Why YOU Shouldn’t Decide When to Cancel Troop Meetings

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Here in Kentucky, a winter storm warning is in place and local schools are closed. That means countless other organizations have automatically closed their doors or cancelled their meetings.

Mirroring the schools’ decision is an easy call, but it’s not always the right one. We’ve all seen instances when schools close out of an overabundance of caution or when roads that were snow covered at 6:30 a.m. are clear and dry by 6:30 p.m. What’s more, the factors that lead to school closings–especially bus safety–don’t always apply in other situations.

In my opinion, Scout troops should make their go/no go decisions independently of local schools. That’s not just because of changing weather conditions during the day, however. It’s because making this decision is good practice for your patrol leaders’ council.

And that’s really important. If our mission is to help young people make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Law (and it is), we need to take every opportunity we can to let them make important decisions. Now, obviously we aren’t going to let them make those decisions without guidance, but we still need to let them make the call.

Case in point: My Eagle Scout project was to plan a winter blood drive. Because I lived in a small town, that meant bringing in a blood-services crew from three hours away. It started snowing as they were setting up that morning, so I asked the leader of the crew whether she was going to cancel. Her reply was the highlight of my project. “You’re in charge,” she said. “You decide.” (I ended up canceling and rescheduling, by the way.)

As Scout leaders, we need to say those words to our Scouts every chance we get–including when snow threatens a troop meeting.


Need more great troop program ideas? Check out the new edition of The Scoutmaster’s Other Handbook, which is now available in both print and e-book formats at https://www.eaglebook.com/products.htm#scoutmasters.

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A Six-Pack of Great Eagle Scout Opportunities

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With much of North America stuck in the deep freeze, this is a good time to remember Paul Siple, the Eagle Scout who co-developed the concept of wind-chill factor. Siple’s other claim to fame is that he accompanied Admiral Richard Byrd on an Antarctic expedition in 1928 as an official Scouting representative.

Six years ago, the National Eagle Scout Association revived the concept of sending Eagle Scouts along on scientific expeditions with what’s called the NESA World Explorers Program. This year, Eagle Scouts who are 18 or older can apply for trips to six different locations:

  • The Tiputini Biodiversity Station in Ecuador (biology)
  • The Galapagos Islands (biology)
  • Mammoth Cave National Park (speleology)
  • Yellowstone National Park (astrobiology)
  • Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota (ornithology)
  • The Judith River Dinosaur Institute in Montana (paleontology)

These trips are underwritten by NESA, although participants bear some costs. And they are real research trips, not just glorified vacations.

To apply, interested Eagle Scouts must complete an online application form and submit a 250-word essay by January 22. They must also be majoring or working in a related scientific field.

If you have Scouts with a scientific bent, this is a great opportunity for them to explore their passion–and to discover how being an Eagle Scout opens doors throughout adulthood. For more information, visit the World Explorers Program webpage.

Oh, and about Paul Siple. Don’t blame him when you feel cold. He didn’t invent wind chill; he just gave it a name!


Need more great troop program ideas? Check out the new edition of The Scoutmaster’s Other Handbook, which is now available in both print and e-book formats at https://www.eaglebook.com/products.htm#scoutmasters.

Stay Safe in Your Camp Kitchen

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When I’m not writing about Scouting, I often write about health. Recently, however, I’ve been writing about sickness–specifically the sickness caused by antimicrobial resistance, a huge (and hugely under-reported) problem around the world. According to one report, drug-resistant bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites kill 700,000 deaths each year around the world.

This week, as I was reading about all the many places bacteria like Acinetobacter baumannii can hide, I had a flashback to my time as a Scout and the plywood patrol box surface on which we cut up raw chicken and formed hamburger patties. Between doing that and having a sketchy mastery of hand-washing, I’m surprised we didn’t all get violently ill on every outing.

I trust that your troop is a little more conscious of sanitation and food safety than we were back in the day. If not, now’s a good time to get smart.

The BSA’s summer 2017 Health and Safety newsletter offers some helpful information. Among the key reminders you’ll find there:

  • Keep it cold (below 40 degrees), which could mean freezing meat at home or using it all at a campout’s first couple of meals.
  • Keep it clean, which means washing your hands thoroughly before, during, and after cooking and avoiding cross-contamination.
  • Cook it thoroughly, not until you think it’s done (or you’re too hungry to wait any longer). That really means using a digital food thermometer instead of relying on meat color. (You can find these online for $10 or so, although my favorite thermometer, the ThermoPro ChefAlarm, runs a little over $50.)

And while you’re shopping for a digital food thermometer, toss a cutting board in your shopping cart. After all, you don’t know what has been on that patrol box lid–and what might still be there!

For more food safety tips, visit www.eatright.org/resources/homefoodsafety and www.fsis.usda.gov


Need more great troop program ideas? Check out the new edition of The Scoutmaster’s Other Handbook, which is now available in both print and e-book formats at https://www.eaglebook.com/products.htm#scoutmasters.

Rules and Damned Rules

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Once upon a time, some officious official told Scouting founder Robert Baden-Powell that an idea he’d suggested was against the rules. “Damn the rules!” B-P said. “Call it an experiment!”

I love that story, partly because it hints at B-P’s character but mostly because it illustrates a fundamental truth of Scouting. Even a century removed from its founding, Scouting is still a work in progress. What works for one troop in one community won’t work at all for another troop in another community–or even for the same troop in the same community after a little time has passed.

