Money-Making Lessons From the Girl Scouts

Photo: The U.S. Army

My living room has been stacked high with cases of Girl Scout cookies for the past month, I've created a spreadsheet that looks like the blueprint to a Dr. Seuss house, and my day is frequently interrupted by phone negotiations over trading a "Dulce" for a "Savannah."

Yep, I'm a cookie mom.

Despite my moments of doubt — "Are all these hours really worth the amount of money this fundraiser puts in our troop bank account?" — I've come to love most aspects of cookie season. I've even learned a thing or two about money and sales from the well oiled machine known as the Girl Scout Cookie Program. (See also: Timeless Money Lessons From Teens)

1. You Can't Get a "Yes" If You Don't Ask

During cookie manager training, I learned that 85% of people who are asked to buy Girl Scout cookies say yes (PDF). However, only 35% of people are asked. If a sales team with millions of unpaid child workers has that large of an untapped market, think how much untapped potential your own business or endeavor might have!

2. It Pays to Set Goals

One great thing about the Girl Scout Cookie Program is that Girl Scouts are supposed to set their own goals for what activities they want their earnings to fund and figure out how many cookies they need to sell to meet those goals. The process is encouraging me to do more purposeful goal setting for my own money earning activities.

3. Lead With What You Have

This is actually a piece of advice our troop got from a kind shopper as we stood outside a local grocery store. Our Scouts were keeping a close tally on what varieties we had run out of, and when shoppers asked what we had, they'd recite, "We're out of Trefoils, we're out of Do-Si-Dos ..." before finally getting to the many varieties of cookies we still had for sale.

"Hey, girls," our shopper said, getting out his wallet. "Lead with what you have, not what you don't have."

4. Be Persistent

The Girl Scouts have come up with a great way to counter excuses like, "I don't eat sweets" or "I already bought cookies." It's called a Gift of Caring, and it means that you can pay for a box of cookies to be donated to a food pantry or military unit — with a percentage going to the troop just like with a regular sale. It takes some moxie for little girls to hear "no" and come back with, "You could give a Gift of Caring instead!" but I have seen it pay off again and again.

5. Don't Save All Your Accounting for the Last Minute

The Girl Scouts wisely break up their cookie season into bite-sized chunks, asking troops to make deposits throughout the season so that they don't find themselves at the end of the sales period owing thousands that they haven't collected. This would be such a good idea in all our financial planning — if you need to make a $10,000 tuition payment in September, schedule yourself four quarterly bank deposits of $2,500 each to make sure it's all in order when the time comes.

6. Don't Bite the Hand That Feeds You

Girls Scouts are always supposed to leave a place nicer and cleaner than we find it, but at cookie manager training we were warned to be especially vigilant about this when it comes to selling cookies in public locations. When selling in front of stores, we are admonished not to leave our empty cases lying around or even taking up space in the host business's recycling bin. Most important, if Starbucks is nice enough to let us sell cookies by their front door, we don't stand around drinking coffee or hot cocoa from other shops.

7. Make Every Member of Your Organization Accountable

In our area, every parent in the troop signs a responsibility form acknowledging that they owe every penny of cash for the cookies their daughter takes to sell. Parents who volunteer must be fingerprinted and get a background check from the local police. Every time cookies or money change hands from troop to members and back again, a receipt is issued.

This all may seem like overkill until you realize that our little troop is currently in possession of $6,000 in cookies and cash. Scout's honor is great, but when we are talking about thousands of dollars, receipts and fingerprints are great backup.

8. Delegate, Delegate, Delegate

When I first got involved in the cookie sale, I was shocked at how much work is involved for parents, especially when the girls are young. But it all gets done despite the volunteers' jobs, parenting responsibilities, and everything else they have to do. It gets done most easily in troops — like ours, luckily — where all the families share the work. If I ever find myself getting overwhelmed, it's usually because I have not taken time to ask the other parents if they could take over one of the tasks I'm juggling.

9. Remember the Big Picture

When I get home from spending three hours outdoors with a group of increasingly rambunctious third grade girls and count up how many cookies we sold, I'm tempted to calculate our troop's earnings on a per-hour, per-adult basis. This often amounts to less than minimum wage, which discourages me.

However, other Girl Scout parents remind me that there is more to the sale than our troop earnings. There is all the great experience our girls are getting with earning the money to fund their own activities. Then there is the fact that money from every box sold goes back to our local council to fund activities for all girls in our region. When I got my summer Girl Scout camp catalog, it laid out the difference between what parents are required to pay and the true cost of providing the camp sessions. Girl Scout Cookie sales subsidize camps and other great activities that many girls could not afford otherwise.

10. Don't Over-Estimate Sales

If you order more cookies than your troop can sell, you'll be scrambling to avoid literally "eating" the loss. This is a lesson that even a regional Girl Scout council found out when some cookies they returned to the baker — as allowed in their contract — turned into a black mark on the Scouts' public image. The baker had unexpired cookies destroyed instead of donated, and the news media had a field day.

11. You Must Understand Opportunity Cost

Once a troop has picked up its initial cookie order, the volunteers involved have the option to order and pick up more cases. Whether to do so requires some guesswork and calculation — are the potential additional earnings worth the adult's time and gas to fetch more cookies, and the girls' time to sell them?

"I thought about ordering two additional cases for a booth sale because I'm pretty sure we'd sell them," said Marta Segal Block, a troop cookie manager in Oak Park, Ill., who blogs at Advice from Marta. "But really, even if we did that's only $17 or so, so it isn't worth the trouble to order the cases just for that. But, if we had a third booth sale and ordered another 10 cases, then it would seem worth it."

Have you ever taken part in a GSA cookie sale or similar fund raising effort? Did you learn any money and sales lessons?

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Meg Favreau's picture

As someone who has a history as an over-apologizer, I love "lead with what you have" just as general life advice. Lead with the positive, not the negative!

Guest's picture

When I was these girl's age I definitely didn't understand what selling the cookies actually meant, or even that the entire process is a huge nation-wide phenomenon. Cool way to break down what you can actually learn as you're experiencing this all firsthand. I wish I knew about the "Gift of Caring". I can't afford to have those boxes laying around (I'd eat every one), but I'd feel great about sending a box overseas to troops.

Lars Peterson's picture

Yeah, the Gift of Caring tip is a great one.

I live near a popular shopping/restaurant area that attracts lots of shoppers and strollers, which in turn attracts lots of Girl Scouts selling cookies. I always felt sorta bummed when I turn down the cookie offer (the scout looks so sad!). So the last time I was accosted by a Girl Scout selling cookies, I asked about the GoC. They weren't quite ready, but one of the Cookie Moms knew what was up, and they found the right envelope for the cash.

Next time by they had a special GoC sign made up and everything. So, Carrie, a troop local to Long Beach, CA has you to thank for a reminder to suggest a Gift of Caring.

Carrie Kirby's picture

You can still give a Gift of Caring! At least, in California, the scouts are still out at tables all over.