Controversy, Culture & Cooperation: The Boy Scouts of America's Decision to Diversify Membership

In his address on September 23, 2013, Willie Iles, BSA’s Vice President of Government Relations, talked about how the Boy Scouts navigated a complex communications and policy environment resulting in its May 2013 vote to remove the restriction denying membership to youth on the basis of sexual orientation. As a volunteer driven organization with more than 18,000 charters, 70% of which are run by faith-based groups, and with a corps of passionate alumni numbering in the millions and spanning six generations, Iles said a key consideration in bringing about change was to not destroy the organization in the process. Describing BSA’s position as being caught in the middle of a culture war, he summarized a timeline of events and legal decisions, including the repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, that put BSA at the front of the controversy. He stressed that BSA was not, at the time, politically astute or proactive in its policy and communications strategies.

“If we had gone with the recommendations of our core constituencies, there would have been no change,” he said. However, BSA sought additional input from organizations that had navigated similar controversial changes and also from a broader group of parents and other potential stakeholders and partners. “You have to listen to people both inside and outside your organization,” he said, “so you don’t keep talking to yourself.” As a result, BSA was prepared to lead and make the right decision, Iles said, knowing that it would take a “hit” in terms of membership. The organization subsequently lost officers, some national board members, and close to 100,000 scouts. Fortunately, BSA was already deeply involved in a forward-looking process to imagine and shape the Boy Scouts of 2040. Relying on transformational leaders, Iles says, the Boy Scouts will be able to move past this latest chapter in its 103-year history and continue its focus on its primary mission of teaching boys to become men.