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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

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Scouts Scotland: redefining itself for the 21st century

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As scouting celebrates its highest popularity in generations, Paul Cardwell visited Scouts Scotland’s adventure centre at Lochgoilhead to find out how the organisation is making itself fit to keep up with demand

Despite being over 100 years old, Scouts Scotland feels like one of the freshest charities around right now.

Gone is “dib, dib, dib” and in is Bear Grylls and adventure activities leading to a clamber of young people wanting to be part of it.

2016 has been a big year for the organisation – not only has it increased its membership to the highest total this century, it has also appointed its first ever female chief executive, embarked on a volunteer recruitment drive and appointed a head of fundraising to future-proof its income.

“I’m absolutely loving being chief executive,” Katie Docherty, also the first ever non-scout to hold the role, tells me.

We are speaking at a media day organised by the charity at its Lochgoilhead Outdoor Activity Centre.

Me being female sends a message. If your perception is it’s a male organisation and I appear that changes it (Katie Docherty, chief executive, Scouts Scotland)

Putting us through our paces, Scouts Scotland arranged the day in a bid to help people writing about the organisation fully understand it.

As well as being our home for the day, there is also a group of school children who have been out canoeing but on other occasions the activity centre is used Scout groups or for corporate team building away days.

After gingerly climbing 20 metres up a giant wobbly ladder made up of logs and chains (pictured) to experience quite literally one of the activities Scouts get to do, Katie told me she had expected there to be some resistance to her appointment but there had been none.

“People here are interested in new ideas and have been so welcoming,” she continued.

“As the first woman and the first non-scout to be chief executive I bring a new perspective.

“We are an incredibly inclusive organisation but we’ve not been very good at telling people about the Scouts.

“What I hear a lot of is ‘do they have girls now?’ but 47% of our new members are girls. There is a significant number of women involved and there has been for a while.

“Me being female sends a message. If your perception is it’s a male organisation and I appear that changes it.”

One of the challenges the Scouts is facing and is hoping to solve by promoting what it does better is a lack of volunteers.

Last year Scouts grew its membership by 1,737 to 46,095, and signed up over 800 new adult volunteers so now has an impressive 8,222 adult volunteers, but there is still a waiting list of over 3,000 kids desperate to join.

“We need more adults to volunteer. We are trying to make our volunteer opportunities more flexible,” Katie continues.

“If more adults could come forward we would be able to make up more sections.

“We know scouting makes a tremendous difference to young people’s lives. The skills they get in scouting have a significant impact in their career prospects. Every adult I have met says they have benefited as much the young people.”

As well as publicly promoting Scouts the organisation is changing how it works within the third sector.

Katie tells me one of her aims is to work with more charities and partnerships with the Royal Blind School, Alzheimer Scotland, Diabetes Scotland, Leonard Cheshire Disability, Scottish Association for Mental Health, Water Aid, Scottish Canals and Guide Dogs have already been created.

Another is to change how the organisation is funded.

Sitting round a camp fire (that we built from scratch, I have to add) and drinking hot chocolate, Sharon Sheridan, appointed head of fundraising at Scouts Scotland in the summer, tells me she has been setting up the processes for fundraising since being appointed as there were none.

“Any funds that came in had been pretty unsolicited, some trusts and grants that they had always gone for,” she says.

A former fundraiser for Cancer Research UK, Teenage Cancer Trust and armed forces charity SSAFA, she says she is also loving her role.

“About 70% of what comes in at the minute is from our membership fees and I don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket so I would like to take that down to 50%,” she continues.

“I would like to grow the trusts and grants, I would like to focus a wee bit on legacies – they have come in but they have been unsolicited.

“I would like people to know that we are here to be considered as someone that you might want to leave a gift to. I want to promote individual giving and promote payroll giving. I think the big thing is that we need to get people to recognise us as a charity.”

Also taking part in the media day was Chris Tiso, honorary president of the Scouts – who was clearly impressed with the changes being implemented.

“I think as a movement it has done a very good job to balance up holding on to its guiding principles but at the same time adapting itself and becoming very relevant to a changing modern society,” he said.

“There are some fairly new appointments in place and I think they have got a very clear view and vision of what the future will look like.

“When you look at the thousands of young people involved in scouting in Scotland it is almost like a sleeping giant.

“It’s not all about badges and all about boys. I think many of us had that perception, and many still do, and I think there is a lot going on below the radar that is going on to adapt and contemporise the scouting movement in Scotland to make it more relevant, accessible and interesting and exciting and stuff that kids want to do an be involved in. It also has a little bit of an image to shake off and I guess it’s a process to do that.

“I think there is a fantastic heritage and history with the Scouts and it’s got some tremendous principles but at the same time it needs to look through a fresh lens at some of those traditions and really ask whether they are still relevant to today and whether or not that is what people identify with.”

One Scout who is a bit of a poster boy for Scouts Scotland fulfilling those very obligations while proving that it has a modern role is Steven Maclennan.

At just 23, Steven has risen through the ranks to become a Scouts Scotland commissioner for youth involvement, which means he ensures that youth involvement is a core principle.

“My personal development from being in the Scouts has been huge,” he openly shares over lunch in the adventure centre's large canteen.

“I had a severely bad time at school but because of the Scouts I have confidence. It has gave me so many opportunities and I have been to places such as Japan, China, Poland, France.

“Personally what Scouts has given me is change. For other people it is a sense of family and doing something together.

“It is a worldwide family. It offers something for everyone – you don’t need to be adventurous as you can find a niche doing anything here.”