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.