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Boy Scout retention: Four things you can do so they’ll stick around

If you recruit new Boy Scouts into your troop without a plan for retaining your existing members, you’re just spinning your wheels.

Help Boy Scouts get the most out of this life-changing organization with a program that keeps them coming back week after week.

Boy Scout retention requires a long-term plan where adult leaders and youth leaders work together to create compelling troop meetings and memorable outings.

But there are four things you can do right now to boost retention.

I’ve taken these from the February 2017 episode of ScoutCast. Our guest for the episode is Charles “Doc” Goodwin, Scoutmaster of Troop 236 in Kettering, Ohio. For more than 30 years, Doc’s troop consistently has had more than 100 Scouts.

1. Make each Scout feel important

“I really try to get to know each Scout,” Doc says. “I know every boy’s birthday, and at every meeting the senior patrol leader recognizes each Scout’s birthday.”

At each meeting, Doc goes around and tries to speak individually with each boy.

2. Begin a “big brother” program

Each new Scout in Doc’s troop gets a “big brother” assigned to him. This older Scout must be at least First Class.

“Their job is to get to know the boys that they have, and I expect them to know at least as much about them as I do,” Doc says. “That Scout’s job is to be their friend, their mentor, and help guide them up to First Class.”

At court of honor time, the “big brother” joins the Scout and his parents at the front of the room to present the new Scout with his rank badges.

3. Get your youth leaders trained — but keep it fun

Doc’s troop tries to put several junior leaders — senior patrol leader, assistant senior patrol leader, patrol leaders and more — through National Youth Leadership Training (NYLT) each year.

ILST, the Introduction to Leadership Skills for Troops, is a prerequisite to NYLT.

“Train the Scouts and let them lead, let them run the show,” he says.

But Doc reminds us that training should be conducted with an emphasis on fun.

“Boys don’t join Scouts to say, ‘I want to be a leader.’ They join to have a good time,” Doc says. “Fun is what’s going to keep them in it.”

4. Make sure all boys get Boys’ Life

A study has shown that boys who read BL stay in Scouting two-and-a-half times longer than those who don’t.

“You’re right,” Doc says. “It’s good information in there.”

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More to the story

For more, listen to the February 2017 episode of ScoutCast, the monthly podcast for Boy Scout leaders. Find it on your favorite podcasting app or by clicking here.


Photo by W. Garth Dowling

37 Comments on Boy Scout retention: Four things you can do so they’ll stick around

  1. Dale Machacek // February 7, 2017 at 9:34 am // Reply

    Run a High Adventure trip each and every year. It keeps the older scouts interested and active, and it gives the younger scouts something to look forward to. If you plan a few years in advance, it is easy to keep up the interest and momentum.

    • Bryan Wendell // February 7, 2017 at 9:40 am // Reply

      Good addition.

      • Great idea but not all scouts can afford these. My boys were never able to go unfortunately .I do have one Eagle and a second almost ready for his Eagle board of review.

        • Danny Helfen // February 8, 2017 at 9:02 am //

          High adventure doesn’t necessarily mean one of the very expensive high adventure bases. The scouts can plan great activities in many of their own yards. We have climbing, long distance canoeing, white water, long distance backpacking, biking, etc. up to their imagination and as always a scout is thrifty.

      • Good idea, although it is very challenging for small troops. We try to go to about every 2-3 years and then have individual Scouts present slide shows or videos at a Court of Honor when they do an OA high adventure trip (one way our guys do the high adventure bases without a troop trip.)

  2. Make every scout who is granted Eagle actually earn it. When asked what their leadership position was, they should not need to look at the patch on their uniform for the answer, nor should they answer with um…..

  3. Excellent Weekend Outings + Awesome Longterm Opportunities + FUN WEEKLY MEETINGS = Units with High Rates of Retention. https://voiceofscouting.org/rescue-relay-scout-activity

  4. Plan fun events, and mix up the activities each year. When my son joined our troop, they went to the same places every year. This year, out of our 12 monthly activities, three we have never done before and another two are things we have not done for 3-4 years. We have been to five different summer camps in 5 years. For this year, the PLC was very clear that they wanted to try some new things and so chose accordingly.

    The hard part is keeping those new activities from becoming permanent fixtures!

  5. Kelly Horton // February 7, 2017 at 10:44 am // Reply

    Let them do leadership activities like plan a community clean up project, help out as camp out staff and have them plan their own events as outlined in the Leadership Corp. handbook. You as a leader have invested time and effort into the scouts and they need to spread their wings and fly on their own. They may stumble, but they can do a good job if allowed.

