug-and-play.”
“Access to computers was initially a barrier to virtual participation for some members,” says GSWW Vice President of Membership and Member Support Services Robin Thompson. “Equity is important to us. We want to make sure that everyone who wants to participate in our programs can do so.” To begin helping, GSWW developed a partnership with Tacoma Public Schools that allowed their Girl Scouts to use school-issued laptops — otherwise strictly restricted to school-related use — for Girl Scouts afterschool programs.
During the shift to online programming, GSWW worked to expand offerings around racial equity and social justice topics that align with its mission of building girls of courage, confidence and character who make the world a better place. “We are working with Girl Scouts of Oregon and Southwest Washington on a year-long racial justice program where Girl Scouts will learn how racism shows up across all of our different pillars, from outdoors to entrepreneurship to STEAM” says Wendell. “It’s never too early to begin learning about racism, and we’re committed to the journey of being an anti-racist organization.”
Other programs aim to boost cultural literacy around trending topics such as tattoos. “One of the programs that we recently debuted was the cultural and historical origins of tattoos,” says Wendell. “[The program speaks] to our Girl Scouts about flash sheets and traditional tattoo art, and how tattoos show up across cultures.”
With the shift to virtual programming, membership recruitment was affected during the pandemic, and the number of new Girl Scouts signing up dropped in 2020. “Our membership recruitment efforts were impacted. But we were happy to see that participation from active members was strong, and the retention rate remained steady,” says Thompson.
Partnerships with community organizations such as Boys & Girls Clubs are helping get recruitment back up to pre-pandemic levels. High-profile offerings, such as the Becoming Me program with Michelle Obama, are attracting renewals and new signups. Inspired by her bestselling book “Becoming” and its adaptation “Becoming: Adapted for Young Readers,” the program kicks off in May with a members-only virtual event featuring the former First Lady.
For Tacoma mom Bonnie Becker and her daughter, Mira, the pandemic transformed a beloved annual tradition — cookie sales — into a real-world lesson in online entrepreneurship. With safety guidelines in place, Girl Scouts didn’t sell cookies in person this year. Instead, program partner DigiPen hosted Digital Cookie Marketing Magic events to help Girl Scouts produce personalized marketing videos for their online cookie storefronts.
Bonnie and Mira missed the community connections fostered through face-to-face cookie sales, but the move to virtual selling had its advantages. “Life was a lot easier for me as ‘cookie mom’ with the use of online payments,” says Becker. “Girl Scouts provided training on making a commercial that Mira loved, and more friends and family from out of the area bought cookies.”
Girl Scouts who want to continue building digital skills can now pursue online programs in digital storytelling and stop motion animation and share their videos on Girl Scouts’ online platform. “Through a partnership with Warner Media, we now have ongoing digital storytelling programs in a secure online space for Girl Scouts to connect with one another,” says Wendell.
GSWW has started the transition back to modified in-person programming. But the online opportunities won’t go away. “We’ve heard from families that this has made participation easier. Before going virtual, we rarely used to have weeknight programs, because it was just too difficult for families to manage. Now, our online weeknight offerings are our most popular. It’s helped open up access to Girl Scouts across Western Washington who may not have participated otherwise, which is really exciting,” says Wendell.
Throughout the bumpy pandemic year, Girl Scouts evolved to meet the needs of its members. Wendell notes, “We’re making sure that our programming is relevant, and really helping our members be the best humans they can be, whether they participate online or in person. We just want to make sure that everyone who wants to be a Girl Scout has the ability and the access to join.”