Transition. Some Scouters today worry about possible negative impacts that recent changes by BSA may have on American Scouting. But most of today's Scouters didn't live through the disastrous 1972-78 "Improved Scouting Program", when BSA lost one-third of its membership in just five years, largely due to incredibly stupid changes the national office made to the Boy Scout program. The recent decline in membership is mild by comparison. But we might also bear in mind that although about 45 years have passed since the 1972 changes were reversed (1975-78), BSA membership is still nowhere near the level it was in 1972. Today, we live in a society that is itself in transition in many ways, and where competition for spare time activities has increased significantly. As a result, BSA has sought out new ways to reach more youth, created several non-traditional programs, and is having a tough time dealing with social issues (that our society is also having a tough time handling).
Conservation. From 1910 until 1972, Scouting's outdoor program officially used a traditional "Daniel Boone" approach, with strong emphasis on heavy-impact pioneering and camping skills. With shrinking wild areas and increasingly heavy use of what wilderness is left, all organizations that promote the outdoors have had to change their approach, though BSA was decidedly slow in doing so. Starting in 1972, Scouting began a major transition toward a new (low-impact) outdoor ethic, culminating with the issue of the 10th Edition of the Boy Scout Handbook in 1990. As a result, modern Scouts use the outdoors very differently than Scouts did during Scouting's first 62+ years. Today, most Scout meals are cooked over camping stoves instead of wood fires, tents have floors and mosquito netting (and are never "ditched"), packs (with frames) are lighter and much more comfortable. And the latest handbooks teach "Leave No Trace" camping techniques.
The "Three G's". For decades, many in Scouting have worried about the "three G's" (Gays, Girls, & God, to put them in alphabetical order). BSA has struggled (and is struggling) with these issues, as is our society. After taking a very public stand against allowing gays in Scouting, national BSA reversed their position and allowed gay youth members starting in 2013, and gay adults starting in 2015. BSA's public opposition to gay membership caused signification unhappiness with the organization, resulting in loss of donations & members. Now BSA's reversal has also caused unhappiness and loss of members. Perhaps as society changes, this will become less of an issue. [Both BSA and the Girl Scouts of the USA are open to gay and trans-gender members.] There is similar turmoil about allowing girls and women in Scouting, and many females have fought (and sued) to join the BSA or to earn the Eagle Scout award. Now there is both rejoicing and unhappiness that BSA is opening all its programs to girls. [Note that female youth members have been allowed in Exploring/Venturing & Sea Scouts since 1971, and adult women have been allowed to hold any position in any Scouting program since 1988.] Although the BSA and the Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) have never been very cooperative, as a result of the BSA's late-2017 announcement that all BSA programs would soon be open to girls, GSUSA has become a hostile competitor to the BSA. The final "G" is God, which many worry will be the next big issue. The Girl Scouts of the USA have for many years taken a more relaxed position on belief in God, while the BSA still takes a traditional position. The liberal position of the Girl Scouts has led to creation of several competing 'Scout' organizations for girls with more conservative/Christian values.
LDS Scouting. Although many churches endorse the Scouting program, only the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS/Mormon church) actually adopted Scouting as its official church youth program for its boys (in 1913). As a result, LDS youth eventually represented over 20% of Scouting membership, which permitted the LDS church to have significant influence over national BSA policies and programming for a long time. But the church ended its sponsorship of high-school and college-aged Scouting programs (Varsity/Venturer/Sea Scout) at the end of 2017, and will end its sponsorship of all Scouting program at the end of 2019, in favor of developing a church-specific youth program. This will result in a substantial reduction in BSA membership, especially in areas with large Mormon populations.
Measuring Success. From 1910 until 1972, the BSA measured much of its success by its ever-increasing membership statistics. Although the massive losses of the 1970s are behind us, Scouting membership is currently at the same level as the mid 1950s, nowhere near its 1972 maximum level. For the next 20 years or more, the Scout-age population is expected to remain fairly stable, and there will be increasing competition for kids' time. This adds up to a long period of stable (limited growth) membership levels. Adjusting to limited growth has been extremely difficult for the BSA, which is psychologically as well as structurally designed to equate success with growth. The minimal growth in traditional BSA programs has caused the national office to make changes to the traditional programs more often, and to add more non-traditional programs in an attempt to increase membership in areas not reached by traditional programs. We have already seen more program changes, more new programs, and shorter development periods since about 1985 than in all of Scouting's first 75 years. The desire for more members may also have been one of the incentives for opening Cub Scouts and Scouts to girls.
Minorities. Scouting has always effectively reached the white middle class, but it has never been as successful with those outside the middle class or with non-whites. From its earliest days, the BSA has made many different efforts to expand its outreach, and it is likely to increase these efforts for the foreseeable future. In particular, look for a number of new, non-traditional programs designed to increase membership among minorities, especially among the rapidly expanding hispanic populations.
Scouting in the Future
OK, I just can't keep up with predicting changes. They're happening too quickly. So I'll just lay out a few quick predictions and/or suggestions (most of my past predictions have come to pass much sooner than I thought they would).
Watching Scouting (and American society) change since I first joined has been interesting, and sometimes unsettling. But as it has for over 110 years, Scouting today provides a strong moral and ethical foundation that helps young people become good citizens and leaders of tomorrow. I believe strongly that Scouting will continue to provide that same foundation well into the future.
For more information about the history of the BSA, these books were all used in preparing this brief history. Many of these are still in print. Listed within categories by date of publication:
Books about US Scouting
Books about World Scouting
Biographies about Key Individuals
Last Revision to This Page: 1 March 2020
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