I wonder how many great camp directors have left the camp world because they didn’t feel like constantly answering that question. “What do you do the rest of the year?” Or how many potential great camp directors go become teachers, nurses, or lawyers because they don’t think camp is valued in their community.
Why do some challenging conversations with staff lead to huge impact and while most at best lead to tiny changes?
This week in The Summer Camp Society Semester we were talking about difficult conversations with staff and Peter Drews, YMCA Camp Minikani, gave us a profound takeaway. We were trying to narrow in on what was true about the tough conversations we have had with staff that lead to the biggest breakthroughs. Peter said:
“When I am collaborating with someone I care about to help them do something they care about.”
I am in.
Think about it. The most effective helping conversations happen when you are working together with one of your best friends to help them solve a real problem they want to solve.
Kurtz has some thoughts and Mike O’Brien chimes in with a great staff training session at the end of this article.
Now there are a lot of incredibly challenging aspects of this, but it gives us a goal and a place to start, mostly a place to start way before the tough convo.
How can I build closer relationships with the people I supervise so I can know what they care about and so they know I care about them?
What does my camp really care about and how can I make sure we are articulating this to staff when we hire them so they can decide if they care too?
How do I make sure the policies and topics of these tough conversation line up with what we are saying we care about?
This is a huge undertaking. Here is where I am going to start with Stomping Ground. Jack actually do this you lazy dog!
What Happened? - Compile a list of as many tough conversations that happened this summer as you can. Look through incident reports and staff evaluations.
I think if I were doing this exercise, I'd also want some direct input from staff. I'd call my unit directors, my wellness coordinator, and my assistant summer camp director. I'd ask them to think about the corrective conversations they had to engage in most this summer.- Peter
Breaking It Down - Categorize them by what you think the problem is. This will take some thinking. Is it level of engagement, timeliness, violating a specific policy? Which category has the largest number of conversations?
I can see how frequency of conversations is really important. I think I'd also want to look at the list I compiled and think about the conversations that most spoke to our core values. When were my staff members doing something that felt like it really flew in the face of our values? Is that happening consistently? Is that behavior happening more in one unit or with one staff member more than with others? I'd want to identify patterns, to learn more about where our staff culture can improve. - Peter
What Do We Care About? - Now, this is the hard part. Dig into this category for what is actually happening and figure out why, really why, this policy is necessary for camp and in alignment with what camp really cares about. Pick a handful of staff that are likely to break this policy. What do they care about that overlaps with why this policy is in place?
I love this. It's another place where a phone call might be a good idea. - Peter
Explain It - Write a quick one-pager not just explaining the policy, but explaining the overlap between what your staff members care about and why the policy exists. Try to really give them the benefit of the doubt, it is November so that is easier. Why should they care? What else do they already care about? Be as specific as possible.
Do Something - At this point, feel free to change the policy, make plans to change your staff, or make plans to change how you hire staff. My hope is that by picking the most frequent problem with staff I can either get more staff on board or just change the policy.
It is not always the case that when people believe in something they can do it, but it is a million times easier to have a conversation with someone when they are invested in making the same change we are.
“When I am collaborating with someone I care about to help them do something they care about.”
Thank you Peter.
KURTZ CHIMES IN...
Some thoughts from Kurtz while she is taking care of her newborn. #businessMOM #mba #BABYKURTZ #yesshecandoitall
It’s kind of like the same technique in principled negotiations (win-win negotiations). There is a summary of the principled negotiation book. The “interests” part is what might be most pertinent to this convo.
“Principled Negotiation: Interests:
The difference between interests and positions is crucial: interests motivate people; they are silent movers behind the hubbub of positions. Your position is something you have decided upon, while your interests are what caused you to decide.
You can ask for another's position, making clear that you do not want justification, just a better understanding their needs, hopes, fears, or desires that they serve.
The most powerful interests are basic human needs: security, economic well-being, sense of belonging, recognition, control over one's life
If you want the other side to take your interests into account, explain to them what those interests are
Make your interests come alive - be specific!
Acknowledge their interests as part of the problem - be sure to show your appreciate their interests if you want treatment in like kind
Put the problem before your answer: give your interests and reasoning first and your conclusions or proposals later
Look forward, not back: instead of asking someone to justify what they did yesterday, ask "Who should do what tomorrow?"
