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Issue 222 – July 25, 2010

Dear Andy,

As a Commissioner, I work with new unit leadership as they begin to pick up the reins. No unit’s perfect and, as you know, there are varying degrees and types of dysfunction from one to the next. New Committee Chairs often want to make positive changes in the units they’ve volunteered to serve; too often, new volunteers come in enthusiastically, try to effect some changes, encounter roadblocks (the two most usual being “We don’t do it that way” and “We tried that once and it didn’t work”), and eventually give in to the status quo.

It’s easy to advise them to read appropriate BSA publications, take the training for their positions, employ The Patrol Method, delegate duties, and so forth, but sometimes our advice turns out to be not only overwhelming but sometimes too vague to be actionable. I have some thoughts on how to provide better advice, but would appreciate your perspective. So, Andy, here’s the question…

What ten (or so) specific things can a new Committee Chair of a troop do to improve the troop’s overall health and the Scouting experience its providing for the boys it serves? (Mitch Erickson, District Commissioner, Watchung Mountain District, Patriots’ Path Council, NJ)

Thanks for asking a hugely important question!

In order to develop an appreciation of the general health of a Boy Scout troop, there are any numbers of things a new volunteer can look for when he or she is considering taking on the Committee Chair responsibilities for a troop…

For a Boy Scout troop, I think these will naturally fall into eleven general areas (not necessarily in this order): Meeting operation, Youth leadership, Skills development, Membership development and retention, Budget plan, Attendance, Patrol activities, Adult assistance, Outdoor program, Advancement, and Uniforming. Here’s where to start…

Meetings: Do they start on time, have a pre-planned program, and a format of segments that keeps things moving forward?

Youth: Are the Scouts running the meeting (Senior Patrol Leader communicates with his Patrol Leaders, and they, in turn, communicate with their patrol members) while adult volunteers are at the sidelines, providing guidance on an as-needed basis?

Skills: Is there lots of “learning by doing” (as opposed to “classroom-style” lecturing), with hands-on opportunities and reinforcing games, led by the Scouts (not adults)? Are there different skills areas, for newer Scouts and more experienced Scouts?

Membership: Is a systematic recruiting plan in place and working? Is there evidence that retention of older Scouts is addressed through special, more challenging activities? What is the troop’s membership statistics over the past five years?

Budget: Does this troop have a decent (but not unwieldy) bank account, funded largely by Scouts’ and adults’ dues and supplemented by a fund-raiser as needed? Are troop supplies and library adequate for the size of the troop?

Attendance: Are 8 to 9 out of every 10 Scouts in the troop regularly showing up at meetings? Is there a recognition plan for 100% attendance by patrols in place?

Patrols: Is The Patrol Method clearly in place? Are there standing patrols, with Patrol Leaders, patrol flags and staffs, patrol yells, patrol emblems on their uniforms, and patrol responsibilities within each troop meeting (e.g., spirit patrol, service patrol, etc.)? Do the patrols have stuff to do as patrols, in the troop meeting?

Adults: Are there adequate, without there being an overabundance of, adults, in advisory capacities based on the composition of the troop (e.g., ASMs for new Scout patrols, etc.)? Do non-uniformed adults and non-registered parents know to remain on the sidelines, or (better) in another room during troop meetings?

Outdoor: Has the outdoor program been created and planned by the PLC (Patrol Leaders Council) and is it operated on a patrol basis (i.e., each patrol is responsible for its own menu planning and buying, transportation to and from, tentage and cooking gear, first aid kits, etc.)? Do the outdoor events include activities that will naturally lead to rank advancement?

Advancement: Are newly joining Webelos Scouts receiving their Scout badge by the end of their very first “official” troop meeting as Boy Scouts? Are they encouraged to begin the requirements for Boy Scouting’s first three ranks right away? Are ranks presented at the very next meeting following the board of review, rather than being held back until there’s a court of honor? Are merit badges presented as rapidly?

