Guiding the way

Denise King, chief executive of Girlguiding UK, wants to recruit more volunteers to lead the charity into its second century.

Girlguiding UK chief executive Denise King. Photo: Newscast
Girlguiding UK chief executive Denise King. Photo: Newscast

Mention the Girl Guides and for many people it will conjure up images of prim, white, middle-class girls dressed in sashes and ankle socks, sat around a campfire singing Kumbaya.

Today, guides still build campfires and sing songs, but they're more likely to be dressed in hoodies and singing along to the latest single from the Sugababes at one of Girlguiding UK's annual pop concerts.

Denise King, chief executive of Girlguiding UK, has gone to great lengths to shed the organisation's outdated image since her appointment in 2001.

Earlier this year, for example, she revealed she was planning new programmes to tackle issues such as body image and political participation.

Girlguiding UK also secured a grant from the Big Lottery Fund last year to help it increase the number of girls and leaders from black, minority and ethnic communities.

The organisation will celebrate its 100th anniversary in three years' time. King is proud that the guides of 2010 will be a far cry from those of 1910, whose first handbook was called How Girls Can Help to Build Up the Empire.

Some things, however, will always remain the same. Unlike the Scouts, which allows girls to join, the Guides has no plans to admit boys.

"We offer a once-a-week, girls-only space," explains King. "But we're hardly a breeding ground for radical feminists. They spend most of the rest of their lives in a co-educational environment."

And much to the chagrin of the British Humanist Association, which frequently bemoans the pledge girls make to 'my God' in their 'Guide promise', the Guides will always remain a faith-based organisation, King says.

Girls from different faiths are welcome, she says, but guiding and atheism do not go together. "We had a big debate about this with the trustees, but the bottom line for us is that you have to be open to the idea of a higher spiritual being," she says. "You don't have to be a fully paid-up member of a certain religion, but if your conviction is that a higher power doesn't exist, then we're not the organisation for you."

One of the charity's greatest challenges is getting adults involved. Girlguiding UK has a waiting list of 50,000 girls who want to join the Rainbows, Brownies or Guides, but it is a constant struggle to find more volunteers to run groups.

King says government initiatives such as the Investing in Volunteers for Employers standards, which were introduced in June last year, have helped, but the waiting list keeps growing. "The demand is still there, even though we are recruiting more volunteers, " she says.

As a result, Girlguiding UK is trying new approaches to recruiting volunteers that it hopes will enable people to contribute in less time-consuming ways.

"We've been inviting volunteers to give up 12 hours a year, either in a block or spread out," King says. "But they can help us beyond leading the girls. There's administration, fundraising and opportunities to do with sharing skills."

The charity is also looking at how it can share the responsibility of being a guide leader between several people. Another area where King believes the Guides and other charities could do better is recruiting student volunteers. She would like to explore ways in which volunteering could earn young people credits that count towards university places. "It's got to be more about carrots than sticks," she stresses. "We don't need more legislation."

King CV

2001: Chief executive, Girlguiding UK
1995: Head of guiding development, Guide Association, now Girlguiding UK
1990: Europe region executive, World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts
1988: Graduate trainee in management and finance, Cheshire County Council.

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