Considerations in Assigning Unit Commissioners

Ken Edgerton, Council Commissioner, Sam Houston Area Council

Arguably, the position of unit commissioner is one of the most difficult, if not THE most difficult position to recruit for in Scouting. At the same, time it can be THE most difficult position in Scouting in which to retain people. In fact, any discussion of how to recruit commissioners that does not include a discussion of how to retain commissioners is addressing only half of the subject.

With this in mind, it is important, when training or meeting with district commissioners, to emphasize doing everything possible to properly match a new unit commissioner to his or her newly assigned unit (or units). Above all, we want these individuals to be successful in their new positions. Obviously, if they are successful, they will be fulfilling the commissioner service mission statement, "to help units succeed".

To do this, we need to consider the strengths and needs of the individual along with the strengths and needs of the assigned unit (or units). Recommend to your district commissioners that they take the following into account when recruiting and assigning unit commissioners:

Number one: geography
How far is the person willing to drive to do the job the way you and your team leaders want it done? If your business is like my business, and if your council is like my council, we are all doing more with less. Every year it seems people have less time to volunteer, so the closer the better. This is of particular importance in rural areas. If a commissioner can't comfortably get to his or her units, the units will probably not get served. A particular advantage of having a unit commissioner assigned to a nearby unit is that the commissioner will be more likely to know the resources in, and the characteristics of, the local community. This is especially important in rural and urban districts.
Number two: chartered organization
In a way, this is a subset of geography: the units chartered by the same chartered organization usually meet in the same location. Beyond that, there can be a distinct advantage in having a single commissioner provide a more coordinated service to the chartered organization and its units, which often have at least a few of the same people. A significant benefit of this arrangement is the transition from one program to another, such as Webelos to Scouts. A caution, though: a commissioner in this scenario needs to be knowledgeable in, and comfortable with, multiple programs. This is a great segue to:
Number three: program type
There are definitely many situations where it is best to keep a commissioner in the program where he or she has experience. Over time, as a person becomes more familiar with other programs, this can change. I'm a good example. I did not get involved in Scouting until my son became a Boy Scout. It was a few years before I became knowledgeable enough with Cub Scouting to feel comfortable commissioning a pack.
Number four: the needs of the unit or the condition of the unit
Badly troubled units need a commissioner with special skills, such as organizational skills or mediation skills. Newer units may need rechartering help, camping help, or fundraising help. The scenarios are many. It should be apparent to a district commissioner that these are areas in which he or she should probably assign an experienced commissioner, at the same time assigning newer commissioners to the more stable units. But keep in mind that well-run (typically large) units still need commissioner service. Why? Because large, well-run units may indeed be held together by one strong individual. Situations change. A job transfer, a lost job, or a divorce can lead to a hasty departure of a key individual. The unit commissioner in this situation needs to know who the remaining key players are. And finally:
Number five: people chemistry
Probably the single most important criteria to consider is assigning a commissioner based on how well he or she is expected to mesh with the personalities, needs, and backgrounds of a unit's adults, or in the case of an urban unit, the unit's youth.
Do not, I repeat, do not assign a unit with an easily intimidated inexperienced leader in a troubled neighborhood to a super-Scouting, expert type of commissioner who wears 20 patches on his uniform, etc. A showy display of expertise with an "I did it the right way, why can't you?" attitude will quickly chill a critical relationship. For these instances, particularly in urban Scouting, we need a passionate, altruistic, almost missionary type individual with an outreach perspective. A few precious months or even weeks with an Urban Scout repeating the Scout Oath and Scout Law can change a life. We must be grateful for seemingly small steps.
Similarly, do not assign an easily intimidated inexperienced unit commissioner to a super-Scouting, expert type of unit leader who wears 20 patches on his uniform and has the "I don't care what district thinks, I have been running this unit the right way for the last 20 years, and I certainly don't need your help or appreciate your spying, and, on top of that, I don't think women belong in Boy Scouting" attitude. Obviously, a patient, experienced, laid-back, friendly, hands-off, preferably old-shoe type is needed here.
Another example of people chemistry is a subset of number two, chartered organization. A unit or multiple units may be in constant conflict with their church chartered organization. If, for example, the chartered organization happens to be a Catholic church, a commissioner who is a respected Catholic layman, who understands how to relate to a Catholic priest, would be an excellent choice.

To summarize the discussion to this point, it is obvious that it takes some astuteness on behalf of the district commissioner, with the help of the ADCs and the district executive, when assigning unit commissioners. District commissioners can't be arbitrary; they must be flexible. Each match should be made on the basis of the particular unit situation and individual commissioner talents and characteristics.

For you council commissioners, this art of matching unit commissioners with the right units is a topic you and your professional advisor should share with your district commissioners and district executives. The right match of commissioners to units will greatly increase the effectiveness of commissioner service in your council.

Expanding on this topic, I would like to discuss where a district and council should go from here to attain true unit service and share some things that are working for the Sam Houston Area Council commissioner team.

Once a district commissioner, with the help of the ADC, has filled a slot, presumably with a well-suited candidate (as we have outlined), the district commissioner's duty to the newly recruited unit commissioner continues. It is the district commissioner's responsibility to make sure he or she is providing a business-type monthly commissioners meeting where unit service is the focus. That sounds obvious: to make sure he or she is providing a business-type monthly commissioners meeting where unit service is the focus. But, too often, it is easy for the monthly commissioner meeting to become a monthly social event. This occurs, in part, if unit commissioners are not properly matched to their units. Why? As was previously noted, if unit commissioners are not properly matched, they will probably not make their unit visits. So, what is the district commissioner's first clue that a proper match has not been made? Unit visits are not happening. And how does a district commissioner know if unit visits are not happening? Here's an idea.

