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My daughters sold Girl Scout Cookies. Here's what I learned in the Thin Mint trenches

Cookie pickup day is a test of logistics for Girl Scout parents, who fill their cars with as many cookies as they can hold.
Bill Chappell
Cookie pickup day is a test of logistics for Girl Scout parents, who fill their cars with as many cookies as they can hold.

It's 9:15 on a cold Monday morning, and six Girl Scout parents are giving full-on military op vibes.

Five moms and I are standing on a sidewalk, holding mugs of coffee and tea as we run through logistics. We have an action plan, and a goal: We're picking up nearly 3,300 packages of cookies for our Girl Scout troop and taking them to our homes-turned-mini-warehouses.

"We'll probably need a sort of Checkpoint Bravo, a place to regroup in case we get separated," our cookie manager, Ali Ray Cavanaugh, says.

Today, we're part of the Girl Scouts Army. We'll drive in a convoy across Washington, D.C., to a massive parking lot where our vehicles — two minivans, two Subarus and two SUVs — will be crammed with as many cookies as they can hold.

As a lifelong fan of Girl Scout Cookies but also a never-scout (a term no one, as far as I can tell, uses), I'm low-key buzzing at being let into the inner circle, where we're relied on to Do The Thing. A successful run today means that all the cookie promises our Daisies, Brownies and Juniors made will be kept, on schedule.

As we head out, I hold two not-necessarily-conflicting ideas in my mind: I'm glad I can do this for my two daughters, and this is one way the Girl Scouts outsources core functions to parent volunteers.

Cookies rule everything around me

Our cookie pickup objective might sound fun, but we're all about the mission. After all, this task requires at least three hours — and we're taking time away from our (paying) jobs to do this (nonpaying) work.

We have a special group chat for this trip. When we get separated in traffic, we use Google Maps pins and phone calls to ensure our team can recombine before entering the pickup zone. There, we join a snake of cars pulsing down a long incline into a huge lot, where we coil our way between 18-wheelers with trailers full of Thin Mints, Samoas and Adventurefuls.

If you were picturing the Girl Scouts' inner circle like a Wonka-like scene of Tagalong rainbows and Do-si-do stools, this ain't it. It reminds me of large-scale relief efforts I've visited for NPR, where the sole objective is to distribute massive quantities of food. At this one delivery site, 170,000 packages of cookies are being dispersed.

"Last year, our Girl Scouts sold 4.4 million packages across the entire council" in the Washington, D.C., area, council chief financial officer, Jessica McClain, told me.

After picking up hundreds of cardboard cases, we hand-carry the precious cargo into cookie manager Cavanaugh's large basement. From there, cookies are portioned out to Girl Scouts to deliver to their customers. Hundreds more boxes are earmarked for cookie booth sales.

Our houses are transformed into glorified cookie cupboards. Reader, as I write this story at home, four cases of cookies sit by my elbow.

Girl Scout Cookies are a $1 billion industry

Volunteers load Trefoils and other Girl Scout Cookies at a huge parking lot near the RFK stadium in Washington, D.C.
Bill Chappell / NPR
Volunteers load Trefoils and other Girl Scout Cookies at a huge parking lot near the RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.

"The thing with these cookies is, they're really good," a Girl Scout dad told me, as we watched our daughters rake in money at a cookie booth.

In a normal year, the Girl Scouts of the United States of America will sell about 200 million boxes of cookies, as NPR's Scott Horsley reported last year. The national organization calls it "the largest girl-led entrepreneurial program in the world," with nearly 700,000 Girl Scouts participating.

You've probably heard about cookie prices going up. The vast majority of troops are now selling boxes for between $5 and $7. If the girls hit that 200 million mark this year, cookie revenue would eclipse $1 billion. So, I asked, how much do the girls see in profits?

"Last year, our troops earned over $4.5 million in proceeds," said McClain, our council's chief financial officer.

