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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.