Derek Twine is retiring after 16 years as the Chief Executive of The Scouts Association of the United Kingdom. He is also being honored by the World Association of the Scouting movement with the Silver Wolf (the highest award made by the Association “for services of the most exceptional character.”).
In this article he discusses his tenure as chief executive and what was a considerable, daunting yet successful overhaul of the Scouts Association.
…. it is up to those of us who are full-time to help create the environment where these talents can flourish and to ensure our organisations are meeting current needs. Fifteen years ago we were not convinced that The Scout Association was fully meeting either of these challenges. Scouting remained strong but membership and impact were in gradual decline. Young people appeared to doubt whether what we offered was relevant or, to be honest, attractive. Our membership was not representative of Britain. We were finding difficulty in recruiting and retaining adult volunteers.
Our collective response was to examine every aspect of our organisation, what we did and offered, and to draw up a co-ordinated long-term plan to tackle weaknesses and gaps. We found, fortunately, that the values and core of Scouting were still important and relevant but that we needed to respond better to the modern lives, concerns and ambitions of young people. So we devised a youth-work curriculum which was innovative, creative and attractive to youngsters from all backgrounds.
It was a thorough overhaul of activities and how we presented ourselves, including our uniform which had remained pretty much untouched for thirty years, as well as moving many of our resources online and now more recently into digital formats.
For adult volunteers, instead of insisting on a one-size-fits-all training programme which took weekends to complete, we fitted training around the skills, competencies and experience they already had. Any gaps could be filled in the evening, in modules and even online. We took the decision, too, to be confident in telling our story, putting resources into profile and brand building and better communications.
It would be nice to say these changes instantly produced results or were immediately popular. But that wasn’t the case. Our membership continued to decline for a few more years before gaining traction. We were told at the time that our founder would be spinning in his grave at some of the changes. But the naysayers were wrong.
Gradually, we reduced the rate of decline, then by 2006, and thanks to the efforts of a great many people, the changes started to produce visible results. Membership has now steadily grown for seven successive years. Female membership is strongly up, and the number of older teenagers has more than doubled. We have more than 50 scouting groups for Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs although this is an area where there is still more to do. In their communities, Scouts make a difference.
We are what we always believed we were: an organisation whose values and sense of adventure appeal to everyone. Scouting is proving so popular that we have 35,000 young people on our waiting lists across the UK. We are now more confident and ready, if necessary, to face controversy if we believe what we are doing is right.
So what have the last 16 years taught me? First, the value of patience: real and lasting change in a large voluntary organisation is a culture-shift, and that takes time. Second, to maintain focus on vision, and actively resist mission-drift whether from the lure of pet-projects of others or from the temptation of short-term funding streams. And third, to value the teamwork that allows people to share their successes with “we did this together”.
You have to have confidence in what you are doing and ensure that this confidence is shared by your colleagues, both the volunteers and the professional staff. It is crucial to involve them in developing strategies and plans, to keep them motivated, encouraged and supported.
We have been fortunate. Our experience is that there is still a strong desire among adults to be involved in scouting. The number of adult volunteers has risen by 10% in the past seven years. But in a world in which working nine to five is long dead, we have to find new ways to allow them to give their time flexibly. Getting this right will be among the main challenges on my successor’s job-list.
Clarity of vision, determination and an adherence to core concepts turned around an association that was watching it’s relevance to the youth of their nation slip away slowly. A very interesting story indeed.