Gail Mukaihata Hannemann, Girl Scouts of Hawaii, Chief Executive Officer


January, 2008

How does a 95-year-old nonprofit group re-brand itself to appeal to girls ages 5 to 17? That’s an issue Gail Mukaihata Hannemann faces as chief executive officer of the Girl Scouts of Hawaii. She recently returned from the organization’s New York headquarters and shared her thoughts with Hawaii Business.


Q: How has the Girl Scouts changed its business model?

A: We’ve overhauled the organization locally and nationally to identify five core business strategies that are relevant to girls in the 21st century: leadership; a flexible volunteer-management system; philanthropy; efficient organizational structure; and branding.

Q: The Girl Scouts cut operations to become more efficient didn’t it?

A: We’re still in the process of cutting. Last year, there were 317 councils nationwide. This year, we’ll be down to 107. We had one council on each island, but we saw the wisdom of consolidating. Hawaii is now one of two statewide councils in the country. Historically, we’ve been stronger in the Northeast and Midwest. Here in the West, the number of girls we serve, ages 5 to 17, is growing.

Q: What about the Girl Scouts brand?

A: We know we have a strong, iconic, positive brand. But it’s dated. The national office hired an agency, Lowe New York, to reposition the brand. It’s the same company that did the “Got Milk?” campaign. The head of the agency was a Girl Scout and many of her female employees were, too. One of the key things we’ve been doing is really listening to girls. When we describe to them what Girl Scouts is without telling them the name, they’re really interested.

Q: What are the girls’ reactions to their uniforms?

A: We learned in our market research that at the Daisy and Brownie levels, younger girls love their uniforms. They like to wear their badges. It’s no longer an attractive thing when they hit middle school. We made a decision that when we get to that level, uniforms aren’t going to look like uniforms anymore.
But the girls will be required to wear their Girl Scouts pin.

Q: The annual Woman of Distinction dinner typically raises half a million dollars. Did last November’s dinner raise the same amount?

A: We are about at that same place, which is quite remarkable. We do one primary fund-raising event like that every year. We had 1,000 guests, with 150 girls participating. The girls told us they really want to participate, for instance, in the silent auction. The girls do the running back and forth to find customers at their tables. What’s interesting is for the girls to see why people spend tens of thousands of dollars to support them. We benefit from the generosity
of the community.

Q: What’s your annual operating budget?

A: $3 million. Historically, most nonprofits raise all of their money, spend it and start all over. We’re working to a place where we have some reserves so that doesn’t happen so much. We watch our money carefully. We make tougher decisions because we want to remain in the black, which means we don’t do some programs that we want to, and we scale down what we want to do.

Q: You’ve been CEO of the group for more than five years. What was one of your biggest challenges to date?

A: Financials. When I joined the Girl Scouts in March, we had a significant debt of a quarter-million dollars, projected to increase by the end of the year. Through a lot of hard work, we ended the year in black at $86,000. When you have a situation where you have a fairly large financial deficit, it’s usually not an indication of the money. There are systemic issues.

Q: What issues did you find?

A: We didn’t have systems in place. We’ve overhauled our accounting system twice already. We’re now moving toward an online budgeting system so that the staff statewide has the ability to learn to manage money well. Within my short tenure, we’ve benefited from technology becoming more affordable. We now
have a new telecommunications system, which will save us money at the end of the day. Moving forward, we will look at our liability side, working to eliminate some of our debt. It’s really no different than running a business.

Q: What should employers know about today’s youth, our future workforce?

A: The younger generation is far more articulate and knowledgeable than we were at their age. What they don’t have is the experience, but that’s what you get when you get older, you gain experience. It’s not so much what the kids need, it’s what we need to be doing as adults.

Q: So what do adults need to do?

A: Give them opportunities to learn on their own. We tend to be too protective or afraid that they’re going to make mistakes, which is what everybody does. It’s only a mistake if you don’t learn from it. Sometimes, as adults, we tend to shelter kids too much. Kids are basically telling us, ÔGive us a chance and let us try.’ Obviously, wherever they are, kids need direction. But as they get older, what we hear from the girls is they want their space. They’re not asking for adults to step out of the arena. They want them to be coaches, mentors and to give them encouragement.

Q: When do cookie sales start?

A: This month. Ten percent of all cookies sold in the United States are Girl Scout cookies.

Q: What’s your favorite flavor?

A: Thin Mints. This year, we’re introducing a new sugar-free chocolate chip cookie, a lemon creme, and we’ve reconstituted the shape of the All Abouts, which has been around for a long time.

Q: Were you a Girl Scout?

A: I was. But mine was a short stint. We moved and there were no Girl Scouts where we lived.

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