In commissioner service in the Sam Houston Area Council, we track a number of items on a monthly basis. Staffing is one important item. We want all our traditional districts to have unit to commissioner ratios of less than 3 to 1, the national standard. What we really want (and encourage) is a 2 to 1 ratio because we expect two unit visits per unit per month - one actual physical visit and one follow-up visit by phone or at roundtable. This is for the simple reason that most unit leaders, if asked on the phone about the health of their unit, will say "great". So we want that actual unit visit. However, the typical Cub Master, for example, will have little time, if any, at a pack meeting to visit with a unit commissioner. So, we ask for a more leisurely follow-up visit on the phone or at roundtable.

Figure 1 - SHAC monthly unit visits
Figure 2 - Blank unit visit form
Figure 3 - Sample completed unit visit form

When our Scout executive and our director of field services were recruiting me o be council commissioner, I was asked if I would have any focus area, if I were to take the position. I knew this question was coming, and I didn't tell them what they were expecting to hear. I didn't say, "I want to focus on Quality Units." I didn't say, "I want to focus on on-time rechartering." I didn't say, "I want to focus on retention." What I said was, "I want to focus on unit visits." I quickly went on to say, as I noticed them trading glances, "I realize the number of unit visits is not a critical achievement, but I can guarantee you that by increasing unit visits, every critical achievement associated with unit service - Quality Units, on-time rechartering, retention, etc. - will increase." They bought it, that's what we did, and that's what we do today. We closely track unit visits. And here is how we have done (Fig. 1: SHAC monthly unit visits - 1999 to present).

How did we get these results? To help promote unit visits, I introduced to the Council a form that I had used with great success for three years as a district commissioner (Fig. 2: blank unit visit form, and Fig. 3: sample completed unit visit form).

It is a very simple form that is filled out monthly by an area ADC in a recommended 20 to 30 minute area breakout session at the beginning of the monthly commissioner meeting and then given to the district commissioner. It serves many purposes, some obvious, one very subtle. It immediately highlights, in the opinion of the unit commissioner and the ADC, any problem units. It also shows whether a unit has achieved Quality Unit status; it tabulates unit visits, documents the actual eyeball-to-eyeball unit visit(s) that a commissioner has made, and provides space for the ADC's comments. It therefore becomes a record. If, while I was a district commissioner, I ever received a call that a unit was having problems, I immediately went to my binder with these forms to see what kind of unit service the problem unit was receiving. Invariably, it was little or none. It truly made me a believer in commissioner service. The form also delegates authority and empowers the ADCs. It makes the ADC, not the district commissioner, the point contact for the unit commissioner. The ADCs like this, and it lightens the district commissioner's workload immensely. But, most importantly (and somewhat insidiously), a unit commissioner arrives at the monthly commissioner meeting knowing that his or her ADC will be asking about his or her unit visits for the month. A unit commissioner doing his or her job likes this; a unit commissioner not doing his or her job does not. From experience, I can tell you that those unit commissioners not doing the job will either start doing it, or will drop out of commissioner service unless t he district commissioner caves in. For the unit commissioners doing their job, reporting units monthly to their ADC, plus the district commissioner providing a monthly mini-training of 10 to 15 minutes (covering anything from BSA insurance to tour permits to the fund raiser application to changes in program to you-name-it) will make them feel like the evening away from their family has been worthwhile.

When I started out as a not-quite-dry-behind-the-ears district commissioner, I was fortunate to inherit 38 unit commissioners for 120+ units. I quickly realized, though, that the monthly reports of unit visits were inflated and undocumented.

This provided the genesis of the unit visit form - and it produced an amazing result. The patch-wearing, mug-carrying unit commissioners who were not doing the job began to immediately feel uncomfortable. Some even went to the district executive complaining, "Ken is no fun." Fortunately, they received no sympathy, and as a result, many dropped out of commissioner service, taking other jobs in the district to which they were better suited. During my first year as district commissioner, we recruited 25 unit commissioners. Having started the year with 38, we ended the year with 40 - a net gain of two. Not very impressive. However, monthly unit visits for the year increased from an average of 199 per month to an average of 302 per month - an increase of over 50%. What was happening? We were replacing unit commissioners unwilling to do their job with unit commissioners who were willing to get out and make the necessary unit visits. The next year we recruited another 25 and ended the year with 60 unit commissioners - a net gain of 20 - and our unit visits increased to over 400 per month. Additionally, we were having fun, and we were actually having people ask to be unit commissioners. Why? Because people want to be a part of a successful team, and we were fulfilling our council commissioner mission statement. The mission statement of commissioner service in the Sam Houston Area Council is "to make commissioner service a recognized, effective force in the council". And the only way to make commissioner service an effective, recognized force in any council is through unit visits.

I truly believe the following:

If you have no unit visits, you have no credibility...
if you have no credibility, you have no staff...
if you have no staff, you have no unit visits...
if you have no unit visits, you have no credibility...
if you have no credibility, you have no staff...
if you have no staff, you have no unit visits...

In this scenario, you are in a downward spiral, or at best, going nowhere.


If you have unit visits, you will have credibility...
if you have credibility, you will have staff...
if you have staff, you will have unit visits...

In this scenario, unit service is occurring and everyone - the volunteers, the professionals, and, most importantly, the Scouts and the units - benefit.

I can assure you, from experience, this will only happen if commissioners are properly matched to their units and are doing their jobs as intended. Finally, as I promised my council executive and our director of field services: if unit visits are increased, every critical achievement associated with commissioner service will also increase. In summary, units will succeed.