By Abbey Mormon [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

May 9, 2018; Washington Post and NPR, “The Two-Way”

This week, the Mormon Church announced that they will end their relationship with the Boy Scouts of America at the end of 2019. These two large organizations have decided that after more than 100 years of successful partnership, the time has come to go their separate ways. The decision comes as both organizations have seen the need to refocus their youth programs to adapt to changes in their environments and found that a once-beneficial partnership will not meet their needs. In their decision, we can find a challenge for both organizations and a learning opportunity for the nonprofit community.

In a statement released on Tuesday, the Church noted it is no longer just an American church and has become a worldwide organization. It now needs a youth program that will speak in one voice to its diverse membership in a manner consistent with its teachings.

The Church has increasingly felt the need to create and implement a uniform youth leadership and development program that serves its members globally. In so doing, it will be necessary for the Church to discontinue its role as a chartered partner with BSA. We have…determined that, effective on December 31, 2019, the Church will conclude its relationship as a chartered organization with all Scouting programs around the world.

From the Church’s perspective, the Scouting program is no longer aligned closely enough with their purpose. They determined, as reported by the Washington Post, that it was necessary for their youth program to “support families as they seek to develop faith in Jesus Christ and build character and capacity…to help children and youth discover their eternal identity, build character and resilience, develop life skills, participate in outdoor activities and service opportunities, and strengthen their ability to fulfill their divine roles as daughters and sons of God.” Unstated was a growing worry that as the Scouts adapted to changes in the US, its program was growing less relevant to the Church.

As noted by NPQ, the Scouts were faced with very serious challenges: “The Boy Scouts of America was looking at fast-dwindling coffers and declining membership—2.3 million, down from 2.6 million five years ago and 4 million at its peak.” Faced with shrinking numbers and growing challenges from some of the communities they serve, the Boy Scouts of America has been addressing its future. The need to remain relevant in a changing world pushed the Scouts to modify its boys-only and anti-gay policies, which placed it in an increasingly difficult position, as US cultural norms underwent significant changes. Reflecting their conclusion that societal norms made gender-specific programs less relevant, they recently embarked on an effort to attract girls to a revamped program. This change, along with prior decisions to allow openly gay boys and young men a place in their program, raised new opportunities and new problems for the Scouts. Unlike the Church of Latter Day Saints, BSA does not serve a single community. These decisions naturally pleased some and alienated others, perhaps including the Mormon Church.

For Scouts BSA, this divorce, as amicable as it may be, will represent a significant challenge. As noted by the Washington Post, up to this point, “any boy who is part of a Mormon congregation automatically becomes part of the Boy Scouts. The Mormon Church has been the largest participant of the Boy Scouts in the United States, making up nearly 20 percent of all of the Boy Scouts’ 2.3 million youth members.” In addition to serving significantly fewer members, the loss of the Mormon Church’s partnership will cost Scouting many adult leaders and significant financial support, adding to their  troubles.

Publicly, Scouting BSA is downplaying the potential impact of the Mormon Church’s departure. In a statement reported by NPR, they said they are “confident that many LDS Scouting families will go on to enjoy Scouting for years to come. For LDS families who want to continue the tradition of Scouting beyond 2019, the BSA will ensure a smooth transition to community-sponsored units that will welcome youth previously served by LDS-sponsored units.” Their actual strategy for either more directly competing with the new LDS program or adapting to the loss of their support remains to be seen.

The Church’s new direction isn’t without risk, either. Even if not directly aligned with their purpose, Scouting provided a working program model and an organizational structure for housing youth programs. Their new youth program, once it rolls out at the beginning of 2020, will have to replace this and overcome the nostalgic pull of 100 years of tradition. Since other scouting opportunities will remain available to members of the Church in the general community, the Church’s new program will need to launch without too many hiccups or perceived issues.

Every organization must balance the need to change—and the cost and risk of change—with an ongoing commitment to mission and purpose. The developing, emerging, and now diverging strategies of two longtime partners reflect their individual conclusions about what was most critical for them.—Martin Levine