A taxing problem

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The seemingly ever-increasing administrative burden imposed by Scouting Ireland on volunteers in local Scout Groups will now be joined by an added financial burden. Increases in registration fees for adults are due (a €5 increase per member), alongside a new raffle levy (10% of earnings). Both initiatives are expected imminently.

The ‘Twelve days of Christmas’ raffle, a tired format that has been around since the early 1980’s, offers dull prizes and little in the way of support material. Many scouters (and parents) grumble that it is in effect not so much a fund-raiser, but a stealth tax on parents and scouters, who are the frequent target of youngster’s sales pitches.

CLOBBERING LOCAL VOLUNTEERS

That Scouting Ireland finances are under pressure is not in dispute. The reason the association is spending more than it takes in (and on what) however, has not been adequately articulated by the association’s management. Equally, little effort seems to have been expended exploring what other options might exist apart from the rather lazy option of clobbering local groups with more bills.

Scouting Ireland in essence receives almost all of its revenue from two sources, namely the membership and the exchequer (the latter in the form of a government grant). Both sources have been under some pressure in recent years, with local scout groups being acutely aware of the financial constraints that hard-pressed families are under, whilst the government grant has been squeezed, with a total cut approaching 30% in youth services grants Nationally over the period 2008 – 2013.

The much-vaunted (and pretty well thought out in general) ‘Vision 2020’ plan, rejected by a membership irritated with the lack of debate and consultation in advance of the proposal, did contain many positive references to developing additional ‘revenue streams’ for Scouting Ireland. This does suggest some consideration was at least given to the need for the association to diversify and multiply its sources of revenue.

Despite this, it would appear that ‘consideration’ is not translating into ‘implementation’ on this issue.

EARN IT BEFORE YOU SPEND IT

Strangely for an entity of its size and one with a fairly considerable workforce (not to mention plenty of volunteer talent), the association does not appear to have anyone tasked with the job of generating new revenue streams.

This should be a concern. The association spends a whopping 70% of its entire National revenue on ‘administration’, the vast majority of this expenditure on professional staff. Whilst many private and public sector employers saw a contraction of headcount between 2009 and 2013, Scouting Ireland headcount has remained the same, despite a 24% cut in government grant, during the period 2009/10 -2012/13. (source: Scouting Ireland annual reports 2009 & 2012). This appears to tally with NYCI figures suggesting a 30% overall cut in Government funding to the youth sector between 2008 and 2013 (source: NYCI website)

With services to local groups not seeing any notable improvement and indeed the administrative workload of local volunteers going up, along with fee’s, the benefits of maintaining a very expensive resource like National Office are becoming increasingly unclear, not least because the association’s cost structure and details of what the resources are targeted at are treated much like a state secret…

Why does Scouting Ireland need more money?

The annual reports from the association consistently trumpet membership growth. Most of this growth comes from the younger age ranges, given the National Leadership don’t understand (and are not that interested in) how to communicate to teenagers. This latter point represents a major strategic problem, but from a purely financial perspective, younger members undertake less adventurous activities, so typically cost less to insure. Even the uniforms they wear offer higher margins – tracksuit bottoms and sweatshirts are cheaper to make than shirts and combats.

With all youth members paying the same fee and the younger ones costing the association less, where are the economies of scale that one would expect as the associations membership grows?

FLIGHTS OF FANCY

Perhaps the answer lies in ‘administration’ and the ‘command and control’ approach popular with the current leadership. In a move reminiscent of something out of George Orwell’s ‘1984’ novel, the mandarins in Scouting Ireland have devised a plan for an ‘identity card’ for all members. This will be considered in more detail in a future post on theirishscouter, but it is reasonable to assume a cost in the region of €100K to implement this project when all costs are taken into account, not to mention a huge administrative headache for local volunteers and National Office.

This initiative, coming on top of an estimated all-in spend of close to €200K for the aborted ‘Vision 2020’ project, the initial €60K+ on the Scouting Ireland database (which still does not work properly) and of course the 70% of association funds that go towards the rather opaquely titled ‘administration’ it becomes easy to see where this extra money is potentially going to be spent.

BUT DOES IT HELP LOCAL SCOUTING?

The question members in general and members of the associations National Management Committee in particular should perhaps be asking in the context of these expensive projects is ‘What are the benefits to local Scouting?’

Empire-building is of course great fun. It makes our leaders feel important and powerful and there are lots of jobs to hand out to one’s friends, glossy reports to place one’s photo in and photo shoots, meetings with ministers, etc. The trouble with this sort of empire building however is that it is rather expensive and does not seem to show a correlation between increased investment and improvements in service to local groups – the latter surely being the very reason a National Scouting structure is supposed to exist.