  6. Nahila Nakne // February 7, 2017 at 11:00 am // Reply

    Have a true, Scout run unit, giving leadership, and having high expectations. I’ve seen a few units in my lifetime that are more adult run, than youth run. Those programs tend to have folks get Eagle and then leave. Or worse, once the key leader leaves for whatever reason, the unit dies.

    And it won’t happen overnight. having a true, Scout run, troop with active patrols and patrol leaders, takes time, several years in fact. Is it a lot of hard work, YES it is, Do you need sit back and let the Scouts fail and learn, Yes you do. Is it worth it, YES IT IS! ( all caps are emphasis.

  7. Focus the fundraising and service to a few well-run activities and encourage mass participation. Nickel and diming the families with fundraising and service will wear out your welcome fast so make your chosen ones count.

  8. Look for adventures suitable for older youth; and open up opportunities for them in District, OA, Council and other avenues – show them a world of Scouting outside their unit. Some suggestions are OA leadership, joining (or creating) a Venturing Crew or Sea Scout Ship in addition to their Troop.

  9. Have units had any experience with splitting up the scouts, not by patrol, but by age and having the older scouts go off and do something like a canoeing trip while the younger scouts stay back and work on advancement? We don’t have a new boy patrol, necessitating the above split by age.

    • Nahila Nakne // February 7, 2017 at 1:34 pm // Reply

      Yes. My troop growing up would do it where feasible. Usually it was those camp outs that involved historic trails. Best example would be Vicksburg National Military Park’s three trails.We would split up based upon which one we wanted to do.

      Current troop did that when we went to DC. Those who wanted to do one of the historic trails did so, while the rest did the museums.

    • There are only two times we have split the scouts based on age 1) when they work on Cyber-Chip, because there are different modules based on age, and 2) High adventure, where we follow BSA rules on age.

      In our troop, we have the older scouts instruct the younger scouts on skills, and sign off on their advancement. That way the older scouts get to practice teaching and the younger scouts don’t miss out on fun things the older scouts are doing. We mix older scouts and younger scouts in each patrol. I think there was a separate thread on the pro/con of new scout patrols in the past few months.

  10. There are a lot of great ways to get scouts to stick, the hardest is getting the parents to allow them to enjoy what the troop has to offer, and to facilitate, and encourage, the scout’s participation. If the parent doesn’t get it, no matter what you do, you may not keep that scout.

  11. Do you happen to have the data to back up that these 4 things help retention?

    Not all units nor scouts are the same, so seeing the underlying data would help.

    Thank You.

  12. Carey Snyder // February 7, 2017 at 1:24 pm // Reply

    Focus on the boys, and on why they joined Scouting, and the outdoor experience.

    To parents, focus on how Boy Scouting prepares the boys for life [remember the tag line used “Prepared. For Life.”]. My grandson commented that the advancement chair in our troop wasn’t his favorite person while he was in, but now as an adult, he gives her credit for his being able to converse with those twice his age on an equal basis!

    Don’t let the fads and the pressure groups change Scouting. I have heard a lot more negative comments re: Scouting with regard to this last membership change. With all the changes being made, YPT may well become a week-long course.

    Now that we have made all those changes, start pushing the corporations which used membership policies as an excuse to start donating.

    I am an enthusiastic life-long supporter of Scouting. Although only reaching Tenderfoot in 1955, and then dropping out because of a lousy troop, I encouraged my grandson to hang in until Eagle and beyond, and once he gets married and has kids, I hope that Boy Scouts will be there for him to work with, if he has sons.

    I continue to support Scouting, as a committee member, a C.O.R., an instructor [classroom-facilitated YPT, University of Scouting (Cub and Boy Scout Level courses on Flag respect, Being a C.O.R, etc.)], and work at the District level also.

    I don’t see the membership changes materially affecting things at the Troop level – however it makes it so much harder to discuss joining with those currently outside of Scouting.

    • Cubmaster Daniel // February 7, 2017 at 3:49 pm // Reply

      “I don’t see the membership changes materially affecting things at the Troop level – however it makes it so much harder to discuss joining with those currently outside of Scouting.”

      I cannot disagree more.

      Here in the Pacific Northwest, the long-overdue membership change has led to in an increase in recruitment. On this issue, BSA was way, way behind the nation as a whole, and particularly young parents.

