Diane Flanagan

Diane Flanagan

For the past nine years, Diane Flanagan has been CEO of Girl Scouts of the Desert Southwest, an organization she helped grow by 40 percent to 11,500 girls.

Most people would be surprised to know how many cookies the girls sell and how profitable the Girl Scouts’ business is. They’ve been at it since 1917 – 25 years before the formation of El Paso’s original council, the Girl Scouts of Fort Bliss.

They later became the Girl Scouts of the Rio Grande and in 2009, the council merged with New Mexico’s Zia council and Girl Scouts of the Permian Basin, taking in Midland and Odessa.

Flanagan said her scouts account for the sale of – drumroll, please – more than 1 million boxes of cookies a year. They pay the bakers a little more than $1 per box, leaving the nonprofit organization with about $3 million a year and no taxes.

The sales average out to about 90 boxes per Girl Scout. Of course, they get lots of help from parents whose services are much in demand when order forms start going around workplaces in January and even more popular when deliveries begin.

Thin Mints are the top seller, of course.

Aug. 14 will be Flanagan’s last day as head of the council. Headquartered in El Paso, the council’s territory covers 33 counties and 94,000 square miles in West Texas and southern New Mexico.

But she’s not getting out of the cookie business or the Girl Scouts. She’s heading for Charleston, her hometown, to take over the Girl Scouts of South Carolina, a smaller organization that needs what Flanagan can bring.

“I’m very thrilled to go back to where I grew up, but it’s sad to leave here,” Flanagan said. 

She’s confident that she’s leaving the Girl Scouts of the Desert Southwest in the good hands of a board and staff that will continue to grow the organization under a new leader.

In an impromptu interview with El Paso Inc., Flanagan talked about leaving her career as an engineer and executive with an auto parts manufacturer in Juárez for a very different career building a nonprofit and turning girls into leaders.

Q: You’re leaving after nine years as CEO of Girl Scouts of the Desert Southwest. Why?

I’ve been here a long time and in that time, we’ve grown our membership by 40 percent. We’ve grown our operating reserves from seven months to over 18 months, so we’ve been financially strong. I just feel that I’ve done what I can here. It’s been a great organization. 

Now I’m going to South Carolina, which is where I grew up, and I’m going to be the CEO of the Girl Scouts in South Carolina. So I’m not leaving the organization, I’m just going to run another council, and I’m going home, basically.

 Q: What happens next?

What will happen and might be significant is that the council has hired a national executive search firm out of New York City to conduct a national search for my replacement – Evergreen is the name of it. They do a lot of Girl Scouts CEOs across the country, and they’re very familiar with the organization. 

 Q: Did they find you for the South Carolina job or did you spot the opening yourself?

It was posted through Evergreen, and I was like, “I can go home!” So I applied. Hundreds applied, and I went through a lengthy two-month application interviewing process, and they offered me the position.

 Q: You helped grow this council while the number of Girl Scouts nationally was declining. What did you do to get this organization going in the other direction? 

People ask me that all the time because we’ve had so many years of membership growth. Honestly, I love people. I have an amazing staff, and I empower my staff and success breeds success. It’s all about the people, loving and taking care of people, and that’s what I do.

 Q: But it’s all about reaching out to kids, so how is it that this organization has been able to do that so much better than others? 

First of all, the Girl Scout program is the best girl program in the world. It really is. I just got back from Africa where I was in Ruanda for the last two weeks at an international scouting conference. Globally, Girl Scouts provides the best programs for girls. We provide an amazing leadership experience for girls, a place where girls can try new things and learn new things in a safe environment.

We don’t have a problem getting the girls; they want to be part of us. The tough part is the volunteers because we ask a lot of a Girl Scout volunteer. It’s a big time commitment. 

 Q: How many do you have?

I have 2,200 volunteers and 11,500 girls. In El Paso, I have just under 4,000 girls. So the bulk of them are in El Paso.

 Q: How did you get to El Paso in the first place?

I’m an engineer and I came here with Delphi. I worked for Delphi for 25 years. I was relocated here to El Paso in ’93 to build the technical center over in Juárez. I brought product engineering to Mexico. I headed up sales and marketing for Delphi in Mexico. My team sold to Honda, Volkswagen, Ford, General Motors – all the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) in Mexico. 

 Q: Why did you decide to leave Delphi?

That’s a good question. The short story to that is my two boys – I have two sons – were going off to college. I was looking at my life saying, “What do I want to do with the second half of my life?” 

I literally opened up the paper one day and saw an ad for the Girl Scout Council, and I thought this is what I can do for the second half of my life to really make a difference. I had just finished being president of the Junior League, so I’d done a lot of nonprofit work. 

I saw the ad in November, and they hired me in February 2009. It’s gone quickly. It’s gone really quickly.

 Q: How many councils are there nationally?

There are 112 Girl Scout councils in the country. 

 Q: What do girls learn in the Girl Scouts?

We break it into four different categories. We do incredible entrepreneurship skills through our Girl Scout cookie program. In my council alone, they sell over a million boxes of Girl Scout cookies a year. People are stunned by that number, and it’s $4 a box.

That means $4 million are handled by the girls in this council. Think about that.

 Q: I’ll bet the folks in South Carolina are thinking about it.

