In 2000, Harvard Professor and author Robert D. Putman wrote a book regarding America’s declining interest and participation in civic organizations and activities. He collected tremendous volumes of data that demonstrates since the 1970s Americans are increasingly less active in the social and political life in their communities. He titled the book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival Of American Communities”.
In one example the book describes how bowling allies are going out of business despite that fact that more people are bowling than any time in history. The economic collapse of bowling business is due to the fact that although people like to bowl they do not want to join bowling leagues. (Bowling teams are the economic foundation of the bowling business). Putman’s data clearly shows that Americans spend less time in social environments. That decline is still increasing. Over the last 40 years people spend less time in churches, union halls, clubrooms, committee tables, inviting people to our homes and dinner tables and yes, Boy Scouting activities.
For the last 40 years the decline in membership in the BSA follows the same downward path of many other organizations. We are not alone. Although the data is clear the reasons for this loss of interest in joining organizations is complex. Putman suggests the following possible reasons:
- Business and time pressure
- Economic uncertainty
- The movement of women in the paid labor force and the stresses of two-career families
- The electronic revolution and technological changes
- Disruption of marriage and family ties
- Vietnam, Watergate, and other events that causes cynicism and disillusion with public life
- The cultural revolt against and increasing distrust of authority and governance
The Spirit Of Adventure Council is developing strategies and taking action to understand and counter the reluctance of American families to join the BSA. Recently the Council conducted focus group meetings with non-scouting families. The results show that the participants in the focus group are interested in our programs and are willing to pay almost double what we charge to participate. Yet they considered themselves outsiders to a closed group. They show little desire to belong to an organization.
This year the council is targeting these people by opening Camp Sayre/ New England Base Camp directly to the vast majority of families that are not part of Scouting. This is not an effort to raise money by cashing in our excess camp capacity. This effort is directed to engage people in the Scouting Program without forcing them to join up front. We are letting them take Scouting out for a test drive. It is hoped that through their experiences at Base Camp, people will be more engaged with and willing to consider joining the BSA. We ask them to “come bowling” alone, and get to know us. If they like what they see they may be more inclined to consider membership.
Improving visibility to the general public is also a strategy to increase the interest and willingness of families to join. In the fall of 2016 our Council will run Scouting Outdoor Adventure On The River-SOAR. This Adventure gives the public the opportunity to see Scouting and how unique and fun it truly is to be a Scout.
Translating efforts like these into membership growth will not be easy. There is no magic bullet to bend a 40-year social curve. It will take a lot of individual efforts small and large to reverse direction. However all long journeys begin with strong first steps.
Three Things Your Scout Unit Can Do
- Hold a few unit events in a public space such as a park. Just do what your unit does but do it where people can see you. Invite people who may be around you to watch and join in the activity.
- Bring some non-scout friends and families to a day at New England Base Camp
- Be friendly and supportive.