Theirishscouter is back at the desk with pen in hand after a period of interruptions linked to career, children and crossing continents. COVID 19 played a bit of a role too.
In the midst of all that however, the mundanity of daily life continues and a recent shopping expedition to procure some footwear triggered some thoughts on value.
WHAT A CROC
The footwear being sought was very much at the practical end of the form versus function spectrum. One is at a point in family life now where plastic clogs – specifically ‘Croc’s (yes there, I said it) have a level of utility that I had not previously anticipated such things could possibly have in my life.
The fact is my preferred footwear can’t be worn when standing in rivers in the Borneo rainforests, nor do they work terribly well on sandy beaches, or climbing in and out of (or running around) water parks, pools etc – the sort of offspring induced activities I find myself perennially engaged in these days..
In the course of my shopping expedition, I spotted a pair of similar plastic shoes, but unbranded and available at a fraction of the price of the branded equivalent. I ended up buying a pair (ok, TWO pairs – one has to at least TRY to colour coordinate…) and rain forest antics, pool visits etc are now much more straightforward (if I discount the relentless fashion jibes).
The point of the story is the value equation. After some consideration I concluded that I simply was not going to spend €50 on a pair of branded plastic shoes, when I could buy a very similar pair (yes, yes two pairs) for €5 (each). The specifications are broadly similar and they serve my needs perfectly. In my estimation, the €50 pair left me with too small a share of the value equation.
This lesson in apparent economy is from somebody who will spend €50 on a t-shirt without even blinking. So this was not a question of thrift. It was a question of utility versus expenditure. Was I getting value for my money (and it’s a question that is bespoke to each purchase and each purchaser). In the case of €50 plastic shoes, I was not. So I didn’t buy.
BREAD & BUTTER ISSUES
At my first job, (at the bakery business Cuisine de France) one of the many lessons I picked up from the founder of that entity Ronan Mc Namee was that in order for a deal to work, ‘there must be enough pie on each person’s plate’. Both parties to an agreement (implicit or explicit) need to feel they are getting enough value from the arrangement.In other words, there needs to be a balanced value equation.
A FOOL AND HIS MONEY….
A second example to labour the point. I recently hired a Land Rover. I could have hired a Toyota equivalent for a lower price. I didn’t because I wanted to drive the Land Rover. There was no added physical utility involved. The engines were similar. The size of the vehicle was similar. It did all the same stuff (arguably the Toyota did it better, but let’s not get overly rational about this). The added utility for me came from my emotional (and therefore irrational) connection with Land Rovers. So I paid a higher price for a slightly inferior and less reliable product and I was very happy to do it.
So value equations are not just about money. There are other factors too. That’s an important point.
THE FEE CONUNDRUM
Respective leadership in Scouting Ireland have long fretted about how best to articulate the benefits bestowed upon members in exchange for paying a membership fee each year.
Theirishscouter served on Scouting Ireland’s National Management Committee/Board from 2004 – 2007 and it was certainly the case then. Member fee’s at that time were around half what they are now and there were arguably then more tangible elements to being a member. It was still a struggle however to adequately convey all the benefits, particularly those intangible ones.
Nonetheless, the value equation was clearly sufficiently stacked in favour of members to warrant not just a return each year, but a desire to promulgate the benefits of membership to an ever wider group of people.
What certainly helped was the verbal reckoning each year in the form of National Council (to name one of several fora) where, elected leaders would come face to face with ‘ordinary’ members.
Part of the ‘value equation’ at that point was the membership had real opportunities to challenge decisions, express their views and excoriate those in elected roles. An implicit part of the ‘contract’ between those delivering Scouting locally and those creating policy nationally was the former being able to hold the latter to account.
I think it is reasonable to say that even our current board members would concede that the present structural arrangements offer far less opportunity for genuine democratic debate and meaningful empowerment of members, even when COVID 19 is taken out of the equation.
NO TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION
That lack of real representation, but with an abundance of ‘taxation’ arguably makes the current structures of Scouting Ireland simply unsustainable in the longer term.