      Today’s parents of Boy Scouts were largely born after 1980. Some parents of Cub Scouts were born after 1990.

      Sexual orientation is no longer grounds for rejection from military service, from adopting children, and – in most states – marrying. This is – rightfully – normal in the world of young people. Parents who are torn about exposing their sons and daughters to Scouting over this are doing them no favor – the world and their peers have moved on.

      • Nahila Nakne // February 7, 2017 at 8:20 pm // Reply

        Unfortunately in the Southeast, it is a different story. We immediately lost an entire troop and most of our district committee in my district over the last membership policy change. Recruitment is down, and several packs have had to fold and merge.

        Many folks in my neck of the woods do not believe in these changes, and see moving on as moving into an abyss.

  13. Have enough variety Year to hear it doesn’t feel repetitive. Different camps, different trips. Have the kids vote on the big decisions after hearing from other scouts pro and con.

  14. Get the parents on board that the program is for the boys and not the adults. I have lost 2 boys in the last 3 months. One older boy because the committee kept allowing any parent who wanted to go camping go, and another boy because once we stopped allowing all the parents to go were upset because they only do things as a full family.

  15. The problem here isn’t the Scouts. It is the Adult leaders and the parents.

    I have a Venture Crew and I get an inflow of refugees when a Scoutmaster says something stupid. And I get an inflow when the Troop committee says something stupid. Here’s and example:

    “You will not get your Eagle until my sons get theirs first.”
    “You will not advance any further in this Troop.”
    “You did not pay your dues last week, so it disqualifies you from the camping trip.”
    “You can not start your Eagle Service project until you have earned all of your Merit Badges.”
    “Learn how to fit in or get out.”
    “Outdoors is where we play, not on a gaming console.”
    “We are going to do the same as we have always done.”

    Retention is not a problem because of the youth – it is a problem because of the adults. So keep going adults! The more stupid things you say the bigger my Venture Crew gets and the happier the Scouts are!

    • Nahila Nakne // February 8, 2017 at 9:06 am // Reply

      I’ve found in my 25+ years in Scouting that adults cause more problems than the Scouts. I’ve seen well meaning adults interfere and destroy units.

      That is why it is so important to have a good SM and Committee Chair to deal with the well meaning, but extremely disruptive adults.

  16. I love these ideas. Changing up where they go and different summer camps would have been amazing and kept my sons more active. Also, adult leaders should be aware of when it is time for them to step aside. When they are too busy to give their best to the boys and always want to stick with what is close by and easy and repeated EVERY year. Not every scout has a lot of money but there are so many places to camp and hike and explore that not all “adventures” have to cost thousands

    • Once the scouts decide where they want to go for the upcoming year, I put all of the outings into a 1-page calendar, along with all of the other troop activities we do every year (courts of honor, OA election, etc.) We have a column in our calendar for cost, with $=free to $10, $$=$10 to $25, $$$=$25 to $75 and $$$$ for $75 and up. The scouts then take a final look and make changes. We usually end up with only a couple of outings a year that are more that $25, like summer camp or our summer float trip. It helps incoming parents gauge costs for the year.

      • Bryan Wendell // February 8, 2017 at 8:55 am // Reply

        That’s a really good strategy. A projected cost for each trip would help Scouts and parents better plan.

  17. The “big brother” program sounds like a fantastic idea. I could imagine the transition from Cub to Boy Scouts could be overwhelming at times. This seems like a great way to ease in, aso well as keep the boys from only talking to their grade level.

    • Nahila Nakne // February 8, 2017 at 9:11 am // Reply

      One of the advantages of using Traditional Patrols, aka Mixed Aged Patrols, instead of New Scout Patrols is because it will give “experienced” Scouts, i.e. those in a year or longer a chance to work on their leadership and teaching skills by being a mentor or “Big Brother.” By having some experience working one-on-one, the “experienced Scout’s” knowledge, skills and abilities improve.. He learns what works and what doesn’t work, and develops confidence to move onwards and upwards.

    • Nahila Nakne // February 8, 2017 at 5:51 pm // Reply

      Forgot to add, with mixed aged patrols the transition is VERY easy for the Scouts.

      Now for the parents, it’s a challenge. 😉

  18. Stop compelling parents to pull their boys out of the program or never joining scouts because it allows “transgender” scouts, gay scouts and gay scout leaders. The BSA had to already added “Lions” Kindergarten scouts to compensate for loss of older scouts..but that is going to burn scouts and families out of the program by the time it is crossover time..

