STARTING FROM SCRATCH
Over the years, I have started or re-launched seven units: a Cub Pack, three Scout Troops, an Explorer Post, and two Venturing Crews. In each case, we started with nothing. No money in the bank, no gear, and (frequently) no youth or adults other than myself with any Scouting experience. Now, if your model of a successful unit is the big, thriving unit with lots of money, lots of stuff, and lots of trained leaders (youth and adult), this can be daunting. You may think the first thing you have to do is – EVERYTHING. And the fun and magic of Scouting can be neglected as you scramble to try to acquire the assets (financial, material, and human) that other units have spent years building up. But you don’t have to stress out about that, and you don’t have to delay the fun and magic in order to chase after what you don’t yet have. If you’re starting a new unit with nothing, that’s an opportunity, not a burden. You are free to make it your own. (Note that the “your” in “your own” is plural – as in, yours together, youth and adults, not just yours as the unit leader.) So, how do you do this?
So, the first thing we need to do is a fund-raiser, right? Yeah, that’s the very definition of fun in a kid’s eyes. Or an adult’s. Yuck. Let me put this as strongly as I can: You can’t spell Funds without Fun. Put the fun first. Put the adventure first. Hook the kids on your program before you give them a fundraiser to do. Then they’ll be more willing to work for more of what the program has to offer. This means that you need to find cheap things to do that they can pay for out of pocket, or bring bag lunches along to: things that take minimal gear, stuff they probably already have at home (more on this in the next part). A brand-new troop needs to get outdoors and do something in its first six weeks! Don’t put off the fun!
Be sensitive to the sticker shock of Scouting. Even affluent families raise an eyebrow at the initial price tag of joining a troop: registration, uniforming, handbook, dues (not to mention personal gear, which we’ll talk about in the next part). Make your own fun, don’t buy it off the rack; for instance, if you’ve got snow on the ground, build snow forts and go sledding. That’s a lot cheaper than going skiing at 75 bucks per lift ticket, plus ski rental, optional lessons, and eating out at the lodge. Remember, you’ve got a brand-new unit with brand-new families. You have to prove the worth of your program before asking them to shell out even more of their hard-earned money.
Set a reasonable Dues rate, and use it for things like awards. The basic income from dues should all be returned to the Scouts in the form of badges and program materials (you’d be surprised how many fun things you can do with balloons). Fundraisers are for trips and gear.
When you do plan a fundraiser, keep in mind that all youth orgs, including the schools, do product sales. I hate product sales. Scout Popcorn is probably the best one, and it’s mostly organized for you, so by all means, sell popcorn. You probably need one other, maybe two other fundraisers, to keep your program perking. If popcorn is in the fall, then do a winter fundraiser and a spring one. No more, at least not with the small unit starting from scratch, or you’ll be doing more fundraising than fun-raising.
Being the chef type, I always liked foody fundraisers. Host a dinner, sell hot dogs at a festival, whatever. Take advantage of your relationship with your charter partner. You don’t have to try to reach the general public with a chili dinner or a pancake breakfast. You can work with the charter partner to do this as part of their program, and their members will form a ready-made customer base for you. A couple of times, I even had Crews do gourmet meals by invitation, at which I told the diners to pay us whatever they thought the meal was worth – or whatever they thought the trip we were taking that summer was worth for which the meal was raising funds. If you take “price” out of the equation and elicit “support,” you’d be surprised how much people will do.
Many units separate out some of their profits from fundraisers into youth accounts, according to how much each Scout worked. These are not the Scouts’ personal property (there are IRS rules that you can run afoul of here), but they are reserved to help the Scouts pay for the big events the unit plans. “A Scout works to pay one’s way” is the explanation of THRIFTY. But be aware also of campership sources available to you. No Scout should be deprived of a major experience just because his or her parents can’t afford the whole price of it.
Keep in mind that you cannot solicit money donations directly (IRS rules, again), but your charter partner probably can. The charter partner should pay the basic charter fee each year, to demonstrate their ownership of the unit. Sometimes, charter partners starting a new unit will budget an amount for startup costs (hey, you can ask). If someone DOES make a donation to you, have the charter partner acknowledge it with a letter (legally, the donation was given to them to pass along to you).
By the way, all the miles you drive as an adult leader are tax-deductible. Likewise, if you buy program materials for which you are not reimbursed, those may count as in-kind donations to your charter partner (it’s their unit, remember?). It all adds up, so keep good records for yourself.
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Art Collins has been in Scouting, man and boy, for over fifty years. He has led many different units and many different programs. As an ordained minister in The United Methodist Church, he has fostered Scouting as ministry in local congregations, as well as at the Conference and General Church level. His current Scouting position is as the International Representative for Hoosier Trails Council and as a member of the Council Executive Board. His current ministry position is Retired.