Girl Guides of Canada is hoping a new uniform, new programs and even a new cookie box will help stem years of declining membership and make the organization more relevant to today’s young women.
“We want to be contemporary and in line with where girls see themselves and where they see the world as it is today,” said Sharron Callahan, who recently took over as chief commissioner. “We believe that we are changing and we can continue to change.”
Girl Guides has been around for more than 100 years in Canada but it is facing the same challenges as other youth groups. Membership in Guides has fallen to 90,000 from around 250,000 in 1995. Scouts Canada has seen its membership drop to around 100,000 from more than 300,000 in the 1960s, while 4-H is down to 26,000 from 70,000 in the 1970s.
On Wednesday, Guides unveiled a major overhaul that includes a revamped uniform and a variety of programs focused largely on the environment. One is called the National Service Project: Operation Earth Action, which encourages members to plant trees, clean up green spaces in their neighbourhoods and help make their homes more energy efficient. The organization, which has programs for girls 5 to 17, is also planning a new website and an advertising campaign to help attract members.
Ms. Callahan said the uniform design and the environment programs came out of input from members across the country. “Whatever happens to be current for today’s girls is what we will embrace into our programming,” she said. “The most important thing is to make sure the program is kept current with what the girls’ interests are for today.”
It isn’t easy. Girl Guides derived from Scouts and the roots of both organizations lie in camping and outdoor activities, often a tough sell for today’s computer-obsessed children and teenagers. Membership in Guides also took a hit in the late 1990s when Scouts began accepting girls. The organization has responded over the years by introducing international programs and new activities such as astronomy, cultural awareness, healthy living and peace studies. But while membership has begun to slowly increase, the movement is unlikely to reach the goal of its 2009 Strategic Plan of having “no fewer than” 100,000 members by 2012.
Membership is critical in part because Girl Guides Canada relies on membership fees for more than $4-million in annual revenue. Cookie sales are also a major fundraiser and promotional event. Girl Guide members sold more than 5.3 million boxes in 2011, pulling in $21-million in total revenue, most of which remains with local units.
Ms. Callahan, a retired social worker from St. John’s, remains optimistic and says Guides is responding to what young women want. She noted that while Guides runs similar programs to Scouts, “girls prefer an environment where they can be what they want to be without the pressure of the competition between the genders.”
In many ways, Ms. Callahan represents a unique side of Guiding. She got into Guides while growing up in Grand Falls-Windsor, Nfld., and has remained active as a leader throughout most of her adult life. For the past eight years, she has run a Guide unit in a women’s shelter in St. John’s. The experience has taught her to be flexible and creative.
“It can be difficult at times because the girls have a lot of challenges in their lives and Guiding provides them with an outlet to set aside those challenges for a short period of time and engage in something that is very, very positive,” she said.
She now wants to bring that adaptability to Guide units across the country. “An organization that can’t change,” she said, “is an organization that doesn’t have a great future.”