That’s why I always worry when officious volunteers talk about “the rules.” Now, I’m not talking about the policies found in the Guide to Safe Scouting or the Guide to Advancement; those we must and should follow. I’m talking about the rules Scouters make up along the way, Like saying a Scout must serve as patrol leader before running for senior patrol leader. Or requiring that a Scout must show up in full uniform, complete with dress shoes, for a board of review. Those might be good guidelines, but they shouldn’t be codified as rules.

Part of the challenge is making it clear when you’re quoting a rule and when you’re offering a suggestion. In The Scoutmaster’s Other Handbook, for example, I talk about the “Rule of Thirds,” which says a Scout should earn a third of his way to camp through fundraising, a third of his way through spending his own money, and a third of his way through cash infusions from the Bank of Mom and Dad. A similar rule related to advancement says a Scout should earn a third of his merit badges at summer camp or advancement events, a third from counselors within the troop, and a third from counselors outside the troop. I like both those guidelines and think most Scouts would benefit from following them. However, I would never seek to enforce them like I would enforce Youth Protection rules. They’re really rules of thumb, not rules of law.

What kinds of rules does your troop have? Do people get rules and rules of thumb confused? Do they prevent you from viewing Scouting as the experiment it continues to be? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Need more great troop program ideas? Check out the new edition of The Scoutmaster’s Other Handbook, which is now available in both print and e-book formats at https://www.eaglebook.com/products.htm#scoutmasters.

Mike Surbaugh on Girls in Scouting

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In between eating turkey, watching football, and reconnecting with family this week, I hope you’ll carve out a half-hour to watch a new video posted on the Bryan on Scouting blog. In it, Scouting Magazine Senior Editor Bryan Wendell interviews Chief Scout Executive Mike Surbaugh about the upcoming inclusion of girls at the Cub Scout and Boy Scout levels.

Wendell doesn’t ask his own questions, however. Instead, he asks questions submitted by Scouts and Scouters from across the country (and beyond, in the case of a Lone Scout who lives in South Africa). The questions cover everything from how the decision was made to what uniforms will look like to whether advancement requirements will change. (You’ll also find information on a separate video I blogged about before in which Surbaugh talks more about the background behind this historic decision.)

I didn’t learn much I didn’t already know from the new video, but I was again impressed by the amount of thought that went into the decision. Assuming that same amount of thought goes into implementation, I think we’ll look back in a few years and say this was the best decision the BSA in generations.


Need more great troop program ideas? Check out the new edition of The Scoutmaster’s Other Handbook, which is now available in both print and e-book formats at https://www.eaglebook.com/products.htm#scoutmasters.

When Service Projects Become a Problem

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Next Thursday is Thanksgiving Day. Aside from food, family, and football, this holiday is a time many people think of volunteering at a soup kitchen or other outreach program. The problem? That little word “many.” Charities that beg for volunteers on the fourth Thursday of April or October are overwhelmed with helpers on the fourth Thursday of November. As a recent USA today story explained, training new volunteers takes staff time–time that’s essentially wasted on one-time volunteers who show up on a day when they’re not even needed.

I don’t know of any Boy Scout troops that descend on their local homeless shelters on Thanksgiving Day, but I’ve seen plenty of examples of service projects where the costs to the recipients far outweigh the benefits. My wife used to work as a volunteer coordinator for a local nonprofit and often told stories of youth groups that not only did a poor job painting rooms but also left a mess for the staff to clean up.

As our troops plan service projects (including Eagle Scout projects), it’s easy to focus more on the benefits we will receive than the benefits we will provide. To be sure both projects are beneficial to both parties, ask the groups you’re supporting what they really need and what you can do to make the process go smoother for them–not for you.

And if you want your troop to volunteer at a homeless shelter, check their calendar for the fourth Thursday of January. I’ll bet they’ll have an opening.

Note: See my blog post on transformational service for more ideas.


Need more great troop program ideas? Check out the new edition of The Scoutmaster’s Other Handbook, which is now available in both print and e-book formats at https://www.eaglebook.com/products.htm#scoutmasters.

A Tax-deductible Tropical Vacation? Sort Of

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How would you like to spend a week in the Florida Keys and write it off on your taxes? That–within important limitations–is a real possibility for Scout leaders.

Every January, the Florida Sea Base offers a series of volunteer training conferences that mirror those offered at other high adventure bases (including my beloved Philmont Training Center) and that offer the chance for a week in the sun at a time many of us are ready to escape the cold and snow of winter.

Most Sea Base conferences target district- and council-level volunteers, especially trainers and commissioners. But 2018’s schedule has a couple of offerings unit leaders may find interesting:

  • Strengthening Your Leadership Team (January 7-13)
  • The Mechanics of Training (January 14-20)

So where does that tax deduction come in? The IRS allows volunteers to deduct out-of-pocket expenses that are unreimbursed and directly related to their volunteer work. That would likely include your conference fee ($495) and travel expenses, but not any expenses incurred by your non-conference spouse (if he or she goes with you) or any recreational activities you participate in, such as a fishing excursion the day before you check in.

I talked about charitable deductions in a blog post a couple of years ago. I encourage you to read that but also to consult with your tax adviser, who–unlike me–is qualified to interpret IRS publications.


Need more great troop program ideas? Check out the new edition of The Scoutmaster’s Other Handbook, which is now available in both print and e-book formats at https://www.eaglebook.com/products.htm#scoutmasters.