Diversity: Girl Scouts extend multicultural reach

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Few organizations are as all-American as the Girl Scouts of the USA.

That is why the almost 90-year-old organization, feeling as if it was not doing enough to reach an ever-changing U.S. population, renewed Scouting's commitment to greater diversification.

The Girl Scouts launched a program last year titled "For Every Girl, Everywhere," and performed major outreach among its membership, particularly in terms of trying to reach more Hispanic girls. The Girl Scouts say 6.6% of its 3.8 million members (ages 5-17) are Hispanic. In contrast, 17% of girls under 18 in the U.S. are Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Hispanic market isn't the only minority audience on which the Girl Scouts see a need to spend more energy. Although the organization has produced videos and collateral material in such languages as Chinese and Vietnamese for more than a decade, the organization currently reaches only one in 25 Asian girls. The group plans to implement a national strategy to make its programs more available to that market starting in 2003.

COMPLEX ISSUES

On the face of it, the Girl Scouts should have obvious allure for Hispanic families looking to be successful in their adopted country-offering direction and building on the strong sense of community that's integral to Hispanic life.

Role models "are sorely needed in the Hispanic community," says Victoria Varela Hudson, president of San Antonio-based marketing specialist Cartel Group, which worked closely with the Girl Scouts on its Hispanic efforts. But there are a number of misperceptions that have to be overcome first. As the Girl Scouts have found, the marketing issues they face are much more complex than those a package-goods company faces in selling a bar of soap. This is relationship marketing at its most grassroots, and thus has to take into account the diversity within Hispanic cultures, ranging from Mexican-Americans to Puerto Ricans and Cuban-Americans.

"It's a grassroots enterprise, and the grass is different in every location," says Marty Evans, national executive director of the Scouts. Thus, the "For Every Girl, Everywhere" training program emphasized a broad array of cultural nuances so that local Girl Scout officials can make Hispanics feel comfortable with what scouting has to offer.

Those perky, green Girl Scout uniforms? To a Hispanic mother, they may stir up memories not of selling cookies but of U.S. immigration officials, says Ms. Varela Hudson. Addressing an adult troop leader by her first name? A cue to some Hispanic parents that "They are teaching the kids here no respect," she says.

Thus, Cartel and the Girl Scouts first worked to identify the common ground between the Girl Scouts and Hispanics, and then create the "Cultural Awareness Training Program," which would lead to more successful recruiting. (The volunteers are given wide latitude on what kind of events they can hold-one local volunteer recently sponsored a "Pedicure Night" to create a comfortable atmosphere.)

Through research, the Girl Scouts discovered that since Hispanics relate to society on an emotional level, the decision to join such an organization takes on a role akin to a consideration of a purchase in the general marketplace. The focus of the resulting training effort, which was taught to some 1,500 Girl Scout council volunteers, wasn't on big ideas. Instead, it got down to the nitty-gritty of crossing the cultural divide. "We couldn't just go in and make some ads," Ms. Varela Hudson says. "We had to start from within."

Thus, the recruiting efforts don't focus so much on a Tupperware-party-like sales effort as on relationship building. The training program starts at the beginning: how to address a married Hispanic woman upon a first meeting-senora-and start to build a comfortable relationship.

SOFTER SELL

Though the Girl Scouts certainly have collateral material, the program stresses that holding large meetings where leaders pepper parents with brochures is a no-no. Instead, the Scouts tell leaders to opt for a softer sell, with, for example, a casual chat over coffee. Brothers are encouraged to attend some programs, and activities like camp outs-an uncommon activity for Hispanic girls-are often attended by the whole family.

It's all part of what Ms. Varela Hudson refers to as being "in-culture" rather than being simply "in-language."

Ms. Varela Hudson admits there are greater hurdles ahead. Although the Girl Scouts' Ms. Evans feels that marketing tools, such as the organization's "Where girls grow strong" theme line, can easily cross cultures, Ms. Varela Hudson says that such a message can sometimes be misinterpreted in the Hispanic community.

There also is cross-pollination between cultures that moves in the other direction, as the Hispanic and other markets become more mainstream. In some parts of the country, Girl Scouts learn how to celebrate Las Posadas, a Hispanic Christmas tradition that pays homage to Mary and Joseph's search for an inn, and sometimes this is combined with the community service tradition that the Girl Scouts are known for.

It's another sign that the term "all-American" is taking on a new definition.

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