Starting A Nonprofit 100 Years Ago
Having polished off How Carrots Won the Trojan War by Rebecca Rupp (excellent and entertaining read) I started on The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts: Juliette Gordon Low by Stacy A. Cordery. While the biography is about Daisy Low’s life, the latter half of the book describes in some detail, the start-up of the Girl Scouts which was an unexpected bonus.
The Girl Scouts start up was the same as other nonprofits. One person had an idea and was very enthusiastic about it. Daisy Low became a Girl Guide leader in England and loved the concept. Everywhere she lived, she started and personally led a troop. She did the same on a return trip to Savannah. As Girl Scouts continued to grow, she crossed America leaving organized troops of girls in her wake. What she was proposing did not sit well with Victorian-era parents, but her personal involvement both fiscally and physically made all the difference.
The Founder didn’t do it alone. The first thing that Daisy did was activate her extensive network. As a Southern Belle and an upper-class widow of a very wealthy Englishman, her entire life was built around networks of people. On arriving in Savannah, she called a cousin, Nina Anderson Pape. Nina Pape was chosen not only because was she a relative but because she was a local education pioneer with ideas about what girls should be doing that mirrored exactly what the Scouting movement was all about.
The Founder didn’t micromanage. Much to the dismay of later staff, Daisy had a habit of dropping an idea and a vision on people, recruiting individuals to help, and then wandering off on her next adventure trusting that the people she’d involved would make it happen. She understood that her skills and talents could be better utilized elsewhere in building the organization. Being mostly deaf due to a lifetime of ear infections, she used her disability to her advantage and never seemed to hear any of the objections placed before her!
There was an awareness of the organization’s brand (though I am sure it wasn’t called “branding” back then). Sir Robert Baden-Powell’s sister Agnes had organized the girls in England who had expressed an interest in Scouting. Daisy was careful to maintain a close relationship with the Baden-Powells and fought to ensure that Girl Scouts were the recognized sister of Boy Scouts despite competition from groups like the Campfire Girls. She was involved in decisions from revisions to the handbook, uniforms, and activities that reinforced the organization’s identity.
They harnessed the power of PR. Daisy understood the value of key patrons of the organization. When forming the national board, she tapped well-known women with deep pockets and extensive networks (usually after getting them to manage their own troops). One of her first employees in Savannah, Edith Johnson, started the tactic of sending out press releases on Scouting activities. This was taken up by later national director, Dr. Abby Porter Leland who instructed troops to “…secure all the local publicity possible”.
The Girls led the direction. Over and over again, Daisy noted that the programs should originate with the girls themselves. She stressed fun and learning. She was receptive to ideas that came from the troops themselves. In fact, the famous Girl Scout cookie sale was started by troops who baked the cookies themselves to raise money.
The Founder had to let go. By 1918, the organization that had started in her carriage house in 1912 now had a national headquarters, staff, a national board, a full range of printed handbooks and training materials, and 40,000 members. The organization had finally begun to become self-sufficient. Daisy received a letter from one of the volunteers who cautioned, “…you must be careful not to try personal control, it has outgrown it.” In England, a similar move had happened with Girl Guides as they moved toward a more professional organization. Daisy then turned her attention to working internationally to further Baden-Powell’s vision of international understanding through Scouting.
It was interesting to see that an organization that just celebrated its 100th birthday, went through the same growing pains and start up process as any other nonprofit, but survived them. The Story of Girl Scouts founding is ultimately one of relationships. Daisy transmitted her ideals and enthusiasm one person at a time on a very personal level. She was fearless as she shared, asked, and even cajoled others into supporting her cause which continues on to this day. Do you have that same level of commitment and conviction for your nonprofit?