When Service Projects Become a Problem


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


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.




One Thing Every Fundraising Project Must Avoid


Scrolling through my Facebook feed recently, I spotted the graphic shown above. It made the rounds on social media a couple of years ago and even earned mentions on the websites of the Today Show and Parenting magazine.

As you can see, the apparently legitimate form gives parents alternative fundraising options at various levels, such as:

  • $15: “I do not want to bake, so here is the money I would have spent on those cupcakes.”
  • $50: “I do not want to walk, swim or run in any activity that has the word ‘thon’ in it. Here is the money I would have spent on my child’s ‘free’ t-shirt.”
  • $100: “I really wouldn’t have helped anyway, so here is $100 to forget my name.” (My favorite!)

The point of the form, of course, is that many parents are tired of endless school fundraisers where most of the funds come directly from their pockets or from the pockets of friends, family, and co-workers. They’re also smart enough to know it’s better to make a $10 donation than to spend $20 on a fundraising item that nets the PTA $10 or less.

Good troop fundraising projects don’t work like that. While parents may be customers, they shouldn’t comprise the bulk of the customer base. Instead, most of the money should come from people outside the troop family, including members of the chartered organization and the general public. And those customers should receive a decent value for their money. As the BSA’s Guide to Unit Money-earning Projects says, “All commercial products must sell on their own merits, not the benefit received by the Boy Scouts.The principle of value received is critical in choosing what to sell.”

If your fundraisers are robbing Peter to pay Paul’s camp fees, it’s time to rethink how you earn money. Otherwise, your troop families might start using that PTA’s alternate fundraising form–or stop supporting your fundraisers at all.

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.

Seven Thoughts on Girls in Scouting


As you doubtless know by now, the BSA decided on October 11, 2017 to welcome girls at the Cub Scout and Boy Scout levels over the next two years. My take? I support the decision, but I’d like to take more than the length of a couple of tweets to explain why. Here are seven reasons:

  1. We’re already co-ed. And I don’t just mean in Venturing, Sea Scouting, and Exploring. The day the news came out, I happened to be interviewing a pair of married Scouters for an upcoming project. They told me that their now-adult daughter was an active participant in their son’s troop for years. She couldn’t register as a Boy Scout, of course, so she registered and completed advancement as a Juliette, the Girl Scout equivalent of Lone Scouts. And I’ve spoken with other leaders over the years whose Boy Scout troops just happened to meet at the same time and place as Girl Scout troops. Chief Scout Executive Mike Surbaugh talked about cases like that in a national office town hall meeting.the day after the announcement. (The video is well worth watching, by the way.)
  2. The experts aren’t worried. It’s been interesting (and often disheartening) to read reaction to the decision on social media. According to my very unscientific tally, those who have had experience with co-ed Scouting activities (mostly Venturing leaders and Philmont staff members) generally support the decision. Many of those most strongly opposed, including some of my fellow Eagle Scouts, aren’t even involved in Scouting right now.
  3. People on both sides are dissatisfied. It’s a truism that a good compromise is one that leaves both parties dissatisfied, which is the case here. If your troop doesn’t want to go co-ed, it doesn’t have to. In fact, it can’t. Girls will be in separate units.
  4. We aren’t living in the 1950s any more. One former Scout posted on Facebook last week that back in his day his Scoutmaster was a former special forces soldier who made his Scouts into manly men who could stand up to campsite pranks (which I took to mean things like initiations) and “take a whiz off the side of a cliff.” News alert: That’s not the way Scouting or polite society works these days. And that’s not just because we have female adult leaders and soon will have more female youth members. But, again, boys and girls will be separate at the Boy Scout level. (While we’re at it, if the good old days were so good, why don’t we still have separate camps for African American troops?)
  5. We’ve already figured out facilities. Some argue that bathrooms and showers are a barrier. I would argue that we’ve already largely solved that problem. For example, when the Philmont Training Center rebuilt its showerhouses a few years ago, it opted for single-user unisex facilities, which I’ve also seen in other camps. Of course, Philmont’s backcountry latrines often have no walls at all, but that hasn’t stopped co-ed crews (or all-male crews with female Rangers) from enjoying the backcountry for years. And camps across the country have made accommodations for female leaders and Cub Scout family members.
  6. Good people made this decision. Many critics have claimed that this decision was made by “suits” at the national office who are either out of touch or are only trying to pad membership numbers or feather their own nests. The truth, of course, is that the decision, which was unanimous, was made by the National Executive Board. I reviewed the board roster this week in the BSA’s 2016 Annual Report (click the second red link at the bottom of the page) and found the names of several Scouters I either know personally or by reputation. Those people would not make a rash decision or one they felt went against the best interests of Scouting. And it’s important to remember that many of the “suits” people like to disparage are Eagle Scouts, Scouting parents, and/or current or former Scouting volunteers.
  7. Our young men need to learn the right way to treat women. There have been plenty of headlines recently about shocking treatment of women, most recently by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. (Speaking of not living in the 1950s any more!) Where will our Scouts learn better attitudes? Here’s what a female Venturing Advisor told me several years ago in an interview: “The boys were in their tent and were talking. It’s amazing how they think that one micron of nylon can prevent you from hearing. They were talking about girls in a way that we don’t often get to hear them talking. For me as a woman, it was pretty hair-raising—this sexual objectification of women I was hearing. I thought, ‘They need an experience with girls where girls are their friends and their comrades, where they can work alongside each other and learn about each other as people. What I’ve observed is that that’s actually what happened. [Venturing] promotes friendship as opposed to dating. It’s hard to be romantic about someone you’ve hiked 20 miles with and is covered with dirt. They really isn’t a whole lot of intra-crew dating and romance. I won’t say there’s never been any, but it’s far, far less than you might imagine.”

