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For the Girl Scouts, cookies are more important than ever

CBS News logo CBS News 1/12/2018 Aimee Picchi

When is a Thin Mint more than a Thin Mint? 

The answer, it seems, is 2018. The Girl Scouts' annual cookie sale is taking on greater importance for the organization, partly because of the nationwide discussion about women in leadership roles. At the same time, the Girl Scouts are facing an ongoing enrollment challenge -- as are many other youth-based organizations -- which makes the annual cookie sale essential for helping to fund troop activities and programs. 

The Girl Scouts of the USA points to the cookie sale as helping millions of girls learn the skills they need to succeed at work, such as setting goals and public speaking. While it's not a new message for the scouting organization, it's taking on resonance against the backdrop of lawsuits alleging gender discrimination at tech giants such as Google and the lack of women in leadership roles in almost every industry. 

"There is a new focus this year based on the world around us," said Stewart Goodbody, senior director of communications for Girl Scouts of the USA. "Everyone is talking about female leadership, which is terrific, because we've always been about girls' leadership. This gives us a chance to say something we've been saying for a long time."

The Girl Scouts said the cookie sale grosses about $800 million each year and teaches scouts the skills they'll use for the rest of their lives, such as financial literacy, setting goals and public speaking. The group said that 57 percent of Girl Scout alumnae in business fields say they developed professional skills through selling Girl Scout cookies, according to the group's research. 

To be sure, the Girl Scouts are entering their 101st year of cookie sales with no lack of challenges. Enrollment of girls and adult volunteers stands at about 2.6 million, down from 3.8 million in 2003.

Competition from after-school programs and electronics may be partly to blame, but Goodbody said it's also more challenging today to recruit adult volunteers to lead troops because parents have less time, especially with the increase in women's workforce participation rates since the 1950s. 

"There are thousands of girls on waitlists to join, but there are not enough volunteers," Goodbody said. "There's more competition than ever coming from video games as well as the after-school activities both inside and outside school. People don't understand that with Girl Scouts, it's a one-stop shop. It's not like, 'I'm just going to do ice skating.'" 

In October, the Boy Scouts said it would admit girls into Cub Starts starting in 2018, a decision that was criticized at the time by the Girl Scouts as a move designed to boost the Boy Scouts' revenue, which the Boy Scouts denied. 

It's too early to tell if there's an impact on Girl Scouts, Goodbody said. Last year, the Girl Scouts introduced 23 new outdoor and badges related to science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, and the group noted that Girl Scouts were almost twice as likely as non-Girl Scouts to participate in STEM and outdoor activities. 

"No other organization has the credibility and experience and reach than we do," Goodbody said. 

In the meantime, the cookie sale is kicking off this month with the return of the Girl Scout S'mores cookie, which debuted last year and which Goodbody said was the most successful cookie launch in the organization's history. Old favorites are back, such as Thin Mints, Samoas and Tagalongs. Aficionados can order find a local troop cookie sale via the Girl Scouts' site, or through a digital cookie app, which is available on iOS or Android devices. 

"There is a new dialogue around female leadership," Goodbody said. "With this renewed focus on it, it's not lost on the girls either. They are noticing what's going on. They love the fact they can show people they are capable of doing great things."

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