Uniforms: Is head-to-toe uniforming the norm at all meetings, events, and outings? Do the uniformed adult volunteers provide good role-modeling? Are patrols recognized regularly for 100% patrol member complete uniforming?

Once these observations have been made, the Committee Chair can decide which ones he or she may need to tackle, how, and in what order.

But, let’s face it: That group of eleven areas is pretty much “left brain stuff.” So let’s add a few more visceral thoughts for the “right brain” to detect…

Smiles: Do the Scouts smile when they show up, line up, interact with one another, and with their adult leaders, or are they glowering or morose, or generally give the appearance of “going through the motions”?

Names: Do the Scouts call one another by name, or do they not use names (Is it “Hey, Charlie,” or “Hey, you”)? How do they address their adult leaders… Is it always “Mister” followed by a surname, or are at least the Scoutmaster and assistants called by their first names?

Sharpness: When they wear their uniforms, for instance, are their shirts tucked in or not, are their neckerchiefs actually rolled and worn with neckerchief slides or are they loosely tossed around their necks and merely knotted in the front? Look for BSA belts or not.

Oath & Law: When they recite these, is it a race to see who can get through all the words the fastest (you know what I mean!), or do they appear to actually think about what they’re saying.

Scout Sign: Is this employed only when necessary, and is it done as it’s intended to be used (that is, no one also shouting, “SIGN’S UP!” at the same time)? Do the Patrol Leaders watch for it and clue up their patrols, or do all the Scouts leave it to the Senior Patrol Leader to alert the whole troop?

Cohesiveness: Are all patrols cooperating with the SPL and one another, or are there patrols (like, maybe, a “senior” patrol) who basically ignores what’s going on and screws around among themselves?

Parents: Are they mainly of the “drop ’em off and we’re outa here” variety, or do they stay around and–in a separate area–converse in friendly tones among themselves, without interfering with the Scouts or the meeting?

The Scoutmaster: Is he or she truly in the “Scoutmaster groove”… Always nearby for the Senior Patrol Leader to rely on but not “in the faces” of the Scouts except at the closing Scoutmaster’s Minute? Or is he or she acting more like “the world’s oldest Senior Patrol Leader” (or, worse, Patrol Leader or—egad!—Den Leader)?

Happiness: This may be the most important of all! Do these people—Scouts, parents, and adult volunteers–look happy to be there and be a part of this Scouting program and activities?

Based on these observations, and with the understanding that the sponsoring chartered organization is looking to the Committee Chair as the highest-ranking volunteer directly associated with the troop, including having been vested with the authority to decide on all other volunteer positions associated with the troop, the Committee Chair can begin to decide what course of action to take short-term, and then longer-term, for the benefit of the boys in uniform whom the troop is there to serve.

Happy Scouting!


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(July 25, 2010 – Copyright © Andy McCommish 2010)

Letters to AskAndy may be published at the discretion of the columnist and the editor. If you prefer to have your name or affiliation withheld from publication, please advise in your letter..


About AskAndy

Andy is a Board Member of the U.S. Scouting Service Project, Inc.

Andy has just received notification by his council Scout Executive that he is to be recognized as a National Distinguished Eagle Scout. He is currently serving as a Unit Commissioner and his council's International Representative. He has previously served in a number of other Scouting roles including Assistant Council Commissioner, Cubmaster, Scoutmaster, Den Leader, and--as a Scout--Patrol Leader, Senior Patrol Leader, and Junior Assistant Scoutmaster. His awards include: Kashafa Iraqi Scouting Service Award, Distinguished Commissioner, Doctor of Commissioner Science, International Scouter Award, District Award of Merit (2), Scoutmaster Award of Merit, Scouter's Key (3), Daniel Carter Beard Masonic Scouter Award, Cliff Dochterman Rotarian Scouter Award, James E. West Fellow (2), Wood Badge & Sea Badge, and Eagle Scout & Explorer Silver Award.

Read Andy's full biography

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