Here is an excerpt of a fascinating academic paper on Boy Scouts of America membership trends from its foundation through to publication. This section concerns the abject failure of SCOUTING/USA, SCOUT:B.S.A. and the Improved Scouting Program of 1971.
Written in 2016, Cartographic Depiction and Exploration of the Boy Scouts of America’s Historical Membership Patterns is a master’s thesis by University of Kansas graduate student Matthew Finn Hubbard.
The paper is well worth reading. It’s a quantitative analysis of BSA membership trends by geography over time. Hubbard’s main interest is “scout density” as a function of “available boys” or put another way, “What fraction of school-age boys are involved with the Boy Scouts of America” and how that fraction varied over the years.
He has a secondary interest in the contrast of rural and urban membership density. The insight is bolstered by factual discussion of related events and trends, such as the Great Depression (economic deprivation) and demographic disruptions (the Baby Boomers). He uses available membership data from counterpart organizations like Future Farmers of America and the Girls Scouts of the United States of America to differentiate membership fluctuations as a function of broad secular trends (i.e., market risk) and narrow BSA policy decisions (i.e., company risk).
Among salient points Hubbard notes Boy Scouting has always done better in traditional and patriotic regions.
And he conclusively proves the catastrophic disaster of the Improved Scouting Plan was self-inflicted, mainly by alienating even enraging BSA’s core of dedicated, conservative traditional men.
Chapter 5: (1971 – 2000)
In 1971, Scouting hit its high-water mark for membership. The ensuing decline was due to evolving cultural values, a changing economy, and an inflexibility from within Scouting itself. This chapter explores the membership changes that took place between 1971 and 2001, the regions that experienced membership loss, and what the BSA did to attempt to hold onto its place in American culture.
The New Scouting Program
The Yankelovich study showed the BSA that the country’s youth considered Scouting out of touch with the times. The BSA reacted with several drastic changes in operation and nomenclature. Known as the Improved Scouting Program, the modifications brought more focus to Scouting in the inner city (Wills, 2009). As a part of the new plan, the BSA pledged to take on the drug abuse epidemic with Operation Reach. The program aimed to show that community, family, and meaningful relationship were more rewarding than the temporary high of drugs (Peterson, 1984).
Figure 24 below accurately shows the difficulty that the BSA had penetrating the inner-cities. The high membership ratios in rural New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and New Hampshire are offset by the much lower
percent participation surrounding Boston, New York City and coastal New Jersey. The divide between urban and rural areas in Scouting was not new in 1971, but the ability to portray the phenomenon with finer scale maps reveals patterns at a finer scale.
Explorer Scouting began admitting girls, and to accommodate the new membership standards, the Boy Scouts of American rebranded itself as Scouting/USA. The Girl Scouts, GSUSA, underwent a similar rebranding and modernizing program (Arneil, 2010). However, for the Boy Scouts the name change to Scouting/USA upset many conservative Scouts who felt that it was one more step in the destruction of the Scouting tradition Baden-Powell established.
The BSA also made minor modifications to the Cub Scouts. It dropped “to be square” from the Cub Scout pledge. Originally, it indicated fairness and equality, with its ancestry reflected in programs like Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal. “Square” had come to mean uncool and referred to people who rigidly abided by all the rules and did not have any fun. “Square” was an image the BSA was keen to get rid of.
The Improved Scouting Program introduced other changes to Scouting as well. To make the BSA relevant both to youth in cities and the country, the BSA altered The Scout Handbook and advancement requirements. Merit badges such as tracking, signaling by semaphore, canoeing, Morse code, pioneering projects, tree identification, and many parts of outdoor first aid were dropped from the handbook. First aid for rat bites, hiking in the city, introducing a guest speaker at a troop meeting, and how to help your parents around the house replaced these outmoded merit badges (Peterson, 1984).
The changes in the Scouting program indicated a shift in emphasis from rurality and camping to urban life and a concentration on civic duty. The Improved Scouting Program relabeled Scoutmasters as “managers of learning” to reflect the new emphasis on emotional support. The BSA’s attempt to reach new populations of youth in depressed rural areas and inner cities created an intense backlash from the traditionally conservative core membership of the Boy Scouts of America (Peterson, 1984). Abandoning an emphasis on nature and promoting emotional support struck many Denmasters, Scoutmasters, and Explorer Post Chiefs as an attack on their leadership style and a softening of the BSA (Wills, 2009). Some of these volunteers and leaders with a military background or no-nonsense style directly opposed the emotional support and “personal growth agreement conferences” the Improved Scouting Program recommended.
After the implementation of the Improved Scouting Program, BSA membership continued to decline. Many in Scouting blamed the Improved Scouting Program for the membership loss. However, the BSA was not the only youth program experiencing a declining membership. 4-H and GSUSA also experienced falling membership; however, 4-H and the Girl Scouts, were not as severely impacted as the BSA (Putnam, 2000). Overall, the country saw a decrease in civic engagement in the 1970s and 1980s (Norris and Inglehart, 2003).
The Improved Scouting Program did not have the modernizing effect that the BSA intended. Removing traditional merit badges from the handbook alienated the Scouting traditionalists which resulted in practically none of the changes introduced by the Improved Scouting Program surviving beyond 1978. In 1978, a new Chief Scout Executive rescinded the changes introduced by the Improved Scouting Program and returned the organization to a more traditional approach. The BSA’s inability to effectively update its program in the 1970s probably hurt it over the long run. The Girl Scouts of America (GSUSA), on the other hand, implemented important procedural and membership changes in the 1980s and, as a result, navigated its way through a period of a downturn in civic engagement more comfortably than the Boy Scouts of America (Arneil, 2010). Both organizations realized that much had changed in the world since Scouting was founded but only the Girl Scouts found a solution that salvaged declining membership.