One of the complicated aspects of Scouting in Ireland (and there are many) is that volunteering as a scouter is very different to volunteering in most charitable scenarios. Whilst many engagements with charities involves a somewhat ‘low engagement’ interaction on the part of the volunteer with ‘somebody else’s charity’, in Scouting (and other pursuits, like GAA) the level of commitment required and ownership taken on by individual volunteers is far greater.
A two night, two-week (or two month) commitment to support a charity comes with less involvement. Volunteers expect to be told what they are needed for, where to go or stand, what to wear (usually a free rain jacket or t-shirt) and precisely what they need to do. Often there is a paid employee on hand from the charity, to coordinate all of this. (The money raised by the volunteers often in part pays for that employee) The volunteer does what is expected, completes their involvement and concludes the arrangement. Their personal contribution in itself might be small, but collectively it adds up to something significant. It is also largely transient.
These volunteers may volunteer again with this charity (or another). They may not. They expect little, but beyond donating their time for a fixed period they give relatively little too (in terms of commitment and emotional connection). This assertion is not intended to in any way belittle or undermine the countless hours of selfless work undertaken by thousands of volunteers all over Ireland every year – it is merely an analysis of the model whereby ‘ordinary’ volunteers engage in an entity where usually the driving force is a paid staff (and probably a volunteer board).
IN FOR THE LONG HAUL
Scouting (and some others, GAA included) is very different. These are true community organisations, rooted in their locality. One needs to be heavily committed, even for the most simple community based role. This commitment extends to being in the same place every week for months, sometimes years on end. At a minimum, it is a two-three hour weekly commitment. Usually it is more. It involves day trips, weekends, sometimes overseas expeditions that consume up to half a person’s statutory annual leave. Training is mandatory and fairly lengthy, which is a significant commitment in itself. A meeting place needs to be rented, maintained, kept operational, clean. Sometimes you actually need to fundraise to BUILD your meeting place.
To the young people in your care you are a provider of programme. But you are also mentor, friend, counsellor, motivator, guide, first aider, sometimes chef, occasionally confidant, storyteller, joker, educator and a whole lot more besides.
On top of all this, there is no free rain jacket or t-shirt in Scouting. You will need a rain jacket, but you buy this (and all your other equipment) yourself. You pay your own membership fee. In some groups this is covered, as is training – but in others it is not.
You take holidays at the expense of family time or personal time. Scout people tend to do well in their career, but when you are very active in Scouting your career can slow down. (Most committed scouters would acknowledge at least privately that fact). You buy your own uniform and you pay your own bus fare, train fare or car fuel to get to and from meetings and activities. Often your car will get covered in mud and scratches over the course of a year, but who cares?
There is a value equation here and most scouters are happy with their share of that equation. One gets to be part of something bigger than oneself. A movement. An entity that places welfare of young people and the promotion of positive tenets above profit. An entity with an enviable reputation and a powerhouse brand.
It is of course not surprising that volunteers who need to commit to this level however want a say – and a pretty strong say – in how the national entity in which they volunteer is run. If one is putting all this energy IN, then its important that one feels comfortable putting ones name to what is coming OUT.
In the context of recent times, its probably not a big surprise (or at least it shouldn’t be) that Scouting volunteers, overwhelmingly decent, law abiding people who are in general well educated, well raised, well balanced and either pillars of the local community or inspirational young adults who are genuinely prepared to commit vast amounts of time and energy to further a set of aims and values they believe in, have been disengaging in significant numbers of late.
Covid-19 is a factor here. Many of us saw a lot of things with fresh eyes during the global pandemic and volunteers in all sorts of entities have chosen to adjust and sometimes discontinue their involvement.
Some scouters have remarked (unprompted) to theirishscouter that the corporate structure whereby a ‘company’ now sets the rules and runs the national entity, just feels out of step with their view of how an organisation, perceived by local stakeholders to be ‘volunteer run’, should in fact be managed.
