Today, an acquaintance (I’ll call her “Laura”) asked me if I would buy some Girl Scout cookies from her daughter’s troop. I told her “No thank you.”
It’s not that I don’t enjoy eating Girl Scout cookies (I do enjoy Thin Mints and Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies). It’s not that I generally oppose the activities of Girl Scouts. I approve of much of what Girl Scouts do.
Here’s what triggered this post. Laura told me that the average box of cookies sells for three dollars and that the average profit for each box of cookies is only fifty cents. Hmmmm.
Therefore, I can support their Girl Scouts to the same extent by handing $5 directly to the local troop or by buying $30 worth of cookies. Unless you think that eating cookies is an especially good thing, it makes much more sense to simply hand the local troop $5. Then again, eating cookies, especially a lot of cookies, is not a good thing. Cookies consist largely of refined carbohydrates and sugars. These are exactly the kinds of ingredients that invite obesity. Are the Girl Scouts concerned about obesity? Very much so (so am I), yet they continue to rely on cookie sales to fund their activities.
But let’s go back to the money for a moment. If you click here, you can see it stated that “all of the revenue” from cookie sales “stays with the local Girl Scout council that sponsors the sale.” The official site carefully points out that individual troops receive “from 12-17% of the purchase price of each box sold.” There are various important numbers that the site does not provide, however. For instance, is $.50 per box (the amount indicated to me by my acquaintance) the average amount of proceeds per box sold (as Laura indicated)? If so, the 12-17% of the purchase price of each box sold amounts to $.45 per box, which means that most of the proceeds go to the local troop. If true, it would be commendable. But we don’t know, because the Girl Scout organization does not specify how much profit is involved in the sale of each box of cookies.
All of this makes me wonder, because the Girl Scout organization is based in the middle of one of the highest rent districts in the world, 420 5th Ave in Manhattan. That’s where 400 employees work for the Girl Scout organization. But nowhere on the site will you find anything about the sales information I just mentioned, or other things I wonder, such as the salaries and perks of these 400 employees. Wouldn’t it be nice to know how much money it takes to run that fancy headquarters? How about a pie chart showing the sources of that money? Nowhere will you find the amount of that annual cookie profit money that flows back to the Girl Scout headquarters from determined efforts of little girls. Wouldn’t that be interesting to know? I suspect that, indirectly, cookie money flows back to the Girl Scout headquarters at a brisk rate. I’d be interested in knowing for sure, though, especially since my client has told me that the local troops have to purchase their own badges and other supplies with their own money. Much of what local Girl Scout troops do is not subsidized by cookie profits. I don’t know how much aggregate cookie profit is generated each year, because that is not on the website either. Maybe those cookie-revenue numbers are just too big to fit on the official Girl Scout webpage!
I have occastionally supported local Girl Scouting activity, despite my concerns with the financially opaque corporate hierarchy. I’ve decided, though, that my solution will now be to offer a direct donation to the local troop, just as I mentioned at the top of this post. Five dollars handed to a little girl who approaches you to sell cookies is the equivalent of buying $30 worth of cookies, and you can rest assured that all of that money will stay with the local troop. If you really want to get good bang for the buck and you usually buy $30 for the cookies, just hand the full $30 to local troop–that’s like buying $180 worth of cookies. In the process, everyone will be healthier and the local troop will be flush with cash to spend on those badges and other supplies that the national organization refuses to buy for them.
The Girl Scout cookie phenomenon raises an interesting issue about the way Americans think of charities. Why is it that people insist on getting something back for themselves in order to donate money to allegedly good causes? The Girl Scout cookie phenomenon is a classic case of this need for a quid pro quo. If someone really believed in the Girl Scouts, they shouldn’t need to receive cookies in return for supporting the Girl Scouts. Rather, they would just hand the local troop some money (as I’ve suggested above).
This problem (the need for a quid pro quo when soliciting for charities), is not peculiar to Girl Scouts. It’s everywhere you look. Almost every institutional charity offers stuff to people who donate. Mugs, T-shirts, videos, CDs, plaques, special access to celebrities, umbrellas, admissions to amusements, paperweights, inscribed souvenirs, admission to concerts or other special events.
Sometimes an organization will invite you to turn down any sort of gift. Kudos for those people who do so, those people who realize that demanding a gift in return for their contribution effectively reduces their contribution. They realize that those mugs, T-shirts and cookies are not free. And furthermore, who really needs more stuff of that sort?
All of this makes me wonder what kind of people we’ve become that so many of us insist on getting substantial amounts of stuff back in order to “contribute” to charities. I would suspect we’ve reached new levels of proficiency at being rampant consumers. See here and here .
Admittedly, this need for a quid pro quo is nothing new. After all, people were selling indulgences hundreds of years ago. But now, it is also much more visible and so widely accepted. It makes me frustrated enough to go eat half a box of Thin Mints. If only I had bought those cookies . . .
About the Author (Author Profile)Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.
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