Scoutmaster's Toolbox: Want a Great Program? Plan Ahead

The program planning conference lets your patrol leaders’ council brainstorm possibilities for a calendar full of exciting troop outings.

TROOP 20 IN Oklahoma City has gone camping every month for at least a dozen years, a streak that’s older than some of the troop’s members. “We’re really proud of the fact that we’re a camping troop,” said former Scoutmaster Larry Kelly, who now serves as an assistant Scoutmaster.

Several factors have kept the streak alive: tradition, a group of dedicated adults, and a willingness to stay flexible. But the most important factor is probably long-range planning. As that great philosopher Anonymous once said, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

While other troops may plan to fail, Troop 20 plans to succeed. Twice a year, shortly after elections, the troop’s patrol leaders’ council (PLC) meets for a half-day planning conference where it reviews the strategy the previous PLC developed for the next six months and then sets up the six months to follow.

Kelly said having semiannual planning conferences lets more Scouts learn how to do it.

“You can potentially have a new PLC coming in every six months,” he said. “I wanted to let each of those PLCs have the experience to plan as opposed to every other PLC.”

Across the country in East Brunswick, N.J., Troop 84’s PLC meets each August to map out the troop’s next 12 months of activities. That’s a change from several years ago, when adults set the calendar.

According to Chris Hill, now in his third year as Scoutmaster, the change proved worthwhile.

“If the boys get to say where they’re going, there’s more participation,” he said. “It’s way better to have them pick where we’re going than to have a couple of adult leaders plan out the whole year’s schedule.”

Involve adults the right way

That’s not to say adults can’t play a role. Hill starts talking with his youth leaders at summer camp, reminding them that the planning conference is coming up and encouraging them to think about ideas for outings. Kelly, meanwhile, spends a lot of time at his troop’s planning conference asking questions.

“Maybe they want to go to a location that’s a little farther away in the middle of the winter,” he said. “You talk to them about that and ask, ‘What are your chances of that being successful?’”

Kelly is careful not to veto his PLC’s ideas, even when he’s not sure about them. When ideas fall through, quick thinking ensures that the streak of consecutive months of camping doesn’t end.

One year, for example, the Scouts did schedule a long trip during the winter. It had to be scuttled due to an ice storm; Plan B—a trip to a local council camp—fell through as well. Finally, Kelly said, “A few Scouts and dads that lived right next to the Scout hut went over and pitched their tents outside just to keep the record going.”

Plan the planning conference

Planning happens at the planning conference, but it doesn’t begin there. For the meeting to be successful, you and your Scouts need to do some homework.

The first thing to do is to gather every available calendar that could affect your strategy, including schedules from your council, your district, your chartered organization, and the schools your Scouts attend.

And don’t forget major holidays, festivals, and sporting events that could pull Scouts away. Plug these dates into a master calendar the PLC can refer to at the planning conference.

Next, gather lists of tasks the troop could perform and places it could go. The Scouts can brainstorm additional ideas at the planning conference, but it’s helpful to start early.

Hill, for example, asks his Scouts to solicit ideas from their friends in other troops. To reinforce the patrol method, you can encourage patrol leaders to devote some time at a patrol meeting to talk about outing ideas.

Planning conference mechanics

Both Hill and Kelly emphasized that the senior patrol leader should run the planning conference, with adults staying in the background. “It’s an integral part of the process that we teach these boys,” Kelly said.

Once the Scouts have come up with a list of activities they want to do, they should create a prioritized list. Then, it’s just a matter of plugging those activities into the master calendar, keeping in mind factors such as weather and travel distance. A trip to the far end of the state, for example, would work better on a three-day weekend or over the summer when the days are longer.

Follow up

Assuming the planning conference goes well, you should end up with a complete annual calendar that includes outings, troop meetings, PLC meetings, courts of honor, and service projects. As soon as possible, type up the calendar, run it past the troop committee for approval, and distribute it to troop families.

The next step, which happens throughout the year: put meat on the calendar’s bones. In most troops, the PLC meets monthly to flesh out the following month’s program. Kelly’s troop does things differently, delegating some of that work to one of its two scribes.

“His responsibility is to take what the PLC said they wanted to do and work with our outdoor coordinator to find out if we can do it, how much it will cost, and what it’s going to take,” Kelly said.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how the Scouts plan—as long as they do the planning.

“I don’t think we’ll ever stop planning the way we’re planning right now,” Hill said. “Our attendance keeps growing, so obviously we’re doing something right.”

Mark Ray lives in Louisville, Ky., and is the author of The Scoutmaster’s Other Handbook.

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