It would also be difficult to gloss over the unilaterally imposed and widely perceived as arbitrary ’disciplinary’ code as another factor in Scouting of, if not a mass exodus then certainly a major demotivator. This unilaterally introduced document was perhaps not calibrated to subjugate, but certainly reads like it.
Other aspects of Scouting Ireland’s structure also rankle with the rank and file. Notifications are rarely signed by an individual (so no accountability). Roles on national teams now require an ‘interview’ for a job without pay. Some members mutter it is a process designed to weed out strong thinkers and people who ask questions.
WHO CAN YOU CALL?
Accountability and transparency in decision making have taken a hit. Opportunities to pose hard questions and hold the board to account are hard to find. Some unilateral decisions linked to ‘restructuring’ national teams seem rather petty and unnecessary – the removal of the name ‘Meitheal’ from the Larch hill volunteer support team for instance (and theirishscouter was never shy in being a critic of the ‘Meitheal’, but one can be a critic and simultaneously recognise a vast amount of trojan work being done without fanfare over several decades.)
Members increasingly no longer feel like they have a stake in how Scouting Ireland is being run. It is quite remarkable just how widespread this feeling is across the country. Suddenly the value equation to being a member feels out of balance.
Yes, the monetary price of membership has jumped significantly – very significantly. There are reasons for this and some would wonder if they are the right reasons (others believe they are). But it is the emotional cost of membership that has really inflated. For many, it has rendered membership increasingly unaffordable.
The annual registration fee is expensive given what is provided. Many stakeholders struggle to see the value delivered versus the price. This is arguably a significant strategic challenge in the medium to long term, because a monopoly that does not provide value, rarely remains a monopoly for long.
A grown up conversation about precisely what members get for the fee paid would help. If the answer to the question is unpalatable (and it probably will be), then closing the gap between the cost of membership and the perceived value delivered to members should surely become a priority.
Strategically, the large drop in membership during COVID 19 are likely to drive reductions in government funding. (The present fuel and inflation challenges are unlikely to be conductive to a generous budget for the youth services sector). Some groups that contracted in size during the global pandemic are not planning to return to pre-COVID membership levels. Others will be unable to do so whatever their intention. Recruiting adult volunteers into Scouting was never easy. Getting them to join an organisation that does not value them is harder still. Smaller groups are easier to run and there are no financial or representational benefits to having a larger group in any case.
UNITED WE STAND
As a national entity, Scouting Ireland is still deeply divided. We have a Board who work really hard and genuinely believe they are doing their very best for the entity they are elected to guide. Nonetheless, there is no evidence of a roadmap to becoming an oversight body, as opposed to the self-appointed executive function currently undertaken.
The volunteer membership are deeply resentful of how volunteers have been recast as incompetent and unable to function without supervision. One can see why more pronounced processes were politically necessary in order to placate a former government minister in the short term. The narrative does little to invigorate and enthuse at grass root level in the longer term. It won’t help membership growth either.
There is still an opportunity to try once again to unite behind a common purpose and fix something that we all still believe in. One can really only have true collaboration among equals however. The subjugation of volunteer members is a problem here. Is it time for an honest broker, an individual or group perceived as impartial to lead some sort of reconciliation process within Scouting Ireland?
The organisation currently has a huge power imbalance. The onus to make positive corrective moves invariably lies with those who hold the power. Perhaps the forthcoming AGM of Scouting Ireland CLG will yield something?
The members/owners of the company (the scout groups) voted overwhelmingly for a shift in approach at the last AGM in 2021, so there is a clear appetite and mandate for this realignment.
The value that young people derive from Scouting at local level continues to be significant – for now. It is however hard to see how the organisation can move forward and regain its place and reputation in Irish society, without some sort of structural rebalancing.
Despite the challenges, for now at least, Scouting in the community continues to flourish. Wherever you do your scouting, Theirishscouter wishes you, your colleagues and young charges a positive and enjoyable year ahead.