Growth Quest Raises Questions


The quest for higher numbers in youth programs raises questions about whether more youth are being served and whether they are being served well.

Consider the “lite” versions of traditional youth programs. Just as a soft drink company expands its market share through spinoffs of its core products, youth-serving agencies are reaching more youth in part by creating less intense versions of their core activities.

• While BBBSA built its name on intensive one-on-one mentoring relationships, up to 50 percent of its matches are now school- or site-based, compared with about 7 percent in the mid-1990s. In those matches, an adult volunteer visits a child for short periods during school.

The matches don’t require the same type of background screening of volunteers, demand less time from those volunteers, tend not to be as emotionally close as the traditional matches, and are typically designed to last for five to 10 months, not for years.

• A few years ago the Boy Scouts of America created a school- and work-based program, Learning for Life, that is so far from traditional Scouting that it features no uniforms and no campouts. It is basically a life skills curriculum.

• The Girls Scouts of the USA has “Juliette” Scouts, who don’t have to join Scout units but can participate in Scout activities. And it’s pushing to reach more girls through two Web-based programs, Girls Only and Studio 2B, which are open to all girls.

• The national office of Girls Inc. has urged its 94 affiliates to increase the number of girls served by 10 percent, or to try for the more ambiguous goal of “reaching” 10 percent of the girls in their communities. Last year, 200,000 girls directly participated in Girls Inc. programs, the organization says. But the national office says Girls Inc. reaches close to 1 million girls through its affiliates, website and publications.

There’s nothing wrong with serving youth who aren’t full-fledged members, or creating nontraditional ways for youth to participate. But the practice raises the issue of how organizations count the number of youth they “reach” or “serve,” and how meaningful those occasional contacts are for the youth.

The merger of affiliates raises another issue: whether such mergers increase the number of youth served, even though membership numbers increase for the umbrella affiliate. At the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Middle Georgia Region, Chris Martin believes the mergers have resulted in better facilities and a higher level of staff professionalism. But because the organization has expanded by merging with local youth-serving nonprofits, he admits that the actual number of new kids being served isn’t clear.

And even as new affiliates open, some also close. Two of the 11 Boys & Girls Clubs in Washington, D.C., are slated to close this year.

In addition, Tom McKenna – former CEO of BBBSA and now a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania – notes that “sometimes, in pursuit of numbers, corners are cut.”

It seems to be rare, but there are cases of local officials inflating membership numbers. In 2005, Boy Scout councils in Alabama and Georgia were charged with inflating membership numbers in order to get more funding.