We Need to Reprioritize Paper Applications.

We Need to Reprioritize Paper Applications.

We arrived late to the online registration game at Camp AJ. Beginning in 2016, we switched from an entirely paper-based registration system to a nice, shiny CampBrain site. I know I don’t have to tell any of you just what a game changer that can be for the amount of administrative work we have to do. Of course, we still made paper applications available for folks, but that first year we saw nearly 60% of our families choosing online registration. In the following years, that number of course grew, until summer 2022 nearly all our registrations happened online. 

The Issue with Paper Applications

As convenient as online registration has been for us, however, we’ve noticed a concerning trend in our camper population in that time. Camp AJ exists to serve kids from families who may not otherwise be able to afford summer camp. Our goal is always to serve the largest number of kids who need camp the most. We use several metrics to evaluate whether we are serving the kids we hope to, including whether families qualify for the National Summer Food Service Program. Before we transitioned to offering online registration, we typically saw 80-90% of families meet these criteria. Last summer, less than half our campers did. After reviewing how and why this is happening, we’ve come to an important decision: we need to reprioritize paper applications

There are many reasons why online registration systems are a barrier to kids attending camp. For us, one of the biggest is the increasing number of children who are living with a grandparent as a primary caregiver. According to a PBS News Hour report, in 2016 more than 2.7 million grandparents find themselves as the primary guardian of their grandchildren, a number that is increasing at about 7% each year. More than 1/5 of these households live at or below the federal poverty line. Tech literacy among these folks presents a daunting challenge to things like signing a child up for camp. Other barriers include ease of access to information or an internet-connected device, low confidence with navigating complex systems, and the stress and fear that comes from trying to accomplish a complicated task on an unfamiliar platform. Recent studies show that even members of Gen Z struggle with digital literacy beyond entertainment platforms.

Why It Matters at Camp

So here’s my pitch: camps care deeply about justice, equity, and inclusion. Camps are doing the hard work of making spaces available, accessible, and welcoming to the most kids from the most families. If we truly care about equity at camp, that means doing everything we can to make participation in camp as easy as possible for the broadest number of folks. In order to do this, paper applications should be given the same effort, thought, and priority as online. We should be thinking intentionally about these barriers to attending camp and addressing them on our end, rather than expecting families and caregivers to acquiesce to the things that make our jobs easier.

Strategies We’re Trying

Back to Camp AJ, here’s some strategies we’re implementing for 2023 that we hope take some significant steps in the right direction:

  • No more “first come, first served” applications: Online is infinitely faster than a paper application. We’re moving to a rolling review process for all applications and launching paper applications earlier than online to provide sufficient lead time for the time needed for paper applications

  • Simplicity is paramount. We’re making our paper application as short as possible. We’ve asked ourselves, “What is the information that is absolutely necessary to have written down by a caregiver, and what information can we get later over the phone, in an email, or as a second mailing?”

  • “Registration” is out. “Application” is in. We’ve tweaked our wording to remove the suggestion that completing a camper’s paperwork is a guarantee of attendance. Instead, we’re taking a beat to review each application to ensure we’re serving the population we intend to.

  • Proactive relationship matter. We’re building a communication network with our local school systems, support groups, foster agencies, and other non-profits in order to get information about our camp out to folks who don’t have access or confidence online. In order to get offline kids to camp, we have to have offline systems to disseminate information and provide support to offline caregivers.

Paper Applications in Action

Several summers ago, we received a call from one of the family resource officers at a local elementary school. Because they knew about our mission and because we had a good working relationship with them, she was reaching out to refer a child to us. Her grandmother had recently been given custody, and she had no resources for social interaction over the summer. There was no cell phone or computer in the home, and even though they lived less than five miles from the camp the grandmother had not heard of us. We were able to call to talk with her about camp, drop by her house with a paper application, and get her signed up for camp in just a few days. She’s been an annual camper every summer since then, and her grandmother has talked several other grandparents into sending their grandkids to camp as well. Without those relationships, and without our old paper application, we would’ve missed out on serving that camper who desperately needed it. This summer with our renewed focus, I hope we’ll have many more stories like that to tell. I hope you do too.


Mike OBrienMike O’Brien

TSCS Member
Blog contributor

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