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.
“They’ve got to have a strong working relationship that will make sure the program is delivered in a quality fashion,” Logemann says.
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.”
That’s it? Sorry, but those “tips” are a waste of electrons. Not only are they all the most common of knowledge, there is no advice for implementing, developing or recruiting those things that we are trying to do, but have not yet achieved. Perhaps it would be more honest to publish an article titled “How to Know When It’s Time to Drop the Unit”.
I know they seem to be common sense, but you’d be surprised how often struggling units aren’t doing these.
The other issue I’ve seen with struggling units is that they insist on doing the exact same things when those practices didn’t fix the issue before or even are what got hem into the mess they’re currently in.
Yeah, I’m sure that happens a lot. Not my situation, which is why I’m so frustrated. I’m more than happy to try something new, but the resources just aren’t there. We are the only one of four troops in a quarter-mile radius without a Cub Pack. One day our Cubmaster just up and quit. Told the families, but not the Committee. Families all moved to a nearby pack, again, no one bothered to tell the committee. All this in less than one month. Now, not enough youth in the Chartered Org, or neighborhood to re-start the unit, and not enough leaders to run it, even by doubling up on Committee Members, which we did before. Sometimes the old tried and true ways are just not enough, and running a unit by the statistics just won’t work. I need new ideas.
Packs run on the leader much more than troops. Maybe you can have one of your leaders volunteer to be a Cubmaster for a few years. You might even have to get some to be den leaders. Without a leader it will be almost impossible to restart your pack, and then your troop will decline. Parents are much more willing to let their boys join a pack that has established leadership than if they have to set it up themselves.
Also review why the Cubmaster quit. Was he feeling unsupported, did he have problems getting other leaders or no Assistant Cubmaster? Until you review you cannot fix the problem But the reason could be as simple as a new job or a divorce. But the fact that he left without telling the troop that he was quitting tells me that there was not a working relationship between the leaders of the troop and the leaders of the pack or that there was some problem with that relationship.
Yes, I have several leaders who would be happy to be a Cubmaster. Our entire committee would be happy to double as Pack Committee. We could probably manage a Den Leader or two. Hmmm, let’s see. What’s missing… Oh yeah! Boys! None in the Chartering church. The few prospects in the neighborhood are all registered at nearby Packs. The previous Cubmaster quit without a word. I no longer even have her name. She was supported, mostly by me predecessors in my troop. At the time I was a Tiger cub Dad, who was willing and able to sign on as a leader. She never even registered my son with the council. Oddly enough, the Pack Committee thought there was good communication until she left. Most of them are still part of our unit. No, I don’t think there’s much to be salvaged here. I’ll try to get our remaining Scouts through their Eagle, and then I think it’s time to close up shop. At least for this tired, old disillusioned old Scouter.
Based on not having a feeder Pack, my best “new” idea is for you to make an obvious differentiation between your Troop and the others close by. Become the water activity troop (canoe, kayak, waterboard, swim, etc.), or winter-sports (depending on location), or zero car-camping troop with hiking and backpacking the focus, or make gourmet cooking your unit’s deal (food goes a long way). Something different. No feeder, same program; you are probably right and living on borrowed time. Wishing you the best. YiS.
Well, thank you. I do appreciate you giving our situation some thought. I like your idea of differentiating. I’ve been contemplating this for some time, but I haven’t quite hit on the right thing. It would have to be a big thing for my Scouts, and that’s what I haven’t hit on yet. I’ll give it some more effort, based on your rec. Thank You.
Eric, does your District Exec have a list of schools and the the Troops that they are assigned to? Making a concentrated effort into schools that have little or no packs assigned to them could be the ticket to your “no boys” problem
I think think a very important point is the youth owning the program. As William “Green Bar Bill” Hillcourt wrote in the 3rd edition SM Handbook, “Train ’em. Trust ’em. LET THEM LEAD!”
I have found that when Scouts and Venturers take ownership of the unit, when they feel truly responsible and are implementing the program they want,when adults get out of the way and let the Scouts and Venturers take charge, the unit will succeed.
I agree Nahila, if a Boy Scout Troop is just a continuation of Cub Scouts where the Adults are leading everything and calling the shots they get bored
I’m interested in learning about proven methods for Crews to recruit new members. We have tried holding a recruiting event (nobody showed up despite plenty of publicity), and our current members say that none of their friends are interesting in joining. We used to attract dual members from a local Troop, but that connection has dried up (unclear why). Other local Troops seem to be afraid that we’ll steal their older members.
I would love to hear from folks who have been involved in growing membership in a declining Crew.
Have you tried joint activities? Are the Troop leaders open to this? Maybe other troops will be.
Adults should lead somewhat behind the scenes. That includes making sure that the boy leadership is trained, but also that trips and activities are being planned. Keep an eye that your leaders are not getting distracted by sports/girls and not planning activities. Also watch for burnout as they can be doing too many things. Make suggestions not orders, and give help where needed. Don’t let the boy flounder because they do not know the next step or because they do not want to make a phone call.
Until last June, our troop had basically three leaders. There was an entrenched power structure that no one wanted to challenge. Once of the leaders was called, “The Scout Nazi.” Last June, all their kids aged out and they went away too. We–the new leadership–have spent the last seven months floundering, reading, reaching out, learning, and growing.
Our troop had lost sight of the patrol method, scout-lead troop, and so much more. Thank God none of the previous leadership bothered to do leadership development or we might be stuck in the same rut. The Scoutmaster Manual, the program guides, and The Guide to Safe Scouting lay out the details and we took them as gospel. We have grown by 25 percent since July. We have been invited into our communities schools to recruit. A young man just transferred from another troop to ours. He said, “When they would teach us a knot they would say, ‘you got it wrong’ These guys say, ‘Try it this way.'” It feels more uplifting to him. He is happy and having fun!
We begin each meeting with a skill: a knot (square knot for younger scouts, bowline for the older), or a splint, or a skill such as how to lift a patient onto a backboard. The local fire department donated the backboards. The local lumber company donated to wood for the splints. A local cabinet maker planed and cut the wood into splints. A local climber donated retired climbing rope for the knot practice.
Our troop has had three front page articles in the local paper in two months for Eagle projects and community service projects. We have been praised in two editorials in the same paper. We are the face of Boy Scouts in our community and WE ARE DAMNED PROUD OF IT!
Want your troop to grow? Infuse it with new blood. Don’t tell that new blood the way we’ve always done it. Give the new blood room to experiment. Give the new blood the resources BSA provides. Let them run with it.
We are having a blast! Not only is scout participation up, but so is adult participation. Enjoy it! let it roll! Get the committee together and have a few beers and figure out what energizes everybody and roll with it.
Scouting is not only to be fun for the scouts, but for the adults as well. If it is fun for the adults, that will translate to the scouts and it will be fun for them as well.