Yeah, they are. These girls are learning how to set goals, how to run a business – entrepreneur skills. So many former Girl Scouts talk about their first business experience as running their Girl Scout cookie sale. People think, “Oh, how cute, girls are selling cookies.” But, they are running a business when they do that, and they’re learning those skills. It’s amazing. 

So we do entrepreneurship. We also do a lot of outdoor skills because when girls get outdoors, they seek challenges and they build confidence. They care more about the environment. There are all kinds of benefits to being outdoors. 

 Q: Like camping and getting dirty?

Totally. We do lots of rappelling and horseback riding. We do rafting on the Rio Grande, a lot of archery and all kinds of outdoor skills, including camping. We do it all.

 Q: What else?

We do entrepreneurship, outdoor skills and a lot of life skills. I do several programs a year on car care. Think about it. Girls are learning things like how to change a tire and check their oil. How many girls grow up and never learn that? 

Life skills include financial literacy – how to get your first apartment, how to buy a car, how to do a lot of things that girls aren’t learning today. They’re not getting it in school, and if their parents aren’t teaching it to them, they may not learn how to do these things. 

 Q: What about academics?

The fourth category is STEM – science, technology, engineering and math. Girls are so underrepresented in STEM fields, so we do a lot of programs around teaching STEM and exposing girls to coding. There’s engineering in everything. Who knows that better than me? Girls need to be exposed to all that so they’re not afraid of it and they don’t feel like it’s a man’s field.

It’s so important when products are designed that you have the female voice at the table because if products are designed all by men, then you’re leaving out half your population.

You get a better product if you have gender-balanced designs. There are products that are designed by all men, and then they left out something major.

 Q: Such as?

I’ll give you a very feminine example. When you look at health apps on your iPhone, they track all kinds of health-related things. The one thing it does not track is the menstrual cycle. Women track that and always have. 

But these health apps are designed by men, so nobody thought to build a feature into their health app that tracks a woman’s menstrual cycle. These are the types of things we teach. But the key to how we do it is that everything is girl led. 

 Q: How does it work?

Whenever the girls meet as a troop or are at a program, we present options to let the girls decide what they’re interested in and what they want to learn. What happens then is they’re learning leadership skills. 

They’re learning to control and take charge. They don’t always realize it, but that’s the key to creating a leader. You give them opportunities to lead. When a troop meets and they make a decision about how to spend the proceeds from their cookie sales, they do it as a group and the girls decide.

 Q: What do they do with the money? 

What the girls do with their proceeds is they usually renew their memberships. They might buy uniform components for all the girls in the troop. A lot of girls take trips. Maybe they’ll go to San Antonio to Sea World. They’ll usually go as a troop. 

It’s collectively troop money, not individual girl money. The biggest thing they do with it is a community service project. They give it back to the community somehow because that’s part of our membership statement – to make the world a better place.

 Q: What is the size of your administrative staff?

I have 39 staff members, not all full time.

 Q: Cookie sales are the primary source of income?

Yes. We do produce significant public support through foundations and individual giving, but the bulk of our income does come from the cookie sale.

 Q: Out of that, how much goes to administration?

The $2 that we keep in the council box goes to support the staff that is providing programs and support to the volunteers and the girls. Then a portion of it goes directly to the troop and incentives. 

My top cookie sellers just came back from a weeklong cruise out of Los Angeles. This was a weeklong Carnival cruise to Mexico. I was on it this year, and we took 14 girls. We took another 14 to New York City. 

Q: In South Carolina, what is the size of the organization there?

It’s smaller, but there’s great potential. They have 5,500 girls and 29 staff members. I don’t know the number of volunteers. I’m going to a small council, but my goal is to grow it to the size of this one in three years. I think that’s a doable thing.

 Q: What kind of stats do you have about the population in general that you serve now?

For my council in El Paso, West Texas and Southern New Mexico, the whole 94,000 square miles, we have 180,000 girls, ages five to 17, who could be Girl Scouts. That’s our market potential. That’s all based on census data and research. We serve 11,500 out of 180,000. That’s one of the reasons that we have potential to grow because there’s that many more girls we could reach. 

The South Carolina council that I’ll take over has about the same potential. When I was interviewing, I ran the numbers on it, and their potential girl is not terribly different from here. It’s probably 150,000 potential girls. They’re not serving the same percentage that we are here.

That council went through what we call realignment – kind of a restructuring that happened nationally – about nine years ago. They were serving 14,000 girls. They’ve dropped their membership to 5,500, so they’ve gone in the opposite direction. 

I’m not afraid of a challenge, and I get to do it in my hometown.

 Q: What do you do with the leftover cookies?

I have a room full of cookies. We just keep them and call them our PR cookies. When we meet with a donor or meet with the press, we take cookies with us because cookies open doors. They make people smile. They make people happy. 

If we have a lot left over, we’ll give them to different nonprofit organizations. We put them to good use. 

This year, we donated 14,000 boxes to the Red Cross and the soldiers at Fort Bliss. We do that every year. Actually, the girls sell them. When the girls are at their booths selling cookies, they ask people to make a donation for Gift of Caring so that soldiers and the Red Cross can have some. Those 14,000 are paid for by the public to give away.

Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at dcrowder@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.


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