Local comes first to ensure success - Keith Roulston editorial
Not having any connection to the Girl Guide movement anymore, I had no idea that there was an internal war going on within the organization between the local people who do the work and the people at the Ontario headquarters.
It’s a sad day for an organization that has been an integral part of most Canadian communities for more than a century. Three of our daughters were Guides when they were young. My wife, Jill, was a Girl Guide leader during those years. And of course Sheila Richards, co-founder of The Citizen, was a pillar of the movement, from being a Guide leader in Burlington before she and her husband Wendell moved to Brussels, to serving at the national level and being awarded the organization’s Medal of Merit.
But like many such organizations, the Girl Guides was in decline. Between 2000 and 2007 membership had dropped from 71,500 to less than 40,000 in Ontario. The answer for the Girl Guides’ Ontario Council was, as it so often is, in greater “efficiency”. The organization had a multi-tiered structure with local districts, divisions and areas leading upward to the Ontario Council. It’s safe to say that probably most leaders saw their own troop as the centre of Girl Guides with the superior levels in place to serve local needs. The Ontario Council did not see it that way. They saw all those levels as a barrier to getting things done.
In 2007 the council undertook “The Transformation”, dissolving the districts and areas and transferring their assets and $3.2 million in funds to the provincial head office. As happens so often in these attempts at efficiency, the bureaucracy swelled. Staff in the Toronto office grew from 26 to 98 full-time positions. The payroll tripled to $4.5 million.
For the people in charge, the problem was not the increased staff but the cost of running and maintaining 33 Girl Guide camps it had taken over from the district organizations. The council decided they needed to be sold.
One of the camps sold was Camp Keewaydin, near Kintail where my daughters went to camp all those years ago. Taxpayers in Ashfield-Colborne-Wawanosh might appreciate the change since there’s bound to be more tax revenue from the tech millionaire who bought it for his country retreat than from the camp.
Not all the local Guide organizations went along quietly with the loss of the camps, however. Local volunteers in several areas, who had bought, set-up and maintained the camps for decades, actually went to court to prevent their closure. A lawyer for the council warned one local group to stay away from their camp. “The owner has not given your clients or anyone else permission to use the camp property. If they do, they will be trespassing.”
Since Girl Guides still depends on local unpaid leaders to make the organization run, fighting with those volunteers doesn’t seem a great policy. When volunteers protested the closure of one camp and got media attention, the council saw itself as the victim. “It’s not a civil tone to take your five-year-old daughter and have her crying at the chain link fence,” the council’s head complained.
Despite the ongoing sales of these camps, the Ontario Girl Guides Council has run deficits nine of the past 12 years.
I have some sympathy for the council members. They are dealing with changing times. Many young girls are more interested in spending time inside keeping up with the latest on social media than in going outside in the fresh air, learning about nature. It’s also getting harder and harder to recruit volunteer leaders among busy young adults today.
Still the Girl Guides Ontario Council seems to have fallen prey to a common delusion that the grassroots is there to serve the centre, not the other way around. The future of the Girl Guides depends on finding energetic and creative leaders in each community – dynamic people who can attract young girls back to Guiding. You can’t do that from head office.
Over and over again, the founding model of Canada was the mobilization of local communities to create services they felt were needed by their community. Take schools, for instance. Although there has long been provincial funding and the province provided quality control through visiting inspectors, schools were very much locally run by local volunteer trustees until the 1960s. Then, in the name of efficiency, the province set up county boards of education, then enlarged them to regional boards.
Today, many communities have no schools at all. Few people feel any sense of ownership or responsibility for their school.
If you want buy-in, you need involvement and commitment at the local level. Good luck to you if you forget that lesson as the Girl Guides seem to have.