Ellen Kyzer: The recruiterPresident and CEO, Girl Scouts in the Heart of Pennsylvania
When Ellen Kyzer took over as president and CEO of Girl Scouts in the Heart of Pennsylvania in 2016, membership numbers were moving in the wrong direction.
The council ranked 60th in membership out of 112 councils nationwide, and its numbers were dropping.
“We were facing five years of membership decline,” Kyzer said. Membership dropped 34 percent from 2012 to 2015.
Kyzer’s goals were clear: stabilize membership and improve recruiting. But the path to growth was not an easy one. Tense conversations and difficult decisions regarding property divesture were part of the process.
The hard work is paying off, though. Recruiting numbers are up. Programs to inform and educate girls interested in STEM careers — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — have exploded. The local council, which stretches from northeastern Pennsylvania to the southern middle counties of the state, is now solidly in the top 10 for membership growth, ranking No. 7 nationally and counting roughly 17,000 girls.
In January, Kyzer enters her third year with the local Girl Scout council. She previously served as the regional CEO of the American Red Cross in Central Pennsylvania and has worked in several other business development positions. Her existing business relationships have been crucial to her success with the Girl Scouts.
Kyzer recently shared some of the challenges she faced in helping put the local council back into growth mode. She credits that growth in part to the organization’s focus on boosting its STEM initiatives, which resonate with what girls want.
“Every day we come to work here and we are looking through the lens of girls,” she said. “We want girls to form and drive the programs and offerings of the organization.”
The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
CPBJ: How important is your background in fundraising and philanthropy to your leadership role with the Girl Scouts?
Kyzer: Working with the corporate community and other program partners helped to facilitate our programs right into the community where the girls live. It could be anything from a community volunteer to a company like PPL coming in, adding curriculum for us to use as an organization. The ability to connect with community partners and to leverage those resources has allowed us to explode our offerings.
STEM is an example of that. Our first STEM expo was offered to 1,000 girls in Hershey in 2017.
CPBJ: Tell us more about the first-ever STEM Expo in Hershey. It was a pretty successful event for the Girl Scouts. How did that transpire?
Kyzer: STEM programming and robotics are core programs for Girl Scouts nationally. We started offering programs (locally) in October 2015. We wanted to see how we could bring STEM to our girls, so we had this idea for a mobile STEM lab. It would be on the road and go to troop meetings and be used as community resource. We pitched the idea to PPL and they very generously decided that their foundation was going to fund it. Other funders helped to outfit the lab’s technology. It went on the road on June 1, 2017; we’ve already served 5,000 girls with the mobile programming. It’s a super-hot commodity. Other Girl Scout councils across the country are looking at this as an option. It’s taken off.
Our partnerships look at what we are doing with STEM as building the female workforce pipeline. We are teaching girls that they can have a career in this field. You have to see it to be it and part of our work is about exposure.
CPBJ: The expo sold out almost immediately, right?
Kyzer: When we opened the registries in January-February time frame, we said that we could serve 500 girls in one day. Three days later, we were already at 500, so they opened it up more, to 1,000 girls, and we still had waiting lists. They wanted to come and spend the day with 50 vendors. These were all hands-on interactive sessions that the girls got to take part in. By and large, these sessions were being led by women and it offered the girls a chance to learn a little bit about the variety of STEM fields. It started a synergy around our community partners. That power of partnership is a focus of our organization moving forward. We need to continually weave together those community resources.
The STEM piece has been the greatest success so far, since I have been with the organization.
CPBJ: What have been your greatest challenges?
Kyzer: We were an organization facing five years of membership decline and that created financial challenges for the organization. I worked with the leadership team to stabilize membership. How were we recruiting? (What was) the quality of the experience? As of today, we are No. 7 for membership growth year over year. We take feedback seriously and have created robust pathways for volunteers and parents and girls to form and drive the organization.
CPBJ: And that came with some pretty hard decisions, correct? Can you share with me what you had to do to get to that space?
Kyzer: My work here with the council over the last year has been working collaboratively with our long-range property and program planning committee to evaluate all of our camps and all of the outdoor programming that we were offering at those camps. We helped to guide and recommend to the board of directors a smaller footprint of our outdoor spaces. Divesting of property is a really difficult decision, a very emotional process for our members. The board had to make some really difficult decisions to help stabilize the organization.
CPBJ: What did you learn from this process?
Kyzer: Sometimes you have to stand in the pain. You have to be strong enough to take the constructive feedback that is being offered. There are moments when you have to stand in that moment and allow someone to express to you what they are feeling.
Part of being a leader is allowing, facilitating and embracing difficult conversations … and growing from it and moving forward.
CPBJ: What does a future Girl Scout look like?
Kyzer: They have a digital sash that they can carry around on their iPad. We are creating platforms across the council now that they can engage digitally with one another. There is always importance in relationship building that comes face-to-face, but so much of what girls are looking for now is in that digital content format. It’s keeping up with the speed of girls.
CPBJ: What does 2018 look like?
Kyzer: We are holding three STEM expos and we are adding an additional STEM-mobile. We just found out that we received a Stabler Foundation grant of $100,000. Those resources will be used to support the STEM expos.