With 100 years behind it, this nonprofit finds ways to meet the demands of a changing marketplace. In 2004, the Boy Scouts of America's (BSA) licensed product sales at retail were approximately $400,000. By the end of 2009, that number had grown to nearly $38 million. What this proves to Dave Harkins, associate director of business development, is that there can be great opportunity for nonprofits if you know how to present a product to a market.

The success of BSA’s licensing program wasn’t without its share of challenges, however. Unlike for-profit companies, nonprofits don’t necessarily focus on licensing to drive revenue; it’s more about increasing awareness and supporting the organization’s mission.

“Finding opportunities in the marketplace that meet your brand objectives rather than financial objectives is a bit more difficult,” said Harkins. It’s not like BSA hasn’t had practice, though. 

The organization has been licensing since 1925 when it worked with Brown & Bigelow on a scouting calendar. Over the years, most of the licensing was for printed materials, and for BSA’s 25th, 50th, and 75th anniversaries, commemorative items like pocketknives and rifle sets were issued. The big change came in 2004 when Harkins came to the organization. 

Initially, he was hired to launch BSA’s e-commerce effort and to put BSA’s merchandise sales agenda online. At the time, the organization only had a handful of licensees, and licensing was a part-time focus. “I had some experience in technology licensing, and the gentleman who was handling licensing for BSA retired in July 2005, which coincided with the time we launched scoutstuff.org,” Harkins said. 

“We saw the licensing program as an area of opportunity for the organization, so we started all over again, blew the program completely up, and refocused.”

All about strategy

Harkins built BSA’s licensing strategy with three specifics in mind. First was increasing awareness about BSA and its programs in the marketplace. 

Although 110 million people have gone through the Scouts’ program since 1910, only about half are expected to still be living, and many don’t have a connection to the organization. “We don’t have that visibility out there,” said Harkins. “If we can create licensed product that reaches out into the marketplace, it can help reconnect with alumni.”

Second was finding ways BSA could use licensing to support membership growth. The organization has approximately 300 local councils across the country, about 200 of which have council distributorships that are allowed to resell Boy Scout, Cub Scouts, and Venturing merchandise. Councils are charged with delivering a program to their local market, so Harkins looked at how BSA’s licensing program could support them in their efforts. 

“We tested a program in which we sent out business reply cards with our licensed products, and about 65% of the responses said they had no connection with scouting,” he said—which are the people the organization wants to reach. 

This year, the program will officially launch. When the cards come in, BSA’s licensing team will respond, thank the consumer, and give the local council the consumer’s name to follow up directly. “When an individual contacts us and is interested in membership, this program also gives our local councils an opportunity to follow up personally to let them know we’re also interested in them,” he said. 

Third was protecting the brand and trademarks of BSA. Harkins said most nonprofits don’t do as good of a job as they could, and BSA’s experience is a perfect example of why it’s important. 

Many people misunderstood the meaning of a nonprofit and believed that they could freely use BSA’s marks. In 2006, BSA put together a taskforce comprising Harkins and people from the organization’s legal and technology services departments. The trademark enforcement team was born. 

Initially, the team addressed issues online, such as the several adult websites using BSA trademarks. The organization then engaged a third party, which helped with protection of BSA’s online identification, infringement, etc. “We systematically addressed those,” said Harkins. 

“Thousands of folks were using our trademarks as websites: some were in the domain name, some were in the Meta tags, and some within the sites,” he continued. “We met every week to determine how to address them, shut down the ones that were really bad, and wherever possible, acquire those domain names to protect BSA’s brand.”

The team now meets once every three months, and BSA is down to few hundred ongoing and problematic sites. It may sound like a lot, but it’s a far cry from the thousands that were the issue four years prior. BSA now owns hundreds of domain names, and its core trademarks are protected.

Silver lining

Streamlining its licensing processes enabled BSA’s program to grow from its initial base in 2004 of 18 licensees to 150 and counting in 2010. And starting in 2007, BSA began to grow its department to drive and support growth. 

In the past few years, BSA has taken its licensing program to a new level with books, cards focused on learning outdoor skills, and two new characters—Plug and Axel—to reach out to younger generations who need more positive role models and more modern ways to build character and leadership skills. 

“The characters show a love of outdoors and a broad understanding of the importance of character and the value of doing the right thing at all times,” said Harkins. 

As BSA continues to celebrate its 100th anniversary throughout 2010, it’s with a sense of renewal. “We’re building our presence without over-exposing our brand,” said Harkins. “We hope newer generations can see the value in living the life of a Scout, being engaged in solving problems, and learning about themselves in the meantime. That’s what Scouting is all about.”

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