The Future BSA: not
By: Mike Walton (blackeagle)
Posted On: 2019-07-08
Two weeks ago now, my local Council and the national organization I represent to the BSA (the US Scouting Service Project, Inc.) sent me to represent them during the BSA's National Annual Meetings in Denver. The national meetings -- in plural for there are more than just the annual business meeting designed to inform, update and elect the national team leading the nation's leading youth-serving organization; there are many other meetings of committees, subcommittees, and task forces -- took on a more somber tone this year.
Rumors that that BSA will be entering bankruptcy, along with the fact that the BSA may have to go to court to defend the iconic term "Scouts" against the Girl Scouts of the USA; and thousands of pending litigation documents pitting the national organization and some of its local affiliates (local Councils) against those claiming to have been physically, sexually and/or emotionally abused back as early as the middle 50s -- all have beaten the BSA downward a bit. The BSA's senior-most professional, Chief Scout Executive Michael Surbaugh, explained that all of this "won't take us down" and he expects that the BSA will "survive and be even stronger. We're not beat!"
I agree on four-square with the Chief Scout Executive. I KNOW that the BSA will emerge from all of their issues and become even stronger. It's happened before -- it'll happen again.
The BSA is a voluntary membership organization. We don't get "drafted" to become members, although I can share with you (and you can too) several instances whereby we (okay I was...*smiling*) "voluntold" to participate in some activities in the past. For the most part, however, we pay the annual dues, fill out the informational application, sign and date it and wait for its formal approval while engaging in great community building, character and fitness events, while working on our formal and informal leadership abilities and capabilities with others. For that reason alone, the BSA will survive whatever challenges it faces because we volunteers will find a way to "make it so."
Will the organizational structure continue the way it is? Will we continue to have a national center, which supports four regional organizations, 29 Regional Area operations, and 240 or so local Councils? There are groups of volunteers, assisted by some rather smart professional advisors, looking at that very question: how can the BSA adapt to changing times, a changing social and work environment, and still do the things we traditionally have done with limited resources?
In many cases, it may mean an ending to some traditions and the traditional way we have managed our programs.
The BSA's personnel "pyramid" calls for one professional manager -- a District Executive -- to support around 700 volunteers who support 2000 youth members or a fraction of that. Maybe it is time we upped those numbers and have an Executive who supports two volunteers serving as District Coordinators (a more accurate descriptor of what the "district executive secretary" does) supporting 1400 volunteers and 2800 youth members. Much of the traditional roles of our field executives come down to financing and extending the BSA's programs to areas not being reached. In local BSA Councils like the one I am a part of (Transatlantic, serving families in three continents over thirteen time zones), volunteers do much of the "heavy lifting" normally tackled on by professionals in communities stateside. They have to, simply because travel and staging costs getting and keeping a professional in "their community" is excessive. And unnecessary.
Instead of having so many "District Executives," several discussions centered around having them serve as 'specialized executives' working specific roles and assisting volunteers across the Council -- not just on the part of the Council where they live. We would have media executives, marketing executives, training executives, and program development executives. We would still have finance executives and finance development executives as some of our larger Councils have -- but the "District Executive" -- a generalist having to do everything within a small slice of the Council -- would be a thing of the past. This work well with millenniums who see "management" as a group effort, not a single point of failure.
The BSA is looking to cut costs by employing technology -- not a big guess there. During the NAM, groups of Scouters are sitting, talking, and arguing how to make the best tech work for their part of the program. Our unit service and support arm -- our Commissioners -- have been using tech tools to make their roles more user-friendly for several years. At the same time, the role of the Commissioner, in my opinion, has become less of "friend" and more of "evaluator" I fear. As a Commissioner, I am asked to take note of everything my units are doing -- and not doing -- so as to report back to higher-level Commissioner to determine how to assist them best. Does the leadership/mentorship of the unit need more training? If so, personalized coaching or formal or informal training? Are the youth advancing at a decent rate? What Council-level activities are they engaged in or support? Do they go to their Council's camping facility or do they go "outside the box" to do something different (and by default, FUN!)?
