Our Chief Fundraising Strategist, Dan Thain, recently spoke at North America’s I Wish I’d Thought of That (#IWITOT), an initiative that brings together fundraisers to share campaigns, products, and ideas so good they wish they’d been a part of bringing them to life.

Thain felt that the carbs + sugar + innovative thinking behind Girl Scout Cookies qualified as true fundraising genius. 

As a century old initiative, it has stood the test of time helping to raise funds and instill a sense of entrepreneurialism in the next generation. Here’s a snippet into some of the insights and principles he shared with those attending #IWITOT:

It’s fair to say that Girl Scout Cookies hold a very special place in America’s heart – who doesn’t love the winning combination of sugar and carbs for a good cause? I believe the key to its longevity is partly because it’s a high quality product and partly because it’s an easy way to shine a light on a meaningful cause. All proceeds stay local so whilst it has scale (200m boxes were sold last year alone, raising $800m) it also has a great local impact angle.

The fundraising fundamentals of what has made this movement so successful highlight some key lessons for all of us as fundraising practitioners:

It was started by passionate supporters at grassroots level

Girl Scout Cookies didn’t start with marketing folk around a conference table. It started with impassioned individuals who wanted to help raise funds for their local Girl Scout troop. 

Five years later, Scouts USA started to publish recipes for other troops allowing them to take fundraising into their own hands and in 1934 the first commercial bakes made it into the hands of supporters.

The most inspiring part of this story is that volunteers started it all and the Girl Scouts of America recognized what they had and helped them maximize its potential. Which leads to an important thought for all of us fundraisers: Are you listening to your volunteers and donors? Do you have feedback mechanisms in place? Can you create a regular program to encourage them to share their ideas?

A decentralized organizational model with staying power

The net proceeds from all sales stay with the local Girl Scouts council where the sale was made. The money goes out to support and fund year-round education programs, outdoor experiences, travel, and scout-led community projects. So by smartly linking inputs with outputs, Girl Scouts USA has given local scout troops a real financial incentive to make this a success.

A lot of purchases happen door to door with those raising funds also helping raise the profile of Girl Scouts and their mission.

And there’s flexibility too – local groups decide the pricing structure of their cookies using local knowledge to drive business outcomes. 

Friendly competition and incentives help drive results

Girls Scouts USA put in place an incentive-based structure to encourage individual Girl Scouts to sell more. 

At Blue State, we call this ‘organizing the organizers’ – a core strategy for any grassroots operation. And by offering pin badges, patches, or potential rewards such as tickets to a Broadway show, there is status and real benefits to be earned by taking part.  

Co-ownership drives authenticity and innovation

Girls Scout USA has never sought to centralize or sell $800m of cookies each year directly – but instead emphasized a co-ownership and empowerment model that each seller can get involved with.

Take eight year old Lilly Bumpus – she has sold 32,000+ boxes of cookies – the highest amount a single girl scout has sold in any single year. She is a cancer survivor and drew strength from her sales. Her Mom said:

“Lilly has always been blessed with the community of supporters she’s had with her, but for the first time, the world saw she had her own voice, her own mission, her own site that is bigger than cancer. She just needed a space to do her own thing, and this was it.”

Scarcity is also a motivator  

As fundraisers, we know this well. Whether it’s a limited edition piece of merch,

a match, or end of year, we know the idea of scarcity can be a powerful motivating factor in getting people to act. And in the case of girl scout cookies – scarcity is not only a differentiator in the marketplace, but an event that people can look forward to. By minimizing the window you can buy the cookies, you maximize interest in them. 

Which in itself is another form of cookie genius. 

Technology is used as a tool, not a solution

From the first phone-based cookie hotline, to online sales, to cookie finder apps, Girl Scouts also understood that technology is a tool to promote and reach new audiences. 

And, this isn’t just a fundraising initiative, but a learning opportunity for the scouts taking part to help build their goal setting, decision making, money management, and people skills as well as business ethics. 
It’s also helped empower hundreds of thousands of girls to believe in themselves and stand up for the causes they care about.

For example, in the last couple of years it was revealed that one of the Girl Scout cookie manufactures used Palm Oil that employed child labour, troop after troop boycotted their own cookies until manufacturing processes were changed.

They are forcing a conversation – and it’s inspiring to see.

Are you looking for some groundbreaking fundraising strategies of your own? Reach out to [email protected] and we’ll be in touch!