MARKETING MISS Public won't buy idea of gay Scout leaders


This column is bound to upset some people, so let me set the record straight immediately. I don't give one hoot what a person's sexual preferences are, whether heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or asexual.

Now for some background on an important issue. The Boy Scouts of America is under intense pressure in the San Francisco Bay area to allow gay men to serve as Scout leaders. Having been defeated in the courts, gay activists are trying a new strategy: forcing their position on the local Scout Council by threatening the loss of United Way funds.

The Boy Scouts of America vows to fight what they perceive as a threat to their values. However, no one knows how long they can hold out, given the changing social sensitivities of American political and community institutions.

Well, from my perspective, I'd say that the Scouts had better hold out as long as they can. If gay men are allowed to become Scoutmasters as a matter of Scout policy, the Boy Scouts as we know it will suffer enormous negative consequences. And, I say this with a profound sense of sadness, because I know that many gay men could make valuable contributions to the Scouting movement.

Admitting gay men to Scouting would simply be a marketing disaster. There are marketing lessons to be learned from these events that would benefit all non-profits.

I hope my gay friends and colleagues will acknowledge that I've heard most, if not all of the persuasive arguments for having gay Scoutmasters: Incidents of sexual abuse are no higher between gays and boys than between supposed heterosexual men and boys. Gay men are already Scoutmasters, but are forced to stay in the closet about it. Perhaps as many as 10 percent of Boy Scouts will be gay or bisexual as adults.

I have no problem with these arguments. Unfortunately, they are directed at the wrong audience. The primary audience for Boy Scouts is not, I repeat, NOT boys. Surprised? The primary market for Boy Scouts are parents, guardians, youth agencies, donors, courts and legislators. They are the ones who decide whether to send their boys, wards or benefactors to benefit from what Boy Scouts has to offer.

Given today's confusion over sex roles, how many parents would feel comfortable entrusting their young boys to a gay man, irrespective of his stature in the community? How many single mothers, already dealing with guilt and anxiety over their children every day, would play into those feelings by sending their boys on an overnight camping trip with one or two gay men, 50 miles from the nearest town? How many social service agencies would risk the liability of sending their clients and wards to a Scout troop led by an acknowledged gay man? These are not easy questions.

What would happen to the Boy Scout donor base if gay Scoutmasters were allowed to serve? Just how firmly would the support of the policy-making and legislative base, which Scouting enjoys today, hold up in the face of such a move? I posed these questions to several colleagues, both gay and straight, and their reaction was unanimous: squirming.

What prompts parents to send their boys to Scouting? Certainly there are many motivations, including a desire to instill a respect for nature, an appreciation of the outdoors, and the sense of accomplishment that comes from earning badges and achieving goals as a troop.

But, first and foremost, parents must perceive the troop as a safe and healthy place for their child, a positive alternative to the streets or to idle time. Next, in a society that anthropologists point out has become increasingly feminized, some parents -- especially single mothers -- look for institutions where boys can be taught by responsible men to be responsible men.

In no way am I suggesting that gays are not responsible men. But, if the primary market segments do not perceive that troop to be a safe, healthy environment, with what they perceive to be positive role models, no lament or protest over the unfairness of excluding gays will help.

Remember this marketing adage: There is no such thing as reality. There is only what you and I perceive to be reality -- which often is very different. One goal of marketing is to help us share a common perception of reality -- the perception an organization feels is correct.

If organizational policy allowed gay men to be Scoutmasters, the Scouts would have to spend too much energy educating their markets that Scouting is still safe. They would be unable to do much else. Besides, desperately trying to convince people of something often backfires.

As a former parent of a both a Boy Scout and a Girl Scout, and as a former Boy Scout leader, I know how much Scouting can offer youth. I would hate to see that capability eroded by a dumb -- and avoidable -- marketing miscalculation.

Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.

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