Camp as a Business - Bringing Staff on Board as Decision Makers

This article comes from James Davis of CampHacker and Summer Camp Revolution. Enjoy!

You’re getting into the nitty-gritty of planning staff training by now. Perhaps, if you’re one of our  brothers and sisters in camping down south, you’re actually training your staff as I write this.

So, I’m keeping it brief this week. This is nearly impossible for me, so please bear with me :)

Here’s the thing: if you’re like most camps, you don’t retain 100% of your campers. If you’re like most camp directors, you look at the names of the kids who don’t return to camp and wonder, “Why not?” Sometimes we’re blessed with an answer. But other times? We’re left to our own guesses.

I think there’s great power in bringing staff members into this process.

Thinking intentionally

The activity is simple. Staff are divided up into groups of 6, and split evenly into "group 1" groups and "group 2" groups. I just wrote groups more times in fewer words than I ever have in my life. Hope that made sense.

Group 1:

Half of the groups are given the following questions:

Why should kids go to summer camp instead of their other summer options?

Why is our camp so important?

Why shouldn’t kids spend their summer going to another camp?

Why would the world be worse off if our camp closed?

What are the unique takeaways that kids get from our camp that they don’t get elsewhere?

These questions get us discussing the very most important concept for staff to understand: “Why?” Don’t let them get away with generic stuff like “it gets kids outdoors.” Plenty of things get kids outdoors. Soccer. Waiting for the school bus. Getting kids outdoors is how we execute why we are at camp.  Encourage staff to dig deep and really figure out what the whole point of this summer camp thing is.

Group 2:

The other half of the groups are given these questions:

If you were a camper here, what would your least favorite part of the day be?

If you were sending your kid here, what would be your #1 concern?

Some kids that came to camp last summer aren’t coming back this year. Why not?

Both groups should write lists, and be prepared to meet back together.

Why we’re great, how we could be better

When the groups have exhausted their ideas, bring them back together. First, have the representatives from group 1 share what they discussed. Affirm the reasons they share as a way to emphasize just how important your mission is. When the representatives from group 1 are done sharing, the mood in the room should be very positive and uplifting.

Then, it’s group 2’s turn.

Group 2 will come forward and share some not-so-pleasant realities. Perhaps they’ll share specific tough things have happened at camp (a time someone was bullied, perhaps), or a particularly unpopular activity ("We all agreed we would hate going to swim lessons"). They’ll also likely blame some external factors we have no control over – “Kids don’t come back because all they want to do is play video games!”

Write each reason down.

Next – pose an important question to the group: “Which of these reasons [the ones from group 2] can we actually control?”

At this point, staff members will hopefully recognize that we can’t control things like the amount of video games that exist, or that parents are fearful, or that kids’ lives are too preprogrammed.

Cross off all of the reasons that we can’t control. I usually state a hope that this will be the last time we concern ourselves with things that are beyond our control. There’s so much we CAN do about improving the experience we offer, that it seems pointless to waste time worrying about the things that we can’t do.

If we are going to discuss the things we can't control, it's only to figure out how we can learn from them. "One reason kids prefer video games to summer camp because there's always something more to accomplish. How can we bring that to camp?"

Now, we’re hoping to move into a feeling of resolve. The first group shared a number of reasons why our camp is so important. The second group shared a number of ways our camp can improve. This brings us to step 3. If camp is important, and there are ways we can improve camp, we had damned well better get to work improving them.

Time to get to work.

Time to get to work.

What we’re going to do about it

In visioning with any business, including camp, it’s important to clarify our core values before considering making any additions, changes, or improvements. One solution to the problem of kids leaving camp to play video games is to offer video games at camps, but many camps would agree that this would directly contrast with why camp is so great.

Instead, we’ll look at the things we can control: If we all agree that bullying is the #1 reason kids leave our camp, let’s brainstorm around ways to make this not happen (this could lead into a nice discussion on improving our supervision, for instance). If we agree that swim lessons are the worst activity at our camp, maybe we need to think about our attitudes at swim lessons, or perhaps making swim lessons optional.

You get the idea.

By putting a fine point on exactly why kids leave, we can help staff to understand, specifically, why we need to get to work making camp better. The idea of “change” can upset staff, especially those who do not realize that most effective camps change a number of things every summer.

We’ve found that this activity can be a great one to refer back to later in staff training. “Remember when we all agreed that the #1 reason kids don’t come back is homesickness? This session is going to help us fix that for this year, and ensure that we serve more kids who wouldn’t otherwise come back.”

Your staff is ready to take the reins in addressing where your camp needs to improve – and trusting them to be a part of the decision making process can make a huge difference in helping them to buy in to a camp culture that dynamically meets the needs of children in an ever-changing world.