IN THE RED

It would appear that Scouting Ireland is simply living beyond its means. The obvious solution here is to cut expenditure to fit income. Spoiler alert: this will require business acumen, courageous decision-making and real leadership.

Despite a large team of employees, (and all those volunteers) there appears to be no coherent strategy around the development of additional revenue streams, the cultivation of links with corporate Ireland beyond reinforcing twee stereotypes, the building of relationships with legislators (that go deeper than sycophantic photo shoots) or a serious effort to examine the associations cost base and look to improve efficiencies before resorting to the rather unimaginative ‘increase the membership fee’ approach.

PRICING GROUPS OUT OF THE MARKET

Far from discouraging groups from recruiting new adult members (which this fee increase will do), Scouting Ireland should be keeping membership fee’s low for adults and youth alike and should incentivise Scout Groups to grow their membership.

This would bring in additional revenue and increase membership simultaneously. It would reward Scout Groups who grow in size. It would drive better programme and higher levels of adult training (Scout Groups only grow sustainably if the programme on offer to youth members is good).

TRY SOMETHING DIFFERENT

The association should form a task force to create and exploit new revenue streams that seek to generate sustainable additional revenue for projects that support local scouting, albeit coordinated at a National level. This group should also look to develop a new National fund-raiser that is exciting, well promoted, professionally designed and has the power to get members excited. It should replace the jaded ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ and it should set out to at least double the revenue generated (a percentage going to National Office).

If every Scout Group raised an average of €2K from a well supported and properly promoted national fund-raiser, the total take would approach €1m. A 20% contribution to national office would yield €200K. The total current take from the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ hovers at around €350K, yielding around €35K for national office.

This task force (or maybe a separate one) should also have a wider brief to commence a process of engagement with corporate entities and government bodies with a view to raising the associations profile and credentials. In the longer term, this also could lead to revenue-generation opportunities.

It might also have the very desirable side effect of having employers see Scouting for what it really is – a source of top class talent for high quality jobs. Many employers do not understand Scouting at present and we do little to assist.

THINK AGAIN

In the context of a package of wider initiatives including a detailed, transparent (and publicized) spending review across all National departments and all cost centres, the raffle levy and the adult membership increase might look more credible. As it stands both measures look lazy, unimaginative and anti-Scout Group, funding a bloated bureaucracy that is increasingly perceived as delivering less for more.

2 thoughts on “A taxing problem”

  1. Gosh what a lot of ground covered in one post!

    On the ID cards, for adult members I’m in favour of them; I still have my very first ‘Warrant’ card issued by the then SAI. Replaced later by a laminated version from SI. The logistics probably need to be thought out more carefully that appears to be the case at present.

    Also in favour of the 10% charge back for the 12 days tickets to make the event self-financing; just surprised it wasn’t done before. Will be interested to see how the ’12 Deeds’ version goes; it’s not a bad idea particularly for the older sections.

    I’ve seen groups do very well from the 12 days, where the fund-raising is co-ordinated and planned; where the books are just handed out and nothing more, it’s not so successful. The recent workshops around the country have made much the same point.

    The big red flag for me as far as cost/benefit goes is the amount that we spend on the administration side. More and more work in regards to group admin (yearly registration & census returns, section and group level accounts and bank recs, camping approval forms, leader applications references, garda vetting, training booking and payments, the new QSE being rolled out) is being pushed on to volunteers. With County position holders being expected to ‘police’ the groups in getting this stuff done.

    It’s not unreasonable to say that SI doesn’t have much choice as regards this stuff; the Charities Acts is pushing the accounts requirement, Children’s Act-> Garda Vetting and the QSE is driven from the Dept. Children & Youth Affairs on Quality Standards for volunteer led youth groups.

    But the real frustration is that there’s little in the line of using supporting technologies to make this stuff easier. The QSE system I have yet to see in action so I can’t comment there, but the tedious and unnecessary paper work involved in administration for a medium sized group has to be seen to be believed. It’s as if the technology revolution never happened…

  2. I think local scouting is being painted into an undesirable corner by the actions of central SI and the totally misguided decision to place a limited company at the heart of scouting in Ireland.
    By presenting a monolith and proclaiming Scouting to be this enormous organisation (spits) it places onerous responsibilities on the groups. In exchange for central SI receiving largess from the state and donors the local groups end up with unreasonable financial reporting requirements. Sure, it is desirable for sections and groups to account for income and expenditure but it should be on their own timetable, not what suits the treasurer of some Limited Company (exempt from using the word Limited).

    If I knew what SI was to become I would have campaigned and voted against its formation.

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