Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Phenomenal Cosmic Power...Itty Bitty Budgeting

A few of the young men in my ward were really excited to show me the box they were lashing together.  They had worked hard on it at the previous scout meeting and wanted to go look at it before we started class (we were having Sunday School class at the picnic table that day).  We wandered over to look at it and I wish I had taken a picture.  The boys, to their credit, beamed as they showed off the box they were making: sticks as thick as my little finger and no longer than 16 inches long were being lashed together with blue yarn.

I'm not sure if I should laugh or cry.

Poor man's scouting, we could call it.  Before moving on, let's make it clear that I don't fault the leaders of my ward's scouting program for this.  In fact, kudos to them for coming up with a creative solution to a real problem.  I can't confirm, but I suspect the real problem here is that the ward's troop lacks the necessary funds to buy something as simple as rope.  It turns out, this is a systemic problem in the Church.

A member of my ward once asked me what it would take to get me involved in Church sponsored scouting, and one of the first things I said was that the ward leaders would have to let me properly fund the troop. Under current guidelines, the troop's operating budget is assigned from the ward's operating budget; the total amount is determined by the bishop. The entire troop budget is supposed to come from the ward budget, and all activities and troop supplies are to be paid for out of that budget. This includes tents, stoves, cooking gear, lanterns, camp fees, admissions, etc. I've yet to see this work well.

Let's break down the costs of a troop.

Each year, the BSA requires a scouting unit to recharter.  Part of this process is paying an annual membership fee to the BSA.  This fee helps support the national organization and infrastructure.  The total fee to the BSA is $28 (and includes a magazine subscription) for the first boy in a family, and $16 for each additional boy.

Since the LDS Church has adopted scouting as its young men program, it graciously pays the rechartering fees for all of its eligible members.  Even if the boy doesn't participate in scouting, the Church pays the rechartering fee, just in case he changes his mind.  This money is initially paid by the stake, but it automatically reimbursed by the Church.

The LDS Church charters 37,856 units1 and a total of 430,557 youth.  If we average out the chartering fees to $20 per boy, the LDS Church pays $8,611,140 per year to the BSA.  Yes, you read that correctly -- 8 million dollars2.

However, since the Church pays these fees centrally, these costs do not get shouldered by the local unit.

An active boy scout who attends 10 camp outs per year plus summer camp and a high adventure trip could probably expect to spend somewhere $600 to $800 per year. That's $200 for scout camp, another $200 for the high adventure trip, and about $20 - $40 per camp out for food and camp fees. A well funded troop can subsidize that amount and lower the cost to the boy. A very well funded troop could pay it all for the boy and make participation even easier. A thrifty troop could also find camps or trips that may cost less, but that's getting harder and harder to do.

The typical LDS ward receives between $30 and $35 per active member per year (there will be a little variation from one stake to another). That means, to fund a single boy's participation in scouting, you need 20 - 25 members in your ward. If you have 10 young men in your ward, you need a total membership of 200 - 250. That's about the average size of an LDS congregation. Using those numbers, you could easily put your entire ward budget into funding your scouting program and have no other ward programs (no Young Women, no Primary, no Relief Society, no Elders Quorum, no paper for the copier...you get the idea).

In fact, according to the Church's vision of scouting, this is exactly how the troop should be funded--exclusively from the ward budget.

Funding for Aaronic Priesthood activities, including Scouting activities where they are authorized by the Church, should come from the ward budget.
 If possible, equipment and supplies that the ward needs for annual youth camps are purchased with ward budget funds.
(Handbook 2, 8.13.7)
Imagine you're in a ward that is using its entire budget allotment to fund the scouting program.  All of the youth are able to go on every camp out at no cost.  It's sure to be a success, right?

Now let's discuss what a troop needs to prepare the boys for the outdoor experience.  First, the obvious things: tents, lanterns, stoves, and cooking equipment.  Want to try dutch oven cooking?  You'll need at least one dutch oven per patrol.  Interested in wilderness camping, such as backpacking?  You'll also need water filters, light weight stoves, and light weight tents.  Don't forget your first aid kit.

Have you thought about the less obvious things?  First aid education supplies, ropes (both synthetic and natural fiber), poles on which to practice knots and lashings, etc.  Water carriers and you'll need an American flag and a troop flag.  Oh, and you'll need a dry place in which to store it all.

All of these thing cost money.  A large, summer season tent can be purchased for about $140, but a backpacking tent can cost between $200 and $300.  Camp stoves and light weight stoves each go for about $70 - $90.  Dutch ovens can be $90 a piece.  I just restocked my troop's rope supplies this year at a total cost of about $300.  Our cooksets cost about $160 each to assemble.

I estimate that outfitting a troop of two patrols plus an adult patrol could cost about $3,000.  That's another half of the ward budget3.

When the Ward Budget Isn't Enough
As you can imagine, the ward rarely pays all of these expenses.  It can't possibly do so and still have money to spend on other programs.  Fortunately, the Church offers a little bit of relief:
If the ward budget does not have sufficient funds to pay for an annual extended Scout camp or similar activity for young men, leaders may ask participants to pay for part or all of it. (Handbook 2, 8.13.7
So, if your ward doesn't have enough money to fund the entire scouting program, at least it can request money from families to help pay for scout camp.  But the ward is still on the hook for the high adventure trip, the 10 other campouts in the year, and all the equipment (realistically, about 80% of the costs).

Not to fear!  Because if the ward still doesn't have enough money, it can also use that same fundraiser from above to pay for troop equipment.  Problem solved, right!?

Don't count on it.  These fundraisers are only approved if they meet certain guidelines.  The most challenging requirement is this one:
Stakes and wards that sponsor fund-raising activities should not advertise or solicit beyond their boundaries. Nor should they sell products or services door to door. (Handbook 2, 13.6.8)
If the majority of the population in your ward boundaries is LDS, this might work well.  If not, it can be a bit harder to get a good turn out to your fund raiser.  Most fundraisers I have seen have been limited to advertising in the meetinghouse and targeting only the members of the ward4.  For a troop of ten boys, this puts a $9,000 funding need on a group of about 250 people; perhaps around 100 families.  To meet that need, each family would need to contribute $90 per year to the troop.  And we haven't even begun to talk about funding the Young Women program.

Some troops manage under these limitations, and some even flourish.  But such units seem to be the exception.  Anecdotally, the LDS troops I hear about that do flourish tend to have several thousand dollars of funds coming in every year from outside the ward budget.  But troops that don't have that kind of money lash with sticks and yarn -- a miniaturized and pathetic version of a program that could have been so much better.

So, if you want your son to have a real scouting experience, look for a troop that does a real fundraiser.

2Now you see why the Church has so much influence on the BSA
3Some would argue that you could always borrow equipment from ward members. This assumes that a) members have the right equipment and b) you're willing to let the members bear the cost of boys' irresponsibility. The tents in our troop last, on average, about two years before they have to be replaced, often due to damage in the course of normal teenage rough housing and carelessness.
4Admittedly, this is a matter of lack of vision and creativity. But the Church discourages fund raisers enough that it's hard to see any reason to push out into the broader community.


  1. You're mixing the capital costs together with the operating expenses. I certainly understand the overall message that Scouts costs $, and think this could be better communicated with some reordering of the expenses.

    1. One thing you need to understand about me George--I have a master's degree, but I still can't add numbers without trying a few times before I get the right answer. I honestly have no idea what you just said :)

      We should get together sometime and you can talk me through it. Anything I can do to improve this argument is worthwhile to me.