Education Opinion

When Nonprofits Go Corporate: Cautionary Tales

By Peter Gow — July 03, 2013 4 min read
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Two days ago I wrote about kids and the great outdoors--nature-deficit disorder, the suburbanization of the country day school, and the de-naturing of the curriculum. Maybe it’s the summer, seeing the word “July” on the calendar. I look forward to water views and leafy shade in a spot that’s cool-ish and devoid of distractions. I can write, and reflect, in either order.

Years ago my outdoor summers were spent working in residential “youth camps.” I was lucky enough to find work over the years at a series of “agency” camps, working my way up from lowest person in the kitchen to, in time, camp director, like someone in Gilbert & Sullivan. Latterly I shuffled back down the ladder of success, ending my camp career as a humble, sunburned boat driver. The camps were all run by the regional subdivisions of large non-profit organizations; in fact, all but one (a YWCA camp) were run by the Girl Scouts.

My first gig was at a sailing camp on a New England resort island. Where presidents have since spent zillions of our tax dollars to vacation, I lived in a tent and was paid to slice tomatoes, keep the plumbing working, and haul trash around in a pick-up truck. It was, for everyone there, an idyll.

In time, however, something happened. The body that owned the camp was absorbed in a merger of multiple Girl Scout councils, and business-minded council executives replaced the very camp-y and program-focused folks who had run the smaller councils. They had discovered the phrase “economies of scale.” The many camps (smallish and beloved of their campers over decades) that had comprised the smaller councils became a very few camps, larger and under centralized operation that no doubt lowered the cost of toilet paper and canned goods. Soon my island camp was on the auction block; the new council leadership had visions of sixteen island acres generating a couple of million of 1982 dollars--a big chunk of change.

There was weeping, wailing, threats of lawsuits, and lots of anger, including mine. In the end, ironically, various environmental and zoning restrictions meant that only the town was really able to buy the property, for a federally-subsidized song. It’s now a town park, happily available for public use and the site of a community sailing program that probably does as much to instill a love of sailing in kids as the old camp once did.

Thirty years later, de-accessioning camps has become a hallmark of the Girl Scout movement nationally. Having apparently invested its pension funds poorly (one wonders in what? buggy whip futures?), the national organization and its local councils--having completed a dizzying spate of mergers--are holding a kind of national fire sale of camps. The issue has been all over the news, and in my household, where five of “our” Girl Scout camps and, for good measure that YWCA camp, and are sold or for sale, we’re pretty unhappy. Better organized and perhaps more reflexively litigious than we were thirty years ago, camp-sales opponents have launched any number of lawsuits and have of course set up Facebook pages (example here)and other sites to keep the war drums beating.

The relevance here, in case you were wondering, is double:

First, the closed camps represent thousands of empty bunks and dining hall chairs, thousands of opportunities lost for kids to spend time in the out-of-doors. The Scouts claim that kids aren’t interested in camping so much these days, but in part that’s because the organization has de-emphasized camping programs in its quest for some new and thus far elusive magic bullet to interest girls in Scouting. Plenty of private camps--even non-profit, non-Scout camps--are doing just fine.

Second, there’s a fascination in many quarters of the educational world--often the quarters that aren’t parts of school campuses but rather in think tanks, political strategy sessions, and sometimes the heads of corporate-minded independent school trustees--with business-think. The lesson here is clear: economies of scale seduced the former Patriots’ Trail Girl Scout Council in 1982 and clearly grabbed the imagination of Girl Scouts USA as it encouraged the larger wave of mergers that began in the 1990s; the mergers, of course, resulted in a great spate of camp closings in their own right. And when the organization found itself short on pension funds, how quick it was to find a simple solution: peddle the camps. (Of course, even cookie sale proceeds are also being used indirectly to offset pension losses.) The new methods and aims turned out to be antithetical to and destructive of the fundamental aims of the organization.

Maybe the Girl Scouts (and the YW) will find that magic bullet, some new way to engage girls by the hundreds of thousands and bring their membership back to the levels of yore; that’d be great, and as an educator I would stand up and applaud. But in the meantime, I’ve lived through, and paid in memories for, what happens when the corporate mindset takes over an enterprise--Scouting and the camp movement, in my case--whose mission and goals are about children’s learning and well-being, when business-bedazzled “reformers” perform their special, misguided magic.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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