Be concrete but flexible: treat the opinion you formulate as simply illustrative - final decision to be worked on later
Be hard on the problem, soft on the people: show you are attacking the problem, not people - give positive support to the humans on the other side equal in strength to the vigor you emphasize the problem - this causes cognitive dissonance and in order for the other to overcome it they will be tempted to disassociate from the problem in order to join you in doing something about it”
A Staff Training Session From Mike O’Brien
Camp Director, Camp AJ, Kentucky
We ran what turned out to be a great session during staff training this summer on a similar topic that ended up helping all of us align our goals for camp.
We posted a bunch of large sheets of paper around the room with a question at the top, things like "What should we expect from our campers?" and the converse "What should our campers expect from us?" There were questions relating to leadership, parents, peers, CIT/LITs, as many relational aspects of camp as we could come up with.
Then each staff person was given a stack of post it notes and as a group we went around the room and wrote words or short statements answering the question and sticking it on the sheet.
After about 20 minutes or whenever most folks had a chance to think about all the questions, we broke up into small groups and each group was assigned one of the large sheets of paper. Those groups then discussed and ranked what they felt were the top 3-5 most important/most meaningful answers, and then presented that to the whole group for discussion.
The end result was great discussions about expectations vs reality, what things matter a lot and what things don't really, and also gave leadership some great insight from our staff about what they expected from us as well as how they perceived our relationships with them. SO GOOD!
BE A PART OF THESE CONVERSATIONS
This is a post from the newly made up, “We can disagree, but still care about each other.” column. We are making t-shirts, hopefully, to be slyly given to everyone in America. The it starts with my hot take followed by a couple different perspectives. If you like this kind of article, with different points of view and perspectives comment below. Let’s get into it!
OH! There is some light cursing under the heading, “They Said” at the beginning of the article.
- Jack Schott
Camp directors often say, “The staff are like our campers.” I get where they are coming from, and I would never say that.
I think the thought process is that as camp directors or leaders we need to take care of our staff the same way we ask our staff to take care of their campers. We need to put as much work into making sure they are doing well as we ask them to do for the kids. This is admirable and something I can get behind.
However, I think the phrasing can come off as patronizing.
I thought I might be alone so I texted some of our staff at camp...
“What would you think if you heard a camp director say ‘The staff are like my campers’”
“I think it is sweet and well-meaning, but I'd rather be told ‘the staff are like my co's’. Idk which is more true tho.”
“No for sure, for sure, director/counselor counselor/camper are similar in that everyone is IN on FUN and the expression is probably used to distance from traditional employer/employee sort of relationship but I mean come on guy you’ve got a pet… You’ve got a responsibility, You don’t just look for an hour then call it quits…” → Billy Madison Reference
“Huuuuge little bitch move.”
“Stop being such a big BIOTCH.”
“Also sounds kitchy (?)”
“Even if they mean it in a “i am like their counselor, they are like my campers, I want to help them grow and learn” way then it still negates any idea of counselors having a say in camp as a whole / creating a reciprocal relationship with all staff”
"But for realsies, another interesting piece of that is the implication of director's idea of counselor/camper roles.”
Two things are certainly true.
They like to curse via text.
They may be a little more rebellious and more likely to dislike this idea than most.
“The staff are like our campers.” comes from a very good place, but I think it misses the point.
As camp directors, we clearly love the campers and so treating our staff like campers means treating them with love, but it also has the connotation that we are treating them like kids. Maybe that is what camp directors are saying when they say that. I don’t think so, but maybe.
I am not interested in treating summer staff like kids or assuming that they will act like children.
At camp, we put a huge amount of trust in our staff. They have to both be childlike and playful and at the same time some of the most responsible young adults you can imagine. We, as camp pros, make arguments all the time about how great a growth opportunity it is to work at camp as compared to internships or other jobs.
I don’t think most camp directors mean they want to treat their staff like kids when they say “The staff are like my campers”, but it can be how many staff take it.
Maybe even more than that, I think these words have power and when we say things like “The staff are like my campers” it can lead to a culture where we may not mean to, but we encourage a larger divide between our leadership staff and the staff they supervise. That it leads to more of a power over dynamic than a partner with relationship.
Also, I realize this is a hot take and was chatting with some other folks in The Summer Camp Society looking for some different perspectives. Here are some of their thoughts.