So those are my top seven reasons for supporting the BSA’s recent decision. I’m sure I’ll think of a few more as soon as I hit publish. I’m also sure some of you can think of reasons to oppose it. Feel free to post your comments below. Just remember that a Scout is courteous.

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.

Girls in Scouting–Please Read the Fine Print


Unless you’ve been in the backwoods this week, you have probably heard that the BSA’s National Executive Board voted unanimously this week to admit girls into Cub Scouting (effective in fall 2018) and into a new program that will parallel Boy Scouting (tentatively effective in 2019). At some point, I’ll take the time to share the reasons why I think this is a good idea, but right now I have a different message: READ THE FINE PRINT!

Maybe it’s because we live in the age of “fake news” and “alternative facts” or maybe it’s because people don’t want to read more than headlines and tweets, but I’ve been amazed at the amount of misinformation I’ve read online about the decision. One Scouter said we have 2 1/2 months to adjust. (The earliest change will come next fall–and then only at the Cub Scout level.) Another Scouter predicted that the BSA will be sued when a female member gets pregnant because guys and girls are sharing tents. (Such tenting arrangements are already against the BSA’s Youth Protection policies, and at the Boy Scout level, the programs will be separate.) And lots and lots of people have speculated about what the board’s real reason for the decision was. (I happen to know several of the board members personally and know several more by reputation. They are all men and women who want only the best for the Scouting movement.)

Before you decide how you feel about this issue, I hope you’ll take the time to read the material on the Family Scouting webpage. And for more background on the research that led up to the decision, watch Mike Surbaugh’s video, which was shown in councils across the country this summer (and which I blogged about in August). That video runs nearly 30 minutes, but it’s well worth your time if you want to have all your facts straight before you start posting on social media!

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.

Units Helping Units After Hurricanes


The hurricanes of this summer and fall don’t often appear in the headlines anymore, but people in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and Puerto Rico are still working to recover from wind and flood damage. And of course, Scouts have been deeply involved in recovery efforts. Councils located not far from the disaster areas have organized crews to remove drywall and soggy carpet. Philmont Scout Ranch has sent workers to Sea Base to help restore facilities. And Scouters around the country have opened their wallets to support groups like the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army.

So what you can your troop do? Assuming you’re in Peoria, Pittsburgh, or Portland, it might look like there’s not much you can do that would make a difference.

Fortunately, the BSA has come up with a couple of good options. The first is to donate to the BSA Emergency Assistance Fund, which helps rebuild Scouting in affected communities. The other is to connect directly with a unit in need and to help them replace lost equipment, flags, uniforms, and books. For more on both of these options, visit the BSA’s Disaster Relief web page.

I’m especially intrigued by the idea of units helping units. I think tangible projects like that are more meaningful to Scouts than simply giving money, and I could easily see two troops becoming long-distance brother troops as a result. That said, money is very much needed, and it would be neat for a troop to earmark a portion of popcorn profits, for example, to support the Emergency Assistance Fund.

For all the damage they cause, natural disasters offer us in Scouting the chance to teach what it means to help other people at all times. How are you doing that this season?

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.

Not Your Father’s Eagle Project


Birdhouses. Toy drives. Hiking trails. Flag retirement ceremonies. Park benches.

Those words describe just a few of the tried and true Eagle Scout projects that are done by countless Scouts across the country each year. There’s nothing wrong with those ideas, but there’s also nothing that says Scouts can’t be a little more creative.

Or a lot more creative, in the case of Skyler Chapman from Lehi, Utah. Skyler made the local news recently for his truly unique project: fixing a traffic problem in his hometown. According to a Fox 13 report, he used a camera drone and a team of traffic observers to figure out just why traffic was building up for long periods at one particular intersection. (Spoiler alert: the problem was the lack of a dedicated turn lane.) Armed with the data he’d collected and the results of resident surveys, Skyler crafted a plan that he presented to the city council. His project was quickly approved and implemented, and tie-ups are reportedly a thing of the past at the problem intersection.

So how can you get your Scouts to think more creatively when they’re looking for Eagle projects? One option would be to have them look around their community for problems that need solving. Another would be to encourage them to talk with local nonprofit leaders about what’s on their wish lists. You could also suggest they spend some time browsing the Boys’ Life Eagle Project Showcase.

Then, when they come back to you with some apparently harebrained idea, don’t reflexively say no. Evaluate the idea against the actual advancement requirement, not against your experience and preconceived notions. In case you’ve forgotten, here’s the project requirement:

While a Life Scout, plan, develop, and give leadership to others in a service project helpful to any religious institution, any school, or your community. (The project must benefit an organization other than Boy Scouting.) A project proposal must be approved by the organization benefiting from the effort, your unit leader and unit committee, and the council or district before you start. You must use the Eagle Scout Service Project Workbook, BSA publication No. 512-927, in meeting this requirement.

Will your Scouts do projects that end up on the evening news? Perhaps not. But perhaps they’ll do projects that excite them more than the same old projects everybody else in the troop seems to do.

And who knows? One of them might even do a project that cuts your evening commute!

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.