The odds were stacked against Pack 173 even before COVID hit.

As a Cub Scout pack on a military base, turnover is extreme. Families stay at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachussetts for one to four years before being assigned to a new location.

“We turn over approximately one-third of our families each year,” says Committee Chairman Chris Nichols, whose own family’s stops have included Montana, California, Texas and Arizona.

Turnover aside, most of the dads in Pack 173 are incredibly busy and often unable to help with the unit because of long work hours, military work trips and overseas deployments.

“Without our strong mom leaders, we wouldn’t function,” says Nichols, whose wife, Courtney, is a Webelos den leader.

And yet, even with those hurdles, Pack 173 isn’t just surviving the pandemic. It’s actually growing. All of Pack 173’s dens have at least five Cub Scouts apiece. One den has 10, and another has 15.

So how’d they do it? It starts with “smart marketing, social media and a bit of luck,” Nichols says. But it goes deeper than that, and we’ve shared Nichols’ top five suggestions below.

We should say that Nichols is quick to point out that even the best plans are worthless without dedicated volunteers willing to put them in motion.

“I just want to say thank you to all the hard-working folks out there doing their absolute best to keep Scouting alive and thriving, even through these unprecedented challenges,” he says. “These challenges will not last forever. Your kids will be back having fun together before we know it, and they will be better for having navigated the challenges. Keep up the great work.”

Pack 173 helps move a fence at Minute Man National Historical Park. (Courtesy of Chris Nichols)

1. Make sure families know you exist.

Pack 173 considers summer to be its best recruiting season. In 2020, the pack held three recruiting events — each COVID-safe and designed to introduce base families to the pack.

There was a kickball tournament in July, a hike at Minute Man National Historical Park in August and a rocket launch in September.

“I marketed for each widely through the base’s social media and through signage strategically placed around the neighborhood and base at large,” Nichols says. “I wanted to make sure that every base family was aware that we exist and was offered plenty of chances to come out and play with us over the summer and see what we’re all about.”

Clearing a trail at Minute Man National Historical Park. (Courtesy of Chris Nichols)

2. Recruit leaders, too.

Going into the fall of 2020, Nichols knew he would be short three den leaders and almost all of his pack committee.

That meant recruiting leaders would be just as important as recruiting Scouts.

“I was up front with parents from minute one that we needed tons of support,” he says. “My approach was less, ‘Will you take a position to help?’ And more ‘Hey, I need you to be the X.’”

The tactic worked. Nichols filled every possible adult position, including ones the pack hadn’t had in several years, such as treasurer, secretary, advancement chair and membership chair.

He also recruited a pack mom to serve as his “understudy” as committee chair. When Nichols and his two sons move to the base’s Scouts BSA troop this summer, his replacement will be ready to go.

Pack 173’s Pinewood Derby in March 2021. (Courtesy of Courtney Nichols)

3. Give new people chances to excel.

The saying, attributed to Henry Ford and a half-dozen others, goes like this: “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”

Though stagnancy isn’t much of problem on a military base where families move in and out, Nichols tries to keep fresh ideas flowing.

“Give new people chances to excel, and then do everything you can to support them in their positions,” he says. “Resist the ‘good old boy network’ at all costs.”

To identify volunteers for pack roles, project your vacancies early. While most leaders can’t predict when a pack family might move away, they can predict when that Webelos Scout will move into a Scouts BSA troop — and take Mom or Dad with them.

Courtesy of Chris Nichols

4. Embrace social media.

Pack 173 has become quite active on Facebook and Twitter, sharing info about upcoming events and inviting everyone in the base community to join.

Instead of static images or text-only posts, Nichols uses Photoshop and PowerPoint to create eye-catching advertisements that contain all the relevant information.

“If you’re not good with that stuff, find a parent who is and empower them,” Nichols says.

Beyond just recruiting, social media can also introduce you to what other packs are doing. Start following other packs on Facebook or Instagram and message them if you see something you like.

“Find people that you trust and ask them as much as possible to gain new ideas and new ways of doing things,” Nichols says.

Courtesy of Courtney Nichols

5. Remind newer Cub Scouts that COVID shall pass.

Scouting doesn’t look totally normal right now. Scouts who are 14, 15 or 16 know this well. But families who joined Cub Scouting in the past year may not know everything they’re missing.

That’s why Nichols and his pack remind families what things will look like after COVID. The not-so-subtle message: We’re growing and having a lot of fun now, but stay tuned after the pandemic for even more!

“Talk about how much cooler things will be as soon as we get things back to normal,” Nichols says. “Get older Scouts to talk about what they liked best about the good old days. You definitely don’t want to lose your current kids while you’re trying to bring in new ones.”

Scouting at a military base

The strategies above will work whether you’re in the city, suburbs or a rural area. But I was curious about what was unique about running a pack connected to a military base, so I asked Nichols for his thoughts.

Nichols is an active-duty Air Force officer working in acquisitions as a project manager. He has been in the military for nearly 15 years and has been deployed to Afghanistan four times.

While the high turnover mentioned previously is a definite obstacle, Nichols says there are many advantages to his pack’s location, too.

There’s a Scout House owned by the base that was dedicated to the Scouts in the owner’s will. The base maintains the property, and the base’s Scouts are the only ones who can use it.

“We also have exclusive access to the base facilities, like the commissary, fire department, and police station and dog kennels,” he says. “There is also a Boston MedFlight unit here on base that loves having us over to show off their helicopters.”

Nichols says the base’s families are strong, flexible and resilient. When you move every few years, you kind of have to be.

“They bring so many experiences and diversity to the table,” Nichols says. “We all realize that we’re only together for a short time, so we have to make the most of every moment, and to try and do the best for our kids to further their love of Scouting.”

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