About being a “paper Scout”

I have a friend whose mother-tongue is an invective-rich language. Therefore he is quite accustomed, and almost immune, to the standard name-calling; in his country this practice is, more often than not, considered a sign of familiarity or even affection.

There is only one phrase which always hurt him at the deepest level: being called a “paper Scout”. Not even when used with no intended negative connotation he does not take it well.

Many, many years ago, when he was a staff member in Kandersteg, the Centre hosted several meetings of the World Scout Bureau’s various teams. There was obvious disdain from all the staff toward those useless executives, who cost money for no visible benefit. “Real” Scouting was what they were doing there, guiding groups across glaciers and animating campfires, not writing emails in some cozy office and feeling important. He made it a habit to show off in ragged T-shirts, manoeuvering harnesses and ropes just to contrast with the generally clean gentlemen (it was mainly gentlemen those days), who, obviously, will never survive a cold night in a bivouac or a 80m abseiling! They were “paper Scouts”, an inferior and anachronic cast, kept, like nobility, just because of tradition.

Years later, the chance had it that he became a professional Scout himself. And he learned the hard way how little he knew or understand of the big machine of WOSM! Even leaving aside the fact that he never really let go of grassroots Scouting, being involved in camps and expeditions every year, there were almost no times when he felt useless and anachronic in the office, either. He just found himself playing a different, yet needed, role in the complex pyramid of supporting young people in their journey.

As anyone doing a job with real passion, he had moments of self-doubt, of questioning the relevance and of frustration for being limited by job descriptions. 
But I know how serious he tries to critically look at what he spends every second of his professional time on, and how much it means for him to be sure that there is a real added value, at the end of a sometimes long and difficult to follow process, for a number of young people.

Back in Kandersteg he was right on one aspect – a professional Scout DOES spend a lot of time in front of a computer – mainly reading and answering emails, checking some texts or writing others. But back then he was also very wrong – those emails and those texts are hardly useless, they are equally important to the great machine of Scouting as organising a hike.  

Baden-Powell launched Scouting by writing “Scouting for Boys” not by organising the camp at Brownsea.

By answering an email from a National Programme Commissioner he shares pieces of valuable information which, together with hundreds of other pieces, contribute to that Commissioner’s interest and capacity to pursue an initiative that will, eventually, help one girl or boy in a village in one European country to go next day to school canteen and befriend a lonely child from an ethnic minority!

Similarly, a phrase that he manages to add to a regional document could change the way the content of a specific training module is defined in a country, allowing hundreds of leaders to be better equipped to deal with specific needs for children in the area of spiritual development.

If he was to find out that this is not the case, then his whole work philosophy would be severely shaken.

It turned out that working in a Scout office is, in no way, a sinecure. For some unclear reasons (they are not so unclear but this should make the subject of another post!), the expectations from a Scout executive generally exceed those of professionals in other regular, 9 to 5 jobs. A professional volunteer and a volunteer professional, 24/24, 7/7!

He found himself into a situation where he felt 100% responsible for every event, project and initiative he was involved in. The wellbeing of the volunteer team depended (at least partly) on his performance. Happy volunteers – those wonderful people freely giving their time and energy to make sure there is a planet to be inherited – was an essential criteria for measuring the success of any action.

As a volunteer himself, he understands well what it takes to be committed to this life. But, in the past, he never ever had a sleepless night or a panic attack because, as a volunteer, no one expected him to give more than he felt comfortable giving! 

He literally hold the life of hundreds of children in his hands, when teaching them to climb, abseil or walk on glaciers but never the pressure of responsibility felt greater than when becoming an executive. 

Once in a paid position, a “paper Scout”, the way too many events and meetings started to spell stress, insomnia and anxiety! He became painfully aware that any misadventure will eventually reflect on the bureau, and because his responsibilities span wide, from controlling costs, dealing with the administration and ensuring a happy planning team delivering a relevant content to happy participants, the chances of a cock-up are significant. The expectations of an immensely broad spectrum of volunteers towards professional support and human interactions made ice climbing look like stamp collecting. 

His career as a paper Scout soon started to take its toll in his own well-being, family and social ties, in ways his volunteer life never did. Suddenly, the payment he received had to cover not only the work per se, but also for all the missed opportunities, from children missed birthdays, family weekends or social evenings! Does the good coming from actions over these weekends justify the price? Can a better world be created through an overdose of post-its and flip-charts? He likes to believe that yes, mainly because he believes in inspiration just as much as in skills or knowledge transfer. Inspiring leaders at national level has to be as important as inspiring kids in a group! And it must be worth a few sacrifices and the fact that he’s getting excited as a teenager at a first date with every new project must be a proof!

The friend I’m speaking about is myself. And sometimes I think I’m my own worst enemy. Possibly by saying yes way too often, exactly because I feel the need to prove that there’s real value also in being a paper Scout. An expression I despise so much!

Recently, the way I was asked to support Scouting has shifted from dealing with educational tools to managing networks. From Piaget to Zuckerberg, so to speak 🙂 This was partly fuelled by the undeniable fact that the impact of Scouting is mainly visible at local level.

However, in order to have a sliver of chance in changing the world, Scouting needs to influence ALL communities: local, national and international. Difficult to establish a priority here! The world has changed because of Florence Nightingale, the French Revolution and the Paris Agreement in equal manner (the latter is more at a hope level, but we have no choice than to believe in it!).

Or, at international level, besides the added results of individual action, Scouting should pull on its global weight, as a movement, through its organisation, WOSM. Having an influential voice in the UN, the Davos Forum, EU, etc. is often not the result of the wonderful achievements of individual Scouts, but of a programmatic and well-thought positioning of World and Regional structures of the organisation. Yes, including, or even steered by the dreaded paper Scouts like myself!

Overshadowed by the more attractive discourse of the direct support actions we have forgotten that all this is also a service to our members and a very concrete way to make the world a better place!

Paraphrasing a document we published years ago called “Will They Notice if We’re Gone?”, I think that not only will everyone notice if professional staff is gone, Scouting itself would be a poorer and weaker movement altogether without us.

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