Director, Friends Camp, Maine
While I see that some counselors might find this language condescending, I also think that it can be useful when used well. Working at camp can be pretty intimidating for a first-time counselor (maybe a counselor of color at a mostly white camp, a counselor who used to be camper and is really nervous about trying to live into the role of the counselors who he used to hero-worship, or a staff member who is in the US for the first time to work at your camp). Many camps are facing a challenge of staff members bailing a few weeks before the summer, quitting the first week of camp, or even “ghosting” and not showing up for staff week.
Staff members, and those new to camp especially need to feel empowered to bring their crazy ideas, take the lead in potentially dangerous situations, and be the “grown-up” for nervous campers. I think perhaps the best way to help these new staff members become their most empowered selves is to give them support and help them feel like they belong-- two jobs best done by the camp counselors.
The very best camp counselors feel the weight of their responsibility. Maintaining a physically and emotionally safe environment for a group of about 10 children (while canoeing/ camping/ battling dragons) is no joke. However, the weight of this responsibility can sometimes cause good counselors to experience anxiety or make it hard for them to let loose and be silly.
In telling my camp counselors that they can think of me as their counselor, I hope to take off some of that weight. When a camper comes to them and makes a disclosure of abuse, I want them to be able to cry about it with me if they need to and know that I will take it from there. If they get a call from home that their dad is sick and they need to travel home, I don’t want them to feel bad asking me for the time off. If a friend from home is texting them with thoughts of self-harm, I want them to know they can talk to me and I will find someone to cover their cabin while they help their friend.
I agree with my colleagues who say we want to be “partners” with our staff rather than condescending or paternalistic. But in much the same way that campers don’t have the same level of responsibility for camp that their counselors do, camp counselors don’t have the same level of responsibility for camp that the camp director does. When I tell my staff they can trust me and use me as their “camp counselor” if they need to, I hope that it relieves them from feeling like they need to know all the answers right away. If we consider the camper/counselor relationship to be “disrespectful” or “condescending” when applied to adults, what does it say about how we are treating our campers?
Assistant Executive Director, Eagle Island Camp, New York
I can see where this phrase would come from and why a Camp Director might choose to use it. We want what is best for the staff and we know that we need to provide a level of support to them in order for them to be successful. But I think this phrase also comes from a level of selfishness.
We miss having campers.
Camp Directors and leaders got into this industry because we loved camp, we loved having a group of kids who saw the potential in us, who joined in on our fun games. And it’s really hard to give that up as you move up the ladder at camp. So in some ways I think claiming the staff are our campers is just our way of still clinging to the desire to have our own groups of kids. And that’s not fair to us and it is especially unfair to the staff. Because they are not our campers, they are not here to blindly follow us and our activities. We have hired them to make good decisions, to be responsible for their own groups of campers. We hired them to push back when something doesn’t make sense, to let us know when there is a better or safer way to do things. Or a better way to connect with the current camper trends and interests.
The staff are not our campers, they are our camp staff.
Executive Director, Lindley G. Cook 4H Camp, New Jersey
A few times, when addressing a staff culture issue (i.e. staff talking behind each others backs instead of addressing the problem directly, etc…) I’ve made the mistep of saying to the counselors involved, “how would we react if our campers were treating each other this way?” I think it’s a good, valid point! However, I have seen in my staff’s eyes that they do not think it’s a good, valid point: “It’s way different than the campers! We’re young adults in a very complex social situation with a lot being asked from us all the time!” (And it certainly wouldn’t be helpful for me to counter that our 12 year olds probably feel the exact same way.)
At its best, I like to think of camp as a potential antidote to a lot of what’s not-so-great with the rest of the world. I think one of those not-so-great things is that young adults are very used to being treated like children, and having the low expectations of children put upon them. At camp, we ask for so much more. Not only are the counselors not the children, but they are entirely responsible for every aspect of the children’s camp-life, and we hold them to standards that would never be expected from a child. We ask for 24-hours-a-day of solid decision making, responsible judgement, endless energy, boundless creativity, and ever-diligent compassion all wrapped up with imperviously buoyant morale. It might be more than has ever been asked of them, and it’s why so many staff take such pride and joy in clearing the bar and “accomplishing camp.” Being a counselor at summer camp might very well be the most adult, least-childlike thing they have ever done.
This can be a tough idea for those of us at camps where a large percentage of our campers matriculate onward to become counselors; it can be harder not to think of a staff member as your camper when they literally were your camper a matter of months earlier. And, in reality, our counselors are the highest evolution of what we hope for from our campers - they’re often the best examples of our program’s long-lasting positive effects, and a personification of the promise that the program will continue to produce those effects in the future. Yes, for directors, our counselors might totally be our kids: our oldest, most trusted and esteemed campers.
