Matt Hyde: From acorns to oak trees – the challenges of cultivating enduring change

How the shared work of staff, volunteers and young people helped Scouts deliver a game-changing initiative

Matt Hyde
Matt Hyde

I wonder how many leaders in the social sector strive to achieve the ‘big idea’ that might unlock their organisation’s full potential or significantly advance their cause – the game-changer that lasts for decades.

I suspect many of us are seeking such major, disruptive change. After all, if you’ve dedicated your career to social impact you’re not here to keep score, you’re here to make change happen.

Today at Scouts, we’ve launched a new, tailor-made programme called Squirrels. Standing on the shoulders of giants who introduced Cub Scouts in 1916 and Beaver Scouts in 1986, Squirrels is a new age range for Scouts – four- and five-year-olds.

This is our response to the seismic challenges facing society.

It’s about helping young people gain skills for life at a time when it matters most, and in the places where it will make the most impact.

Squirrels will run in 200 locations, prioritising underrepresented communities, lower income neighbourhoods and Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. Within three years we expect it to reach 12,000 families, and within a decade estimate there will be 130,000 Squirrels.

By changing the start of the story we intend to change the whole story – both for the children who will learn by playing outdoors with friends at a critical, formative stage of life, and by changing the make-up of our youth members and adult volunteers.

All 44 pilot groups were in areas of deprivation and 58 per cent of volunteers were new to scouting.

In reality, cultivating change is challenging. It’s messy, involves self-doubt, compromise and is always slower than you hope.

Squirrels has been in place in Northern Ireland for more than 25 years. Separate from, but connected to Scouts, it was developed by dedicated community leaders.

So it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise when, at a Scouts strategy conference in 2017, young leaders from Northern Ireland lobbied to lower our age range to four, precisely because they knew the difference it made to them and others.

We owe a debt of gratitude to these community leaders and young people for gifting this fantastic idea to the rest of the UK.

By design, Squirrels is intended to be more inclusive. After securing funding from a range of donors, pilots were established where the content and delivery was co-produced with communities not previously in Scouts, using a process of test and learn.

The programme changed as we listened to volunteer leaders, parents, carers and young people. We sought to disrupt our model to attract new volunteers, lowering the bar for participation to open doors for new communities.

Transparency and openness were guiding principles. Along the way our team published their learning, sharing what was working, what wasn’t and the surprises – such as the transformative impact on teenagers delivering the programme.

Communication was critical. It’s fair to say there were some sceptics who felt scouting at this age risked becoming ‘cheap childcare’.

We listened and engaged those with concerns. Over time our polling showed more were supportive of the concept as other volunteers explained the impact.

You’ll never win over everyone, but as our chief scout, Bear Grylls, says: “Beware the dream-stealers.”

While listening respectfully to all voices you need to be resolutely focused on your vision, because a great idea is like a magnet, pulling you towards your destination.

Enduring change also requires relentless pace in the face of inevitable setbacks. The key is knowing when to pause and slow down (such as when a pandemic comes along) and when to accelerate.

You might be reading this at an earlier stage of driving for your own disruptive change. You might, this week, have had a setback. A critic may have dismissed or mocked what you’re trying to do.

If so, dust yourself down and get back to the wheel. Be resolute in your focus and galvanise your team.

Change is only enduring when it’s underpinned by great teamwork. The Herculean efforts of volunteers, staff and young people got the boulder over the hill on this occasion.

As someone noted, you couldn’t tell volunteers from staff members. That matters, because the vision (rather than roles and egos) was the galvanising energy that drove people to work so hard to make Squirrels a reality.

This is an idea whose time is now. I am confident it will be around for decades to come and will change many lives.

It will have happened because of the efforts of hundreds of people. It’s therefore a shared legacy. And this acorn is going to grow into a mighty oak tree – one full of Squirrels, all learning skills for life.

Matt Hyde is chief executive of Scouts. Find out more.

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