Scouting Groups Report Losing About 1.7 Million Members During Pandemic

by Msnbctv news staff

Membership in the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts has plunged during the pandemic, according to new enrollment figures released by the youth organizations, which had already been hampered by assorted legal, financial and societal issues.

The groups estimated that they had lost 1.7 million members between them since 2019, with the Boy Scouts of America enrollment dropping by about 62 percent and the number of youth members of the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. falling by nearly 30 percent.

The downturn came as young people across the nation were confined to virtual learning and after-school programs to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the latest obstacle for the groups’ retention efforts.

The timing is particularly nettlesome for the Boy Scouts of America, which filed for bankruptcy protection in February 2020 amid an avalanche of sexual-abuse claims that now exceeds 82,000 cases.

The Boy Scouts described the decline partly in an email on Wednesday to The New York Times, and a disclosure statement that the group recently filed in Federal Bankruptcy Court in Delaware provided further insight into the group’s flagging numbers.

The group said in the email that it went from 1,974,635 members of the Cub Scouts and Scouts BSA in 2019 to 1,123,651 in 2020, according to its tallies, which were reported by The Associated Press, along with the enrollment figures for the Girl Scouts. In the disclosure statement, which was filed on June 18, the Boy Scouts said that it currently had 762,000 registered youth participants.

The head of the Boy Scouts was not made available for an interview on Wednesday, but the organization said in a statement that the membership decline was expected during the pandemic and that camp enrollment totals for this summer were encouraging.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly presented obstacles to the BSA’s traditionally hands-on, in-person programming, and the related economic impact has forced families to make difficult decisions about their children’s participation in our programs and in other youth-serving organizations,” the Boy Scouts said. “At the same time, a year of social distancing and time spent indoors has left many craving the outdoor adventures, community, and values-based leadership training that the BSA offers.”

In its bankruptcy court disclosure, the Boy Scouts reported that its gross revenues had plummeted to $187 million in 2020 from $394 million in 2019. The organization is setting aside hundreds of millions of dollars for a settlement fund for sexual-abuse victims.

Earlier this year, the Boy Scouts said it would sell its collection of Norman Rockwell art — some 60 works that it had commissioned over six decades that evoke virtue, bravery and Americana — to help pay for the settlement.

Some local councils might consolidate in the next year in part because of fluctuating membership and to help pay for their contribution to the settlement, according to the organization.

Representatives for the Boy Scouts said that all of the group’s councils and most of its scouting units were now conducting in-person activities and meetings. At the same time, the organization said that it would raise its annual membership fees, in addition to the fees paid by adult volunteers. The fee for Cub Scouts will increase to $72 from $66.

“Membership has begun to show signs of a rebound in the last few months as Scouting families re-engage with our programs and prospective Scouting families seek out the adventures that Scouting is known for,” the organization said.

The Girl Scouts estimated that it had 1.4 million girls among its ranks in 2019-20, compared with just over one million in 2020-21.

A spokeswoman for the Girl Scouts said in a statement on Wednesday that the organization had experienced a substantial rebound this spring and summer in its membership ranks. The group said that it had registered more than 370,000 members in April, the highest month for renewals in some time, and that nearly all of its camps were sold out across the country.

“We know maintaining activities during the pandemic was very difficult for families juggling online learning and their own personal and work responsibilities,” said the spokeswoman, Kelly Parisi. “We are excited to head into fall recruitment, which is our largest recruitment season for both new and returning members.”

The retention issues faced by the Girl Scouts go beyond the pandemic. In a federal lawsuit filed in 2018, the group accused the Boy Scouts of co-opting its message in the recruitment of girls. In 2017, the Boy Scouts announced that it would widely accept girls.

In a filing last December in federal court in Manhattan, the Girl Scouts said that the Boy Scouts had removed gender-specific language from some of its marketing materials that solely referred to scouts and scouting, a violation of a congressional charter that governs the organization. It called the overtures by the Boy Scouts, which it claimed had engaged in unfair competition and trademark infringement, “highly damaging.” Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for July.

Jack Begg contributed research.

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