But perhaps we shouldn’t spend too much time explicitly telling them that.
THANK YOU ANNA, BEN, AND KATRINA!
Do you love these kinds of discussions and want to be a part of them every week? Check out our semester long options. 600 bucks for weekly discussions, a great network, and an inclusive conference. There is no other deal like it for professional development. Check it OUT
I spent the weekend pouring over the retention numbers at Stomping Ground, the camp I run. I think I decided retention is overrated.
For context, I have believed retention to be the number one indicator of great camps for the last 5 or 7 years. I am huge fan of Camp Augusta, who boasts above 90% retention every year, maybe 95% I can remember the exact number. I love James Davis’s model on the economics of retention. I believed retention to be the best indicator of camp success.
This weekend I lost my faith.
Ok, I am being dramatic, but I dug deep on our retention and found some interesting facts that are leading me to think differently about retention. I think retention can be incredibly valuable but is just one metric.
This week in The Summer Camp Society Semester we were talking about the value of retention. The ethics of using staff to convince kids to come back for another year and different tactics for increasing the rate kids might return to camp. We discussed progressive programming, connecting with parents, awards, and more. Then we started talking about the numbers.
Retention isn’t just one number it is a combination of an uncountable number of variables. Male vs Female return rate, ages that return at different rates, what about new campers vs old campers.
This got me thinking. I hadn’t calculated our retention at Stomping Ground since our first summer in 2015. There goes my weekend.
I put together a bunch of spreadsheets, why CampBrain doesn’t do this with a click of a button is fascinating. Rob if you are reading this let’s talk. I did this in the most straightforward way. No aging out or removing kids for any reason. If they came to camp one year and came back the next they counted. This matters because you can play with these numbers in a million ways. Here is what I found.
2015 (our first summer) - 44% of kids returned for 2016
2016 - 58% of kids returned for 2017
2017 - 66% of kids returned for 2018
What the heck does that mean?
I don’t know, but I went to school. 44% is for sure failing. 66% is failing but a little better. It seems like an improvement. I did a bunch of other math. I won’t bore you with all of it, but I found that our retention rate for male and female campers is essentially the same. That we have the highest retention rate for 6 year olds (our youngest kids) and the lowest for 14 year olds (our oldest main campers), but in the middle everything is basically the same. I found that rain has less impact on retention than I thought, but good counselors have much higher impact.
I am happy to run these numbers for you for a donation to camp. Ok, I’ll donate it to camp, but a donation can’t be quid pro quo so you have to pay me then I donate to camp. Laws. Not for profits. Math. Send me an email.
Most importantly I found growth. Over that same time period that our retention failed, never breaking 70% we also 10x-ed the size of our camp. We went from ~60 kids the first summer to ~600 camper weeks this last summer. What was happening?
I definitely don’t have all the answers, but I have an idea. I found two other interesting tidbits.
While our retention rates mostly stunk our retention rates for returning campers are pretty good. Last year ~90%. So if someone had been to Stomping Ground before and came back at least once, the chance that they would return again was very high. Camp Champions has a person dedicated to first year camper retention for this reason.
Campers that were returning were signing up for more weeks. A lot more weeks, in some years averaging almost twice as many.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN!?!!?!?@!?!!?!?!@?
Growing a program isn’t about retention it is about growth. Of course, it is. But this matters!
We made Stomping Ground up. It never existed. We have messed up, tried things, tried other things. Our first summer we didn’t have bedtimes. ← real life.
The best way to grow fast isn’t to be pretty ok for most of our small number of campers it is to be hecking awesome, best place ever, life-changing, for the right families.
When we do that we grow like mad. When we blow every other place that specific families have ever worked with out of the water they send their kids back for longer and tell everyone they know.
SWING FOR THE FENCES
I think this is interesting and I think it changes huge parts of the way we do business. This rewards swing for the fences commitment to mission and encourages us not to round our edges for parents that don’t get what we want to do.
We let kids play with hammers and nails at camp. Kids choose how to spend their days all day every day. They get in arguments and we don’t kick kids out just for fighting. We do weird stuff. We do it safely, but for the right families, this is what they are looking for.
This math is pushing me to double down on what makes us weird. Pushing me to put ourselves more out there for what we believe in and then not compromise our program to please parents that “don’t get us”.