    It is only a matter of time before the BSA allows the atheists to sink their claws on the program and adjust the Duty God component making this a secular, Co-Ed Program.

    Let the BSA be what the BSA was that made it such a draw to our traditional families.

  19. Den Leader Bill // February 8, 2017 at 2:27 pm // Reply

    The belt loop program under the old program was a neat way for all of the dens to work together at times. Tigers could earn the same belt loop as a Webelos 2. Having the more advance “pin” from the old program allowed this great program to offer more advance options.

    The new program has pretty much isolated each den as a self-contained entity where there is no many chances for joint meetings or activities unless it is a Pack event.

    The new program should be tweaked to bring this program back in some form that would require some belt loops to be earned out a pool. This would allow Den Leaders to have more adults, a sharing of ideas and a chance for the older boys to interact with the younger scouts as they do at the boy scout level.

  20. Everyone seems to think that the key is doing more things, or make additional demands on a young person’s time. That’s a great way to make a boy choose between scouts and anything else.

    100% of the boys who drop out of our troop do it because 1) something else takes too much of their time and 2) scouts isn’t flexible enough to allow them to do both. We know this is true because I’m the ASM who does “exit interviews” with each boy who leaves and this is what I’m told, straight from the boy and his parents. In spite of this, I’ve suggested we not put so much emphasis on summer camp attendance, and be more flexible with the program. I’m told the same old thing: boys have to choose, they can’t do it all. Well, they are choosing, and it ain’t scouts.

    • The problem of additional demands is true for parents as the boys, because it is the parents who have to get them to meetings and activities. As Scoutmaster, I wanted Scouting to be a fun refuge — a true hobby for both boys and parents. I always assured parents of three things: (1) We’re always here, and each Scout advances at his own pace — so he should come when he can, but not worry about it when he can’t. If he needs to drop out for a couple of months because practice is on the same night as the troop meeting, no problem — we’ll see him after the season. (2) The only thing we really need parents to do is get their boys to the meetings and activities. Beyond that, how much you get involved is up to you — but you’ll find that the more you do, the more fun you will have. (3) For the heavily involved — it’s okay if you don’t have the time to do everything or you need a break; don’t over-commit. We do what we can, then we stop.

      So how do you have a relaxed troop environment but keep Scouts participating, learning, and advancing? With _more_ activities and opportunities (_not_ demands) at various times during the month. We did things like “Garage Scouting” where interested Scouts could meet for 45 minutes on a weekday evening at my garage to work on a particular skill (knots, wood tools, etc.). We’d have Saturday morning hikes on weekends when we weren’t off camping. Simple stuff that didn’t take much time, but was fun and checked off boxes. And about half of our campouts were based at nearby campgrounds so that Scouts (and parents) could come for the Friday night overnight and then head off in the morning to go to soccer or visit Grandma. Other Scouts (and parents) who couldn’t make the Friday overnight would join us Saturday morning, and we’d head off for a challenging day adventure. Back at the campground late Saturday afternoon, some of the Scouts (and parents) who couldn’t stay overnight Saturday night would leave, and other Scouts (and parents) would join us for supper, the campfire, and the overnight.

  21. Realize that “boy led” can sometimes run a troop into the ground. Older scouts want to have fun and being told teach constantly drives them away. And support the youth leaders during the meeting. Simply watching the chaos from a corner of the room and patting yourself on the back for allowing it will drive everyone away.

  22. Felix Salmeron // April 7, 2017 at 10:53 am // Reply

    I don’t agree that a boy led troop can run the program into the ground. If the input into what activities are planned and everyone has input, then the outing is more exciting. When I was a scout master, I allowed the Senior patrol leaders to set the camp site and gave them the time to tidy up the area. Activities were always started the 2nd day as the first day was always setup and area familiarization. each patrol went on an adventure in the area to become familiar with what was available. The evening discussions were on opportunities in the area. I as the scout master just ensured that all activities planned were safe, and allowed the troop to enjoy them selves. each patrol leader knew what was to happen during the camping and what goals they had to accomplish. it was the patrol leaders that made it happen. It did not happen over night, but in time the boys looked forward to going camping. The camping location was the boys choice and not often the same area.

  23. I did not noticed a mention of Order of the Arrow. In my experience those active in OA remained in scouting. Especially important for those who have earned their eagle rank.

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