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Membership loss, why and what we can do

The first step in fixing a problem is recognizing that there is a problem.

Dark and difficult times have come to the Boy Scouts of America. Millions of donor dollars have disappeared, thousands of volunteers have gone elsewhere, The BSA has been pilloried over the past three decades as out of step with the times, politically incorrect, racist, homophobic, sexist, hatemongering, bigoted, child abusing pedophilic, and exploitative. This is a false narrative and we need to restore the positive image of the program. It starts at the unit level.

Councils across the nation are depleting their cash reserves, selling camps and draining unrestricted accounts and endowments in order to meet the demands of lawyers and law firms that forced the BSA into bankruptcy. The National Office is selling off many of its assets including a prized collection of Norman Rockwell paintings depicting Scouting over the years. Local councils are being forced to cut staff, merge districts and reduce services in the face of lost assets and income. This means the role of volunteers is more critical now than ever.

Membership, which has been in decline for nearly 5 decades, has been devastated by the loss of the LDS Church, the bankruptcy and the impact of the pandemic on meetings and activities. The Methodist Church is poised to withdraw its sponsorship and support over some of the terms of the bankruptcy and other chartered partners of the BSA may follow.

Not even the admission of girls into all levels of the program has stemmed the decline in membership.

Over the years, the BSA has created new program levels lowering the age for Cub Scouts from 8 (third grade) down to 5 (Kindergarten). These changes brought in over a 30 year time frame have had the reverse result. Instead of increasing the number of youth members, it has resulted in fewer Cubs staying in the program long enough to move into the Scout program. Now, instead of moving a Cub up in 3 years it takes over 5 years and Cub Scouts and their families’ tire of the Cub program after 3 years and when they drop out, they seldom return for Scouts.

So what can be done? Over the years boys (we’ll say boys since girls are a recent change) joined the program because it offered fun, adventure, friends and to some degree challenge and recognition. The emphasis was on “Scouting being a game with a purpose” as Baden Powell said. That was a recipe for success for most of 100 years. Kids today want and need much of the same things. Parents liked the values of the program. Those values are still there. Take a hike, climb a mountain, canoe a lake or river, sleep in a tent with your friends, sit around a campfire, cook your meals outdoors. Kids rise to the challenge of Scouting, being responsible, taking a leadership role, learning basic skills.

There was a time when the BSA served over 20% of the available youth. Today that is perhaps 2 to 3%. We are at a crossroads, either we grow or we die. Either we prepare our leaders to deliver the program that kids want or we continue the slow decline towards eventual extinction. Look at those few councils that have successful programs. Look at those few packs that have full retention and annual growth. You will find kids having fun, singing scout songs, doing cheers and skits, being engaged in the program and attending family camps. Cub Scouting is the foundation that the Scout program is built upon.

Make Cub Scouting a 3 year program. Make Webelos Scouting a separate unit and program. Units can establish this now by insuring the Webelos program offers new, unique opportunities that attract the younger Cubs. This will create a very real sense of change and moving up/graduating to an older youth program just as the Crossover takes a Cub to the Scout program. The STEM aspects of the program are fine but should not be the focus. Advancement is important but advancement without fun will fail. KISMIF is still a guiding principle of program.

I’m sure many of you with strong programs can add more thoughts to this.

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@JohnWhitford1 - how about we start with the nonsense that is the DRP and go from there.

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Not relevant to the topic

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The gold standard for packs on JTE is to retain 75% which means dropping 25% so over 6 years, 6 x 25, a pack could actually lose 150% of membership (OK, I know that is impossible but) and still be gold. Not acceptable… Retention and annual growth is the hallmark of a healthy program. If kids are having a great time in Lions and Tigers then they will tell friends and you will see growth in the higher program levels. Every year a healthy unit should see growth in each grade level because of word of mouth.

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I think you are mistaken. This has indeed been a barrier. It been my experience. Parents and adults have backed out of Scouts once the realize what is required for compliance with the DRP. With LDS no longer using this as a core church youth group, items such as the DRP need to be evaluated and revised/removed. PTO and other public institutions have chosen not to sponsor due to the religious requirement.

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I spent 30 years as a district serving professional and more years as a volunteer with hundreds of units and many thousands of volunteers and never had the DRP brought up as an objection. On one occasion a leader questioned why an avowed ‘wiccan’ was a leader and the answer was, ‘his chapel was in nature and the woodlands and his God was found in nature’. That was enough to meet the standard and that was the only time the issue ever came up.The following is from an official BSA site: * The DRP does not require nor forbid a belief in a Supreme Being.