This doesn’t mean we should listen to parent concerns or stop trying to get better and change. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care. Just the opposite. It means we should really care. We should really care about what we really care about. We should double triple quadruple down on connecting our mission to our program, because when we do that, the right people love it and they tell their friends. There are lots of “regular” camps out there.
Trying to be a “great” regular camp is a bad long-term strategy.
I got excited at the end there, but you get the point. Retention isn’t bad, but it isn’t always good either. I need to keep figuring out what Stomping Ground cares about and then do more of that, explain why, and the right people will care. Or they won’t.
At Stomping Ground, the sleepaway camp I started with Laura Kriegel in 2015, we just hired our first year-round assistant director. Allison Klee, or Klee, has worked with us for three years. You may know her from her videos on how to help staff prepare for the summer.
Anyway, she is awesome and really gets what we do at Stomping Ground, but is still new at so many aspects of her new role. My guess is many of you are in a similar position to either Klee, a new year-round camp person, or me, helping onboard new year-round camp homies. With that in mind, I thought I would share what I shared with Klee about our staff hiring process. Maybe this will become an ongoing series, On-Boarding Klee - A New Assistant Director’s Journey.
Below is an email I sent to Klee, edited a little for context and some fun photos added.
It’s already staff hiring season. We have had a couple new folks apply already. Through this - Apply to Stomping Ground.
Let’s talk process.
Staff apply through the website and give us a few pieces of simple information so we can get started.
Then, I will reach out to them to set up an initial conversation.
Most of our applicants tend to be solid so I will connect them with you to have a conversation. I will share my notes with you.
You will talk with them.
You check their references.
Then we decide what to do next. We either offer them the job or have Laura talk with them to learn more.
Then we send them this page on the website to make sure they really want the job.
Interviewing is hard. Some people say interviews don’t work at all. So what is the point? At the highest level it is to see if they will do well in the job they are applying for. OK! That is a start. What is the job they are applying for? Let’s talk cabin counselors at Stomping Ground. What if we broke down being a counselor into 5 major categories?
JISE XT (We need a better acronym)
Judgment (Understand and align with the mission, vision, and practical nature of camp)
Initiative (Ability to consistently start)
Supervision (Awareness of assigned areas and campers)
Engagement (Emotional involvement or commitment)
X-Factor (What makes them special?)
Team (How do they make others better?)
Engagement, X Factor, Initiative, Team, Supervision/Judgment
You can use this for notes or make your own.
Some Questions to Get Started
Tell me about a time when you had to make a hard decision.
What are you hoping to get out of this summer?
How did you decide what to do as you after high school? Walk me through your thinking.
Tell me about a time you were with kids and had to be the “grownup”
When you are with a group of friends what role do you find yourself playing?
Tell me about a time where you played that role
I noticed on your resume that you… tell me about how you got started with that.
Tell me about a time you made a one on one relationship recently.
Tell me about your ideal day
Tell me about a challenge you have overcome
Brag about cool stuff you have done. Pretend I am your new best friend
What are some cool hobbies/skills/talents you have?
This is a weird idea or maybe just a weird phrase to use.
Something obvious: the best counselors are the counselors that know what they are doing. The earlier we can help them know what they are opting into the higher the probability of success. One way to do that is to retain staff. Another is to grow staff from the camper base. The hardest, and one we have to do a lot at Stomping Ground, is getting new staff up to speed as quickly as possible. This starts in the interview process.
I will talk with everyone that applies about the hours, the workload, the lack of self-care time, etc. The goal isn’t to scare them away but try to give them as accurate a picture of the job as possible so that they can make an informed decision about whether the job is right for them.
I don’t have statistics, but anecdotally it seems that when we can really get people to understand this the mental health of staff have been much higher and performance much better. The You’re Hired Page has helped a lot with this. Along with the Don’t Take This Job If Video.
Ok so I think you have a pretty good understanding of what we are thinking about for the process. Below are a couple of links to some resources that I think will better set you up to actually do the interview. TAKE A LOOK!
A Short Video on Interviewing Camp Counselors
Laura Kriegel, Scott Arizala, and I made a video about interviewing a few years ago. I think the key takeaway is to ask follow up questions that give more insight into what we are looking for and ask questions that lead to stories of real-life not hypotheticals.
