CEO's blog | Having fun and changing lives
This is my first blog for The Scout Association. Inspired by a recent Guardian article, I thought this might be a good opportunity to share some of my reflections about Scouting and how The Scout Association (TSA) might respond to future challenges and opportunities.
It seems remarkable that I’ve now been at The Scout Association for six months. It has gone so quickly because quite frankly I’ve been having a ball. I’ve spent the time immersing myself in the Movement; hearing incredible, inspiring Scouting stories from across the UK. I’ve met people from all walks of life and all backgrounds and I’ve seen firsthand the remarkable power of Scouting in changing people’s lives. I have found a Movement that is in exceptional health, with eight years of growth and a terrific brand profile, where the sense of self-confidence is palpable.
I’ve had countless ‘goosebump’ moments; visiting thousands of volunteers and Scouts at international camps alongside Chief Scout Bear Grylls, experiencing the pride at Windsor as our inspiring Queen’s Scouts were congratulated by HRH The Duchess of Cambridge – and I’ve even been presented with my own customised Scout minifigure (however, a Facebook friend commented, rather unfairly, that it looks like Velma from Scooby Doo).
A number of people have remarked that it must be very different from my days as Chief Executive of the National Union of Students (NUS). Well, there are more similarities than people might at first think.
NUS and The Scout Association are both membership bodies with everything that entails: the need to ensure the ‘centre’ understands really what is happening ‘on the ground’ (hence the need to get out of the office); the challenges and opportunities of working across the UK with devolved administrations; generating sufficient commercial income to reduce your dependency on membership fees whilst staying true to your values and not undermining your mission; and critically respecting the volunteer-led nature of the operation (student-led in NUS’ case). This last point is fairly unusual in the world of charity CEOs. As UK Chief Commissioner Wayne Bulpitt has written in his blog, effective partnership working is essential in organisations like ours and it absolutely starts at the top.
Having visited a number of local Groups, seven international camps and all four parts of the UK, there are three things that repeatedly came up in discussions with leaders.
- Adult volunteers: Fairly predictably the lack of volunteers means we’re unable to eliminate the 38k young people on our waiting lists let alone expand into communities where Scouting is currently not thriving.
- Premises: Numerous people talked to me about either a lack of physical space to undertake Scouting or they said rental costs are increasing at an alarming rate as local authorities seek new ways to generate income to offset public sector cuts.
- IT: Whether it be difficulties in getting accurate data on our members, changes to Join In, navigating the website or wanting to talk about our new membership system Compass, concerns around IT infrastructure came up time and time again.
As we seek to deliver our 2018 Vision, one of the things I resolved early on was we needed a road map to show what success would look like in 2018 and how we would get there. The Vision is strong but we need a plan that everyone understands – volunteers and staff – one that is simple, that has clear priorities, and that addresses the three issues above. Extensive work is being undertaken on the new 2014-18 Strategic Plan that will be launched in April 2014.
But it was also clear that the area of IT is business critical if we are to ensure our infrastructure is robust, that we're getting a decent return on our capital investments (such as Compass), let alone if we are to make the most of the opportunities presented by new digital technologies.
For that reason, we are seeking a new Chief Information Officer, which will be a senior salaried position, to provide the strategic and technological competency needed to address this area. It is vitally important that we get this right if we are to support busy volunteers who can understandably get frustrated by an under-performing platform. And if we are truly to be shaped by young people in partnership with adults our digital platform needs to be cutting edge.
When I joined NUS there had been a lack of investment and leadership in IT over a number of years. By investing in the right people and right technology we transformed this area, to a point where the database increased from 300k to 750k with an award-winning digital platform. So learning lessons from my experiences there, I honestly believe we can create a similar step change at TSA.
These, of course, are the building blocks of building an even greater Movement. Ultimately it is what happens week in, week out on the ground through local Scouting that changes lives. And how UK Headquarters supports leaders at all levels is what will help us to reach even dizzier, and more exciting, heights. Because our success depends on great people doing amazing things to change others' lives. If you are a leader reading this, thank you for everything you are doing to provide everyday adventure to so many people. And if you’re reading this and you’re not involved in Scouting then get involved – because you’ll have fun and change lives and that’s a winning formula!