  • The DRP does not talk about being a 1st class or 2nd class citizen, it talks about the quality of citizenship a member can obtain.
  • The BSA does not define what constitutes belief in God or the practice of religion.*
  • The BSA does not require membership in a religious organization or association for enrollment in the movement but does prefer, and strongly encourages, membership and participation in the religious programs and activities of a church, synagogue, or other religious association.*
  • The BSA respects the convictions of those who exercise their constitutional freedom to practice religion as individuals without formal membership in organized religious organizations. Scouting believes in the right of all to worship God in their own way.*
  • Throughout life Scouts are associated with people of different faiths. Scouts believe in religious freedom, respecting others whose religion may differ from theirs.*

(* indicates this is taken from further notes on the DRP in the BSA Advancement Policies and Procedures Committee Guide )

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@JohnWhitford1 - you do realize that there are groups that don’t use the term God, but are recognized for a religious knot award.

In the end it is exclusionary language that blocks a large swath of members. If you do not recognize that then you are part of a larger problem.

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Off on a tangent… “The DRP does not require nor forbid a belief in a Supreme Being.” nuff said.

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Actually, it does. Being a UU, I have met many who, once they read the DRP, don’t agree since it is clearly talking about a monotheistic, personified, male, creator god. A lot depends on the areas of the country and the friends one interacts with. Different communities will have different issues with the DRP.

From the DRP: “The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe, and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings, are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing Scouts.”

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Back to your main point, I agree with the general thought that 6 years in Cub Scouts is a long time. By the Webelos years, it is really important that they don’t just do the same old stuff. It is important to create special opportunities for Webelos. That includes visiting troops, giving them more control (a step toward scout led), and more.

In some other countries, there are separate programs for grades K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12… which corresponds to many of the school splits too.

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I think this is key. If done right, the transition to a troop can be pretty transparent. Other times, it is such a hard break, it is easy to lose 75% or more.

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Incidentally, it is how the program is written, but it often doesn’t feel like anything is different when you have the Bear den leader move up to be the Webelos leader with them unless they really make an effort. It’s not really their fault if they don’t know better. It’s easy to think you know what your doing if you don’t have a mentor to tell you otherwise.

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@JohnWhitford1 - as a case in point… I did an annual 5k donation to my council based in volunteer time. That actually ended when they forcefully injected the dtg requirements. And my embargo will stand until they remove it.

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Keeping members is tons easier than getting new members to join. So, working on Webelos retention would be the most efficient way of growing Scouting.

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Some Troops have the Webelos Den meet with the Troop but do the Webelos program. Then the Webelos can see the next level, start to feel a part of it and anticipate more camping, long term camp and the Scout Advancement program. All a win and it removes them from the younger kids. Also, it is an easy way for Scouts in the troop to mentor as Den Chiefs for the Webelos dens.

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Right on Matt, if a pack kept recruiting at normal levels but kept most of the members to crossover they would grow. My sons (now 40 and 41) were in a pack where the Webelos did a dad and lad Gettysburg trip at the end of the school year. (this was 1st year moving up to 2nd year) The Troop provided the equipment and a leader and scout(s) if any wanted to go. This was a huge incentive for the younger Cubs to remain in. Especially at the June pack meeting where the Webelos were presented with their patches and trail medals. Also, the pack never quit. Den and pack program was 12 months and the families looked forward to fun warm weather activities. We did have to compete with all the sports and with Atari/Nintendo but the program was fun, exciting and interesting enough that we had some of our best participation during the Summer months.

I can see that working in a 1 pack, 1 troop town. My town has 14 packs, 6 boy troops, and 2 girl troops, though. I’d be leery that I’m picking a troop for them.

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We were in the south hills of Pittsburgh, surrounded by other troops and packs. We reorganized with 6 families and two years later had over 50. We were sponsored by a parochial school but ended up drawing a fourth of our membership from outside of that school. We put out the best program/product in the council and a year after growing to 50 plus members we spun a 30 boy pack off of ours and yet continued to grow to around 90 families. Fun, excitement, quality… the word of mouth resulted in families joining throughout the year. We limited our dens to 8 members and graduated trained leaders with the Webelos to the troop. The Troop was down to less than 5 members when we rebuilt the pack and within a couple of years they were up to 3 full patrols. The pack saved the troop.

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Also, ideally a Webelos Den graduates together to form a new Scout patrol. The Webelos leaders should also ‘graduate’ to the troop and assist as leaders and committee members.

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There are two schools of thought on that. One is that each scout should choose the troop that best fits them regardless of where there friends go. The other is that scouts will have more fun with their friends even if the troop isn’t quite as good.

You seem to subscribe to the latter… and I also lean that way.

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