(WOMENSENEWS)--Kayla Arbuckle spent a month in Girl Scouts when she was 10 years old before she dropped out.
"Honestly, the only reason I joined was to do the active things, I didn't actually want to be a part of selling all the stuff. I just wanted to do the fun things--the badges, doing activities--that kind of stuff," she says.
The camping trip turned out to be sleeping on the floor and watching a movie, instead of sleeping in a tent and river rafting.
"I was very disappointed because the Boy Scouts are definitely in the woods, fishing, doing all the cool stuff, and we were stuck microwaving marshmallows," says Arbuckle, now 17, of Lindenhurst, N.Y.
The Girl Scouts of the USA brags that it is the world's premier leadership organization for girls, with 49 million alumnae and 2.3 million active members. But it also says it is constantly seeking ways to become more relevant to modern young women. Towards that end it has just joined LeanIn.org to ban the word "bossy" in an effort to close the "confidence gap" that appears to be holding back girls' leadership potential.
"We joke that people think we're all about crafting, camping and cookies, and we really are so much more," says Kelly Parisi, chief communications executive of the organization.
The group's award-winning curriculum, called Journeys, teaches leadership. The cookie program is the world's largest girl-led business. The organization sponsors robotics teams and badges in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Former Girl Scouts include Hillary Clinton, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, every woman who has ever entered space and 80 percent of all female business owners.
And plenty of Girl Scouts are ready to speak up for the organization.
Lesego Pearl Nkosi, an 18-year-old in Brooklyn, N.Y., joined the Girl Scouts five years ago, when her family immigrated from Pretoria, South Africa. "I've had a very enriching experience… personally and academically."
She scoffs at the idea that Girl Scouts is just about selling cookies. "We do so much more . . . We are involved. We take initiative in our communities. We create amazing things."
Referring to the group's work to interest girls in science, technology, engineering and math, she says, "little by little it's breaking the ceiling for girls to be leaders in their community and hopefully the world."
Mission to Revitalize
Nonetheless Parisi says membership has declined moderately over the past two decades, and the organization has been on a mission to "revitalize our program and delivery model" under CEO Anna Maria Chavez, the group's first Latina chief executive. Over the past five years, membership has declined by 2.5 percent annually, according to Girl Scouts spokesperson Stewart Goodbody.
The Girl Scouts of the USA has done market research, polls and focus groups with both Girl Scouts and girls outside of the program.
"Girls who go through the experience define themselves as leaders," says Parisi, who formerly ran the Take Our Daughters to Work program for the Ms. Foundation for Women.
Former Girl Scouts complained in interviews with Women's eNews that the organization emphasized service over leadership, and crafts over outdoor skills.
"People love the cookies, but sometimes you get tired of walking around with your sash and your badge," says Alexus Sanchez, a 17-year-old student at St. John the Baptist Diocesan High School in Islip, N.Y. "When you get older, girls drop out of it."
Destiny Squires, 19, of Copiague, N.Y., was a Girl Scout for six or seven years, graduating from a Brownie to a Cadet before dropping out. Squires, a student at Nassau Community College, envied the Boy Scouts program.
"I feel like Boy Scouts has more trips and fun and more real life things, and ours was just focused on regular girl stuff like girl talk, I'm going to teach you how to braid, I'm going to teach you how to make bracelets," complains Squires. "I figured why can't we do some of the stuff that boys do? What's the difference?"
Briana Mulzac, 17, of Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn, was a Girl Scout for 13 years. "A lot of my friends dropped out a long time ago," she says. "If my parents didn't push me to stay, I wouldn't have stayed either."
"When you start to get into high school, people start to make fun of Girl Scouts. They're like 'oh, where's my cookies'," Mulzac adds. She complains about weak leadership for three years and meetings with little planning.
Campfire Memories Missing
Sandi Amorello, 52, of Portland, Maine, founder of satirical website Girl Scout Dropout dropped out at 10 years old. "I don't remember ever being taught how to build a fire, we weren't using knives, or learning the kind of stuff you imagine in Boy Scouts is the basic stuff that they do," says Amorello. "I think Girl Scouts pushes the regular idea of what success is, and success is a more personal thing."
"This is something that a lot of organizations struggle with," acknowledges Parisi. "How do you continually stay relevant in today's world?"
When the Girl Scouts started in 1912, few women worked outside the home and had lots of time to run troops and meetings. The Girl Scouts of the USA is tinkering with the volunteer model, putting some volunteer training online, recruiting several adults to share troop leadership roles and recruiting younger women without children as troop leaders.
Girls develop financial literacy skills through cookie sales programs, learning to set goals, plan marketing strategies and count money. Girls develop enormous self-confidence when they find courage to ask strangers to buy a box of Thin Mints, says Parisi.
Regional Girl Scout councils earn 65-75 percent of the local retail price of the cookies, and local troops get between 10 percent and 20 percent. Cookie revenue "makes it possible to serve girls in hard-to-serve areas, and maintain camps and properties," says Girl Scouts spokesperson Goodbody.
"You know what the No. 1 reason is that people didn't buy Girl Scout cookies?" asks Parisi. "They weren't asked."
"Crafting has never been bigger in this country," adds Parisi, pointing to the wildly popular site Etsy.
Both Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts had a dramatic drop in membership during the 1970s, after growing for decades, writes Barbara Arneil, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia in Canada. She attributes that decline to a younger civil rights generation avoiding traditional organizations because "their values were deemed to be outdated." But Girl Scouting climbed during the'80s and '90s, while Boy Scouting has continued to decline.
Arneil argued in a 2010 academic paper in the journal Perspective on Politics that the Girl Scouts of the USA grew because it has been challenging gender norms from its birth and embraces the new values that come with generational changes. "As young people see themselves reflected back in the values endorsed by the GSUSA, its membership resurges, while the BSA continues to decline," wrote Arneil.
Last May, the voting members of the Boy Scouts of America's National Council "approved a resolution to remove the restriction denying membership to youth on the basis of sexual orientation alone," Deron Smith, director of public relations for Boy Scouts of America, said in an email. The group continues to ban gay leaders.
In contrast, Girl Scouts of the USA does not decline members or leaders on the basis of "race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, national origin or physical or developmental disability," says Goodbody.
While some girls say they would like the Girl Scouts better if the organization went co-ed, Goodbody says it has no plans to recruit boys. "Promoting leadership in girls has been our focus for over 100 years, and girl leadership will continue to be our focus for 100 more."
For Ny'Asia Rizo, 18, of Amityville, N.Y., a scout for four years from the age of 7 to 10, that's just fine. "Badges taught us to be better, every badge was a step up," she says. "It builds a sisterhood of girls to do stuff together."