Much has been said about our "national resources" -- our four national outdoor ("high") adventure bases located in New Mexico (Philmont), Minnesota (Northern Tier), Florida (Sea Base) and most recently in West Virginia (Summit Bechtel Reserve). Fires over much of Philmont resulted in a massive amount of damage. Hurricane-force winds and heavy rains in Florida affected the Sea Base's operations. Those two along with a lower than expected number of youth attending Northern Tier and the Summit Reservation reduced the income both facilities provide to the BSA's bottom dollar.
"Perhaps it’s time to retire those places,” some suggested. You can't see me, but I'm shaking my head from side to side -- NO, those places have been damaged before and each time Nature along with us volunteers -- have rebuilt and even made it more resistant to future damage. We may have smaller treks or may rely on them more as training centers for our volunteers and professionals. They will, and as we have seen from the presentations during the NAM, they ARE returning to a more healthy and sustainable model. We are just in a "down cycle"...things WILL get back to a normal state soon.
The naysayers who predicted that adding female youth to our Scouts BSA program (which we have called until this past winter "Boy Scouts") would place that hammered spike in the BSA's program coffin were wrong (as usual whenever a change is in the air...). Those who also stated the "only reason why the BSA did this is to increase their numbers and gain more money from the registrations" were also wrong. There were a LOT of female youth who joined our Scout and Cub Scout programs -- but not enough to overcome almost a decade of losses overall. We gained about a ten to almost twenty percent increase over the previous year membership-wise. Girls in Scouting are here to stay, but as I and so many others stated, it was NOT to be the "cure" for our overall sliding membership. Several groups are looking at ways we can attract YOUTH -- male AND female youth -- and to retain them as active, participating members.
Our Order of the Arrow, or OA -- the BSA's national honor society for Scouts and Scouters with an emphasis on the BSA's outdoor programs -- suffered a deep hit in membership. Part of it came from the exodus of thousands of Arrowmen who belonged to units chartered to "Mormon" and Southern Baptists units. Those two faiths decided a few years back to end their decades of an official partnership with the Boy Scouts of America and this past year was the first year of their absences. The OA had strong, active local organizations -- Lodges -- within strong local Councils primarily in the West and South. With those losses, many of those Lodges are feeling the pain of reduced active membership and participation. During the Meetings, the OA folks met and are developing some resolutions to help local Councils strengthen their OA "bonds of brotherhood."
Likewise, our Exploring programs -- which I have to smile when I recall that 40 years ago, accounted for more than 40 percent of the BSA's TOTAL membership (yeah, almost 2 million Exploring-aged youth were registered and actively serving in that program back in the 80s) -- also is looking internally to see how they can once again support the overall Scouting program now that they are "back in the mix". There is no confusion between the outdoor program of Venturing, the nautical programs of Sea Scouting and the vocational and hobby programs of Exploring. -- and a youth member can be a part of all three. Exploring has picked up the gauntlet of the BSA's popular STEM education program and am working to bring STEM programs to several areas of our communities as a visual and physical "add-on" to existing Cub, Scout, and older youth (Venturing, Sea Scouting) programs.
So no. No splashy "new programs" but improvements and modifications to bring the entire BSA program -- soup to nuts -- to be more adaptable, flexible, user-friendly and capable to allow FAMILIES to Scout together, while still providing that personal, individual "upward trail" toward Scouting's highest youth awards (Eagle, Summit, Quartermaster) to those youth desiring to hit and travel along that "upward trail" which Scouting has been known to provide. Our female youth don't want a "separate program." Their families don't want a separate or "watered down" version for their female family members. Males involved in Scouting do not want "gimmies" to the girls, even the first ones, just because they are girls. EVERYONE wants the same thing: the BSA's "flavor" of SCOUTING.
This is a challenging year. We out in the field need to embrace the modifications and small but mighty "retooling" of everything from the way we think of "Scouting", to the way we recognize our youth and adults, to the way we are training and coaching, to the way we are embracing every member of every family and involving us all in the grand game called Scouting. Change is tough, but it's possible and once done, serves as a new approach to old ideas!!
The future BSA is really bright -- we can see it up ahead. It's not, however, so bright that we have to wear shades.