The Participation Problem

campfireWe often focus on membership when it comes to the retention and recruiting issue.  This is absolutely a  header in the discussion.  However a better indication of unit health is your participation percentages.  That is how many of your registered Scouts are participating in your activities.  This number can tell you many things about your unit.  First, it reflects your annual plan.  Do the Scouts want to be there and do the things the plan that the Patrol Leaders Council came up with (using Guided Discovery)?  Second, is that plan a plan that compels the Scouts to come and be with their patrol mates.  And third, does that plan conflict with other events.  School, Sports, Council and District events and family plans.  These three areas are the top three that I have seen and discussed with committees to find out why and what the issues are in solving the participation problem.
The Scoutmaster plays a big role in the planning of the Scout year.  Teaching the Patrol Leaders Council how to look at the calendars and get the right program in place to meet the goals of the unit.  Polling the unit to get a feel for what they want to do.  And adding elements of the National Program into the plan, Jamborees, High Adventure Bases, and other National opportunities are all critical in giving the Scouts a reason to want to participate.
Here are a couple of tips that have helped us have a successful annual program and increase that participation percentage.
1.  Start early.  Establish what the range or start and finish of your “Scout year”.  Most units use the School year as their beginning and end.  Have your annual plan published before the beginning of the planned year.  Allow time for budgeting and family planning.  My unit uses October as the start of our Scouting year.  We do this for a few reasons.  First, it falls on a month with a “Non Negotiable” event.  Webelos Woods in our District is always in October.  This event is a fantastic opportunity to recruit for the unit as well as stand up against the rest of the District allowing our program to be showcased.
And second, October is a good month to launch the program year.  Everyone has been in School for a solid month, the holidays are just around the corner and it allows for time in summer to get the plan in place.  Starting in June and July, the Patrol Leaders Council meets with the patrols polling them for prospective activities for the coming year.  This includes location for Summer camp.  Starting early in the summer allows for plenty of time to look at all the calendars that effect the unit and by the end of August a solid plan is in place and the committee can start the budgeting process
2.  Stay away from the same old stuff.  Pretty much camping is camping.  Try new locations or different activities at favorite places.  Ensure that opportunities for National experiences are a part of the plan.  This in large part is the responsibility of the Scoutmaster and the Committee to provide the resources that introduce these opportunities.  In my Troop we look at the time spent in the Troop of the average Scout.  That seems to be about 7 years.  Over the course of those seven years we want the Scout to have the opportunity to get the very most out of his Scouting experience.  Local Council camps, out of Council opportunities, National Jamborees, National Order of the Arrow Conferences, and High Adventure Bases.  So we, along with the Patrol Leaders Council established a matrix that plugs these type of activities into the annual plan.  If a Scout takes advantage the plan, he will have a well rounded and extremely active time in Scouting.  When a Scout joins the unit he and his family can pick those High adventure trips, Jamborees and the like that he will go to well in advance.  This takes the burden away from fund raising plans and family vacations etc.  Families that have more time to plan will facilitate their sons Scouting experience.
Staying away from the same old stuff gives the Scouts of the Troop something to look forward to.  It shows that planning is important and that their experience is important to the life of the Troop.
3.  Possibly the most important, make sure the plan comes from the Scouts of the Troop.  The Patrol Leaders Council owns the plan, it is theirs and the success of the plan with rest with them.  They will  be guided and coached along the way, but in the end, they will be happy or not with their plan.  Now before you jump off the blog now, keep reading… this is a process that will not happen in one year.  We use guided discovery in Scouting.  Mistakes can be made as long as the Scouts learn from them.  The key for the Scoutmaster in this regard is breaking the Patrol Leaders Council from always taking the path of least resistance.   Give them permission to think big and out of the box.  If they want to go to Disneyland for Summer camp.. let them.  We had a troop recently go to Hawaii for summer camp.  Lots of planning and coordination went into it, but it was that kind of out of the box thinking that raised their participation percentage.  But its all about their plan.  As adults in the program we should support it and do what it takes to make it a success.
4.  And the final advice for today, Keep it fun.  Scouts are in School all day, they last thing they want is more School at meetings and on weekend camp outs.  Give them a reason to want to be a participant.  Each outing should be fun and adventurous.  When the Scouts know how much fun they are going to have they want to be there.  Here is the rub,.  Define fun.  Fun for one patrol may not be fun for others.  Find a balance within the Troop.  A great place to start is by establishing Troop Traditions.  Fun, silly, and things that build up the team.  A tradition of fun camp fires on each outing for example is a neat way of bringing together the Troop while having lots of fun.  A mascot can bring the Troop together also.  It gives them something to rally behind.  In our Troop we do and have both of those and we came up with a necklace that tells their Scouting story.  We took our mascot, a Gnome, and had totems made.  Each outing and activities has a bead that represents it.  At each Court of Honor, the Scout is presented with the beads for the activities he has attended.  At first it did not seem like that big of a deal, then the Scouts really took to it.  We make a real big deal about presenting the beads and wearing our totem.  This is a fun way of making the outings important and creating a reason to be a part of it.  We have had a Gnome as our mascot since our first summer camp in 2004.  This quickly became a Troop Tradition.  Now that we are a backpacking Troop we have inflatable Gnomes that the Senior Patrol Leader carries on each outing.  The Scouts love to show off the Gnome.  Allow the Scouts to define fun, but remember Guided Discovery, keep the fundamentals and methods of Scouting at the forefront of the program.  The Scouts may not need to know the exact purpose of the game, just make sure that the game is played fair and fun.
The participation problem is one that can be solved by a great plan, building in adventure, making sure the Scouts own the plan, and keeping it fun.  Traditions, and sticking to the methods of Scouting will assist in building a program that Scouts want to be a part of.  This will go along way in solving the problems with Scouts not participating fully in their Troop.
What are some things that your unit does to solve the Participation problem?  Share them with us.  May be a big help for someone struggling.

Have a Great Scouting Day!

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