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May 27, 2024 Corner Office

New Girl Scouts of CT CEO Spearman brings corporate leadership experience, as nonprofit caters to a new generation

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED Elicia Pegues Spearman is the new CEO of the Girl Scouts of Connecticut.
Elicia Pegues Spearman
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The Girl Scouts of Connecticut is entering a new era with lofty goals of trying to redefine scouting for the 21st century, from the adoption of digital cookie sales and more science and engineering programming, to creating closer ties with the business community.

Leading the troops is recently named CEO Elicia Pegues Spearman, who said her background in the corporate, legal and philanthropic sectors ideally positions her to tackle the job.

She was named CEO April 29, replacing outgoing Chief Executive Diana Mahoney as head of an organization with nearly 18,000 Girl Scouts.

Previously, Spearman held several C-suite roles, most recently as general counsel and vice president of human resources at Quinnipiac University. Before that, she was the first person of color named to submarine maker General Dynamics Electric Boat’s executive team, having served as vice president and chief human resources officer.

As an attorney, she also worked for state and federal agencies and Fortune 500 corporations, including Aetna, Hubbell, the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities and FBI.

Spearman takes over at a time when Girl Scouts membership nationally has declined nearly 30% since 2019-2020, to just over 1 million members this year. Membership in Connecticut has dipped 18.2% since 2020-21, according to annual reports.

The Girl Scouts of CT has also restructured its real estate portfolio in recent years, closing, selling off and upgrading various campsites.

Membership took a hit during the pandemic, when lockdowns were put in place and online learning became the norm. National numbers did increase slightly in the years following the public health crisis, but the Girl Scouts has had to compete with other demands in young girls’ lives, especially sports and athletics that sometimes require year-round commitments, Spearman said.

She and other leaders aim to reinvigorate interest in the organization by dispelling the old perception that Girl Scouting is just crafting and cookies. Now, there’s greater focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) programs, and continuing to build entrepreneurial skills.

Spearman said her overall focus is “making sure everyone understands the benefits of the Girl Scouts, our mission and our goals, and the depth and breadth of all that we offer.”

Goals and priorities

Girl Scouts of CT has more than 1,300 troops, along with service centers in Hartford and North Haven. It also owns eight camp properties but operates six; four for summer camps and two for troops.

Spearman said her main goals include boosting membership locally by about 3% each year, and recruiting more volunteers, female or male, to serve as troop leaders. She also wants to increase corporate and community partnerships, which are vital to fundraising and offering more programming, which ranges from coding and camping to farming and forensics.

Boosting fundraising is a top priority, and to do that, Spearman said she plans to look at current sponsors to see “Who haven’t we heard from, and what part of our Girl Scout programs would appeal to them. And we seek their donations and support so we can partner together.”

Major existing partners include the Pitney Bowes foundation, Webster Bank and Lockheed Martin.

Funding helps pay for expenses such as property maintenance, salaries, scholarships and aid for membership or events, she said.

“We want everybody to participate, and sometimes there are financial barriers to doing that,” Spearman said.

Individual donors are an important part of the fundraising base, in addition to corporations, which also make large Girl Scout cookie orders and are key supporters of events and new programming.

The Girl Scouts has an emerging focus on STEAM programs, and wants to offer more hands-on activities, like providing access to a local robotics lab.

“You have to be agile, you have to be able to pivot and meet where the girls are,” Spearman said.

Some new programs include a partnership last year with Quinnipiac University, which allowed troop members to interact with professors and develop entrepreneurial skills.

Other STEAM-related programs include partnering with engineering, aerospace and industrial companies to build engineering skills, learn concepts like aerodynamics or trajectory and create model rockets.

“To me, that is the messaging,” Spearman said. “Does everybody really know all that we do, and all that we have? Do they know that you can go on an archeological dig with the Girl Scouts, travel overseas, that we have an ocean program? Have you made algae ice cream lately, have you engaged in a climate escape box?”

Dollars and cents

In fiscal year 2023, the Girl Scouts of CT posted an $820,674 operating surplus on $11.1 million in revenue. Product revenues, including all-important cookie sales, accounted for nearly 60%, or $6.6 million, of that total revenue pie, according to the organization’s annual report.

Girls Scouts in the state sold nearly 2 million cookie packages in fiscal 2023, up 3.7% from a year earlier.

Cookie sales are not only a key revenue source, but also provide entrepreneurial skills training, Spearman said.

Meantime, the Girl Scouts of CT is still in the midst of its long-range property plan, which was announced in January 2021. The group hired commercial real estate advisory firm Newmark to evaluate the 13 camp properties it owned at the time. Newmark concluded the nonprofit would need to spend $5 million to bring its campsites up to modern standards.

That led the Girl Scouts to rethink its real estate holdings and implement a plan to close, sell and upgrade various campsites. It has sold camps in Norfolk and Torrington, and a service center in Wilton.

In 2021, it sold Camp Candlewood in New Milford for $9 million to an anonymous buyer, who agreed to maintain the property as a campsite and open space.

The $8.3 million in sale proceeds were allocated to high-priority projects and property improvements.

To date, the Girl Scouts has invested $9.3 million to update facilities at camps Merrie-Wood (Manchester), An-Se-Ox (Oxford) and Aspetuck (Weston).

Property updates are still in progress at Camp Yankee Trails in Tolland, including the additions of a new commercial kitchen, shower house, laundry room, yurt cabins, bathrooms and increased dining hall capacity.

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