For perspective, our council, Girl Scouts Nation's Capital, is pretty large, she added, with about 4,000 troops.

In some ways, the Girl Scouts operates with top-down control of what are essentially local franchises. But the cookie-business aspect of the nonprofit is distributed pretty widely. To buy cookies in bulk, each council makes its own contract with one of the two big baking companies, ABC Bakers and Little Brownie Bakers — which in turn pay licensing fees to the national organization.

The amount of proceeds each troop is able to keep varies. I asked McClain how it breaks down for our council.

"I would start with saying none of it goes to the national organization," she said. "About 25% to 30% of the price goes to the troops themselves," to use as they choose.

Another chunk goes to direct costs — the cookies themselves and transportation.

"That can be up to about 40% with that piece of it," McClain said.

Some money goes toward activities, she said: "We use about 10% of those funds to support the outdoor program for all of our Girl Scouts in our council."

"There's also about 14, 15% that goes to customer support," such as technology underpinning the sales operation, she said.

Money also goes toward things like operational costs and the rewards girls earn by hitting sales goals.

Parents are a multiskilled volunteer workforce

Cookie booth sales like this one in Michigan let Girl Scouts (and their parents) broaden their customer base.
Don Reid/Coldwater Daily Reporter/USA Today Network / Reuters
Cookie booth sales like this one in Michigan let Girl Scouts (and their parents) broaden their customer base.

The reality of Girl Scout Cookies may not be Wonka-like, but parents can be forgiven for feeling like Oompa Loompas — the hardworking cogs in a well-oiled machine.

Whatever a troop's parents do for a living, Girl Scouts calls on them to hone a very specific set of skills, from making accurate sales projections (each troop is on the hook to pay for every cookie box they order) to managing spreadsheets and deliveries as late orders come in. Finally, they'll reconcile a mix of cash, online orders and Venmo payments to ensure everything adds up.

"We know it's a lot of work. We know it is a heavy lift," McClain told me, calling volunteers the lifeblood of the system.

Parents tout their kid's online cookie store, sharing links on Facebook, in emails, at work — wherever a possible sale is lurking. They help girls sort the orders and make deliveries. They volunteer at cookie booths. Some, like me, also make surplus orders to cover all the folks who didn't realize Girl Scout cookie season was coming. Those packages can go fast: When my girls brought about 25 boxes — or about $120 worth — of cookies to NPR's headquarters, they sold out in 45 minutes.

All this happens in parallel to the actual work of running the troop — setting up meetings and activities, ensuring the girls have the right materials, and planning what to do with the proceeds from cookie sales.

So, why do parents do it?

A line of cars stretches down into a parking lot where semitrailers are waiting to unload Girl Scout Cookies in Washington, D.C.
Bill Chappell / NPR
A line of cars stretches down into a parking lot where semitrailers are waiting to unload Girl Scout Cookies in Washington, D.C.

First of all: I'm glad to be able to support my daughters' troop, to put time and money toward their experience.

I enjoy learning what it's all about and seeing my daughters spend time with friends in their troop. As for the cookie program, the Girl Scouts traditionally emphasizes the business training — things like setting goals, making marketing and spending decisions, and being responsible and ethical.

"We're trying to teach entrepreneurial skills," McClain said.

Then there are the rewards for their labor. While some parents I've talked to say they wish the kids got a bigger share of the revenue, our troop does get enough money to do special things. And while adults do a lot of work to make it happen, we're fine with the girls deciding how to spend it — they usually hold a vote to decide on the best options.

If you ever visit a cookie booth and want to know where the girls' money goes, just ask.

"We are raising money to go camping and horseback riding," Eva Kelly, a junior in our troop, told me at our sale.

They also want to learn how to cook, my daughter Mattie added: "We've got to learn how to make basic meals while we're camping."

If all goes well, they'll be at that camp this summer — and some Girl Scout parents will be able to take a break as well.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.