Girl Scout cookie sales are still an important rite of spring for Scout troops across the country. But Girl Scouting itself has changed enormously over the last few years.
Last year, members sold 127 million boxes of Girl Scout cookies, for a gross revenue of $213 million. The results of changes in the organization's approach and programs are not so easy to calculate.
''All I can say,'' says Frances Hesselbein, national executive director of the organization since 1976, ''is that it is all good. We are fulfilling our goals of helping today's girls become productive, self-confident, socially responsible women. And our planning is staying abreast of future trends.''
Program changes involve a more hard-nosed relevancy to the contemporary world and to the current needs and interests of girls growing up in it. Although the majority of U.S. members are white, nearly 12 percent comes from other racial and ethnic groups, including blacks (who now make up almost 8 percent of the total), Hispanics, girls from Asia or the Pacific islands, and American Indians. ''Nobody ever said the Girl Scout promise with more feeling or eagerness than the little Vietnamese girls who were 'boat people' refugees not too long ago and are now troop members in Pennsylvania,'' Mrs. Hesselbein says.
Girl Scout handbooks are now published in Spanish and Braille as well as in English. And there is a continuing effort to involve handicapped girls in Scouting, and to reach out to those who are economically disadvantaged.
There are also more big-city troops, many of them in ghettos and areas such as Manhattan's Harlem, with programs that offer help with school homework, environmental awareness, personal protection, and development of job skills.
These programs also help build self-esteem and self-respect in girls with courses in resourcefulness and decisionmaking. These troops often meet in local community centers, which provide a haven from tough streets. ''We are tackling poverty, delinquency, and even teen-age pregnancy in these poor neighborhoods,'' says Mrs. Hesselbein, ''but our purpose is to nurture and encourage, as well as teach, and to help prepare these girls for their future lives.''
For several years there has been broad recognition that most of today's Girl Scouts will grow up to be, not homemakers as was assumed in the past, but members of the labor force who will work much of their adult lives. A program of career education was launched which introduces Scouts, through handbooks, programs, and other special materials, to 95 career possibilities. Girls might learn what it takes to become a soil expert, political scientist, computer specialist, or police officer. The program also teaches older Scouts such fundamentals as how to write a resume and apply for a job.
Last year, while 60 Girl Scouts in New York City camped out overnight on the observation deck of the Empire State Building in a program to learn more about the city, a troop in the Middle West read the Lewis and Clark journals and then planned a canoe trip covering part of the river route of the famous explorers. A troop in South Carolina planned a conference for members and parents that covered such subjects as premarital sex and venereal disease. And last summer 50 members from around the country gathered in the Adirondacks to acquaint themselves with aerodynamics by learning to ''crew'' on hot air balloons.
Other troops are learning about drug abuse, energy conservation, computers, and consumer tips. They are earning competency badges in such practical things as auto mechanics, home repairs, communications, meteorology, and a subject called ''Business-wise.''
''This 71-year-old organization is putting more emphasis today on math, science, and technology in our programming, because that is where so much of the action is,'' Mrs. Hesselbein says. The Girl Scout motto is still ''Be Prepared, '' but it now has a broader connotation and application. Although one New York girl admitted that some of her friends still thought of Girl Scouts as goody-goody types or ''Little Miss Muffets,'' the program today, and the hardy Scouts who are following it, belie such epithets.
Girl Scouts still learn, in their own vernacular, to be friendmakers, ready helpers, and discoverers. They still explore the out-of-doors, practice camping skills, take nature walks, make handicrafts, play games, and sing.
Since 1979 there has been a new ''nontroop'' classification of membership which enables certain members with heavy schedules to participate only in special-interest projects such as field trips and conferences. Another change is the current wide choice of uniform styles. These offer mix-and-match components that can be worn in a variety of ways to suit individual tastes.
''In the next five years,'' Mrs. Hesselbein says, ''we plan to be even more sensitive to the families of the girls we serve, and to the communities in which they live. We are now studying changing profiles of the American family, with the aim of finding new ways in which we can support and strengthen it. Already we are giving special attention to single-parent families, and are seeing that good strong Scout leaders can become that 'significant other' third person that can be particularly supportive to both single parents and to their children.''
The peak year for Girl Scouts in the US was 1969, when membership was 3.9 million. During the 1970s, as the number of girls in the country declined, so did Girl Scout membership. In 1981 membership was 2.8 million. The organization is now growing once more, and Mrs. Hesselbein is estimating a possible 3 million members by the end of 1983.
''We are experiencing a phenomenal increase in adult volunteer membership,'' she says, ''and now have 500,000 women in service and about 70,000 men, including many retirees with remarkable skills.''
Are all these changes in keeping with the ideals established by Juliette Gordon Low, when she established the US organization in 1912 in Savannah, Ga.? Yes, Mrs. Hesselbein says emphatically. ''Mrs. Low wanted girls to think big, to be independent and self-reliant, and to prepare themselves to be the best they could be, whether as homemakers or as professional workers. We have been modernizing and updating the process, but the goals remain the same.''
The Girl Guides, a predecessor British organization, was started in 1910 by Lady Agnes and Sir Robert Baden-Powell.
Revenues come from membership dues; sale of uniforms, equipment, and publications; funds from corporations, foundations, and private donors; and the annual sale of cookies. The Girl Scouts is now the world's largest voluntary organization for girls. Nancy Reagan, as the wife of the President of the United States and herself a former Girl Scout, holds the traditional office of honorary president.
Will the Girl Scouts ever open membership to boys? No, says Mrs. Orville L. Freeman, national president. ''The board of directors of the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. and the World Committee for the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, with nearly 9 million members in 104 nations, have both voted to retain an all-girl focus and to hold membership to girls only.''