The recruiting pitch starts off pretty well: “If you join Pack 123, you’ll get to have fun, make new friends and enjoy hands-on experiences you can’t get in any other organization for youth.”

But then the realities of the pandemic settle in, and the wheels start to fall off like a half-finished Pinewood Derby car: “Oh, but wait. You’ll have to do all that at home, at least for now.”

Recruiting new families to join Scouting during a pandemic is hard — whether your unit is conducting activities virtually or in person (while following state, local and BSA guidelines, of course).

But rather than focusing on what they can’t do, the volunteers and professionals in the Northeast Illinois Council decided to see the canteen as half full.

“What can we do?” council membership chairman Russ McNeilly remembers asking. “I said I didn’t know, but we were going to figure it out. Because that’s what we do.”

Their solution, outlined below, clearly worked. McNeilly and his council membership committee helped the Northeast Illinois Council become the area’s top-recruiting council in 2020. And they did it through a multidimensional approach that relied heavily on the most important adults in Scouting: unit-level volunteers.

Courtesy of the Northeast Illinois Council

1. Hold weekly committee meetings.

Holding committee meetings once a month made sense when everything was done in person. Getting busy people together at the same place and time takes effort.

But online meetings can be shorter and therefore more frequent. The Northeast Illinois Council started holding brief weekly online meetings where various council committees could share their notes. Meetings include the council commissioner as well as the chairs of the membership, program, district operations and marketing committees.

Unit committees can adopt a similar approach — holding shorter meetings more often as a way to implement changes more quickly.

2. Start planning early.

Why am I sharing tips about recruiting — traditionally a fall topic — in the middle of winter?

Volunteers at the Northeast Illinois Council say that you should start thinking about fall recruitment in the spring. Talk to your commissioner for some ideas on how to get started.

Also, most packs, troops and crews that are growing see recruiting not as a season but as a year-round endeavor. If your door is always open, you’ll invite more families to walk in and see what you have to offer (whether that door is virtual or literal).

3. Harness social media.

The most powerful recruiting tool could be the one that’s already in your hand.

Think about all the places that your neighbors spend time online, and go there.

That means posting promotional material in local Facebook groups, as well as sharing your message on Nextdoor, school message boards, local buy/sell boards, parent-teacher groups and anywhere else you interact at a hyper-local level.

And what should you say in those posts? Show them all the advancement, service and fun still happening in your unit!

4. Focus on grade-level recruiting.

Instead of thinking about trying to recruit every student at the local elementary school, start by targeting specific grades.

If your pack’s Bear den is small, place the majority of your attention on recruiting third graders. If you would like more Tigers, try a campaign that reaches out to first-grade families.

Send postcards or well-worded emails to school families in that grade, telling them exactly what to expect when they join your pack.

5. Get council support.

The Northeast Illinois Council knows how to support busy volunteers — many of whom are trying to balance a family, career and after-school activities.

As unit leaders, check with your council to see what recruiting tools they can provide. For example, the Northeast Illinois Council offers:

  • Toolkits that allow units to choose between traditional, online and socially distanced recruiting
  • Shareable videos that show unit leaders how to conduct drive-thru registrations, online meetings and more
  • An option to deliver printed recruiting materials like yard signs and flyers directly to unit leaders’ homes
  • Social media ads that units can customize to include their specific message

“The trick was to provide units with a myriad of tools in an a la carte approach to recruiting and retention,” McNeilly says. “Having options made it easier for them to activate and participate. Scouting was alive and well, and the word was still getting out.”

6. Remember peer-to-peer recruiting.

Families are much more likely to check out your pack, troop or crew if they hear about it from a trusted friend.

That’s what makes peer-to-peer recruiting so important.

If someone from your pack can share how much fun they’re having in Scouting — “yes, even during the pandemic!” — families will want to check it out for themselves.

7. Buddy up.

Try not to see the pack that meets down the street or the troop chartered to the church across town as your competition. See them as your allies.

Plan a drive-thru registration event with that nearby unit. Hold a joint online webinar where you tell prospective Scouting families about all the cool experiences that await. Pool your resources in the name of growing Scouting in your community.

When the pandemic ends, you’ll have the wind at your back — ready to carry that momentum into another great season of Scouting.

What works in your unit?

How have you been able to recruit effectively during the pandemic? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments section below.


Scouting success stories are rarely solo endeavors. And so in addition to Russ McNeilly, we must also extend a big hand to these Northeast Illinois Council volunteers for their positive recruiting story: Ian Hopkins, Jeff Wyne, Brian Lamburg, Jeanine Richards, Jody Hultman, Connie Ryherd, Michael Castiglia, Alex Redmond, Pete Adrian, Tom Mroz, Tom O’Keefe, Kevin Stevens, Ken LaCrosse, Harold Schirmer, Jack Troester and Bill Oakley.

They may be mere names to you, but their efforts mean the world to the families of the Northeast Illinois Council.

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