Key Number One: Who is it for?
Venturing is not just Boy Scouting in a forest green shirt. It's a whole different program, but we keep trying to do it as if it were Boy Scouting, and then wonder why it doesn't take off and go. And to begin with, we keep targeting it to people who have no need of it.
Item: we keep trying to use Venturing as an older boy retention program. It's not. It's an older youth extension program.
Think for a moment about Boy Scouting. I was a Boy Scout for seven years. I am an Eagle Scout. I was on camp staff. I was an active Arrowman. I bleed khaki (although in my day, it was olive drab). But those older boys who reach the heights of Scouting are not typical. Some 4% of all the youth who enter Scouting reach Eagle. Few will ever be on camp staff. Few will ever do a high adventure trip, or go to a National OA Conference. Yes, we're very proud of those 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds with all the awards on their uniforms. But they are, by definition, exceptional Scouts, not typical ones.
The typical Boy Scout is 10.5-13.5 years old. As they get older, they drop out. That's not a bad thing, it just is. Life is busy. If we've had an impact on them in those two or three years, then we've done what we set out to do. Not everybody has to make Eagle to be positively impacted by his Scouting experience. Trying to market Venturing as an older boy retention program means marketing to a minority of a minority of a minority of an ever-shrinking population. There's nowhere to go with that. And even if you succeed, you get resentful pushback from Scoutmasters who think you're trying to seduce their few top Scouts away to a different program.
Not only is the bulk of Boy Scouting's target audience younger boys, it's designed that way. Think about the Boy Scouting program as a curriculum. Look at its methods. Lots of emphasis on signs, codes, signals, uniforms, rituals. Lots of recitation. Lots of standing shoulder to shoulder, lots of flag ceremonies. Use of the gang principle (patrol method). The adult (male) role model. These are all appropriate methodologies to work with Middle School youth. Yeah, you will also find this on sports teams and in military boot camp, but the point is, Boy Scouting is on a mission to acculturate the young and deliver them a proper (young) adulthood.
Now, imagine trying to put a 15-year-old in that group. He may want to join Scouts because he's got Scouts who are buddies, but in order to succeed in the group, he's stuck learning to build fires with 11-year-olds. Even if you put him in an older-boy patrol, he's still passing requirements written for boys much younger than himself. It's boring to him. All those nights in a church basement, churning out requirements. Where's the FUN? When do we get to GO PLACES? Busy as the average Troop is, it moves too slowly for older teens.
Venturing is built upon the proposition that we take the 14-20-year-old and put him or her right to work on the exciting stuff. We de-emphasize codes and rituals and uniforms; we have them, but we don't spend hours memorizing what the two stars in the badge are for and all that. We learn what we need to know in the act of seeking adventure. You should be able to join a Venturing Crew and within mere weeks be equipped to make your first high adventure trip. Everything you need to know you will learn in the field among your peers. Let's go!
Yes, we do service projects. We learn knots. We have organizational meetings. But we do it at a different pace and with a different set of assumptions about whom we're working with. We don't assume that you have any outdoor skills or Scouting background or anything else before we start to equip you for the big stuff. That's Venturing.
Some older Scouts will gravitate toward Venturing as a replacement for something they loved when they were younger but now find old hat. Other older Scouts, who just can't enough of the scout trail, will double-register. Fine. But let's put this out there, first of all: Venturing welcomes former Scouts and dual-registered Scouts, but it is not primarily designed for them.
Venturing is designed for youth who missed out on the first pass of the parade, for boys and girls who didn't do Boy Scouting (or very little of it), and who are only now wanting to get in on the fun that they missed. But life is busy, and it doesn't go backward: they want to do it with their own peer group in a way that fits their schedules and their state of development.
Venturing is our second bite at the apple. Its target audience is youth we didn't recruit before. It's not about retention; it's about extension. Trying to make it into Boy Scouting in a forest green shirt holds it back, and it robs the Council of a major membership growth opportunity.
What about girls?
Venturing's openness to girls is one of the reasons for its success. Girls couldn't be Boy Scouts, but they could do Venturing. So I was asked whether I thought that opening Boy Scouting to girls would hurt Venturing. No, I said. There will be some girls who join at age 11, just like boys. And they'll have good experiences, I hope. But there will always be girls who didn't join at 11. We need a plan to attract those girls when they hit 14 and up. The sex of the Scouts and Venturers is irrelevant to defining who each program is for.
So, what should we do?
The Council needs to design a program of extension. Look for new leaders and charter partners who catch this vision of working with a different target population. Start new Crews around new (to us) youth.