In a lifetime with Scouting — he still has his sky-blue Air Explorers uniform — executive board member William Larson of the Chief Seattle Council has seen his share of units that falter due to declining enrollment, big gaps in adult leadership and other problems. But he also knows tested and trusted methods for avoiding those pitfalls. Here’s how you can nurse your Scouting unit back to health.
“Organizations are organisms, and they go through the various life cycles of ascent and descent,” Larson says. “If we can identify these trends and patterns and be aware of them, we can avert these problems. It’s a lot easier keeping a train on the track than putting it back on once it’s in the bushes.”
Larson says the warning signs of potential unit failure can be seen in the boys’ faces. Are they having fun? Are they engaged? Do they happily take part in planning the next outing or event?
“They will tell you what the high points have been the last few months,” Larson says. “If you’re not hearing any, and you see declining attendance at meetings and outings, that’s a dynamic that can be unhealthy going forward.”
Mark Logemann, the BSA’s director of membership growth, seconds that notion. He points to several characteristics that keep healthy units thriving, beginning with a firm foundation provided by the unit’s Key 3.
Other health boosters include:
A year-round program that’s well-planned and available for all to see. The program ensures that when new members join, or parents are deciding whether to sign up their son for another year, they have a clear vision of what’s going to happen and the value their family will get from it. “That annual agenda is really critical,” Larson says. “If it’s not there, new parents really get disillusioned. They’re our customers, and we need to treat them that way.”
A strong emphasis on recruiting new members. Highlight the importance of a New Member Coordinator. “We want to identify a volunteer in every unit who is responsible for helping the unit grow,” Logemann says. “Through strong, engaging program, the unit leader should focus on retaining current members. Allow another adult to focus on attracting new members.”
Succession planning. Always cultivate parents to be future leaders and encourage current leaders to take on additional responsibilities. It’s healthy to have a change of leadership once in a while. “I always say that a position in Scouting shouldn’t be a life sentence,” Logemann jokes. But don’t just throw volunteers into the deep end. Start by asking the parent of a Tiger to head up the fishing tournament; if that works out, maybe he or she could take on the blue and gold banquet the next year. When a Webelos Scout transitions to Boy Scouts, be sure to talk to the parents about how they want to be involved. “Is there a new-parent packet to help orient new people?” Larson asks. “What are the expectations as far as training and youth protection?”
Remembering that advancement is key. “If kids advance, that means they’re getting something positive from the program,” Logemann says.
Helping leaders reach out for help if they need it. Logemann stresses the unit commissioner’s role as a “general practitioner” helping to diagnose what might be causing the unit’s issues and refer leaders to “specialists” who can help. If a unit is having trouble attracting and retaining youth, the unit commissioner might recommend the membership committee; if the program isn’t up to speed, dispatch someone from your advancement or camping committees to help build a strong, dynamic program. “If you’re a unit leader and your unit is struggling, reach out to the district executive,” Logemann says. “Reach out to the district commissioner. You don’t have to go it alone.”