Gary Forester and POWER Hiring
Gary was the number one camp consultant for a long time. He grew up in the Y, eventually was the go-to Y camp guy, then became a consultant for all camps. He is sort of retired now, but his writings are still some of the best and most influential in the camp world. Check out his advice for interviewing here.
Actually trying to read everything on Gary’s old school website is definitely worth doing. The design is out of date and some of his thoughts seem dated, but 98% of what he is talking about is still incredibly relevant.
Let’s do this!
I hope this was useful! Kurtz and I get together with camp pros every week to talk about what is working, what isn’t, and how we can help each other. It is the best deal in professional development on the planet. $699 for 8 weeks of real time online discussion and a 3 day retreat. Check it out. The Summer Camp Society Semester.
Our staff will inevitably have conflicts with each other. Without training, our staff members tend to ignore these issues or rely on a leadership team member to fix the issues for them. This training module will teach staff how to respectfully and effectively approach each other when they have an issue.
By Sarah Kurtz McKinnon
Ten years ago(!) I became an assistant director at our camp, moving out of the cabin and into the "lodge," which at our camp means I was officially on admin and no longer with campers of my own. Although it was thrilling to start to plan and run parts of camp, many parts of the transition were a huge surprise to me.
So, at the end of the summer, I wrote a letter to the next person in my position. In it, I explained the top ten things that you need to know when moving out of a cabin and into the lodge. I recently came across this wise guide, so I've adapted it here for all of you camp leaders who are transitioning to the next level of camp leadership in the upcoming weeks.
10. Staff members will expect you to know everything.
But don't worry! You will soon gather a second sense for camp policy, procedure and where things are located (Oh, the purple rope with pink stitching? Bottom shelf in utility room).
9. Staff members will ask you for permission to do things...
...like use excessive tinfoil for a costume, go pick up a prescription, etc. It is mostly in your power to give them the go-ahead or not. That’s OK…get used to it! And, you don’t always have to say yes.
8. In the beginning, you will feel like you are always asking your supervisor 1 million questions.
You probably are…but you’ll figure it all out soon enough. Asking is part of learning. It's also good role modeling--you want your staff to ask you when they have questions, too!
7. You do not have traditional "rest time."
During normal camp “down time,” counselors tend to come to you with questions or problems and you will be dealing with camper/programming issues. “Rest” hour is no longer that restful, and neither is regular time off. Make sure you take personal time when you have the chance, even if it is during an unconventional hour of the day.
6. You see the worst things about camp.
You will soon learn about/witness/be involved with the aftermath of every disaster or mishap or near-crisis. Try not to get a skewed perspective…most of the time, and probably all of the time, camp is going pretty well. When you look around, don’t forget to look for the positive.
5. You will be privy to a lot of special/private information.
Sometimes, you just have to know this stuff so you can do your job! The key to confidentiality is only sharing information with people who can help. Don't get pressured into sharing private information, no matter how persuasive the gossipers are. Oh! And document everything!
4. Your relationships with staff members will change.
Your camp friendships are now a bit different. You have to work hard at maintaining those relationships and building non-work connections with staff members. You’re still a camp leader, on camp and off. It’s a privilege but it comes with extra pressure. No matter how approachable you are, you're still a little "scary" to many staff. Your words carry extra weight, so be careful with sarcasm.
3. It’s easy to get stuck inside all day.
You have to make an effort to get out of the office and around camp. Make sure you are out there! If you are working on a project like paperwork, put it on a clipboard and do it outside where you can see and be seen. Wear a pedometer so you can track your daily steps. Make getting out and about one of your priorities!
2. You don’t have a cabin of kids anymore.
You have to work at making sure you still have kid time so you don’t get sad or go crazy. Become a character during evening activity; make rounds at lights-out to say goodnight to cabins; jump in the lake at free swim. This keeps you motivated and is excellent role modeling for your staff team.
1. you don’t have your own campers…but the counselors become your “kids.”
It’s like you have a cabin of 50 college students (Awesome!? But crazy!). One of your biggest priorities is to be there for the counselors and to make sure they are supported, positive, and fulfilled with their work. If you’re able to do this, they can give the kids the best experience possible—which is the ultimate goal.
Join us for more.
We're now accepting applications for the fall semester of The Summer Camp Society, our innovative learning program for camp professionals. Learn more and apply today through this link.
Sarah Kurtz McKinnon (left) is a camp director, consultant and trainer. She's also one of the co-founders and co-facilitators of The Summer Camp Society! Reach her at email@example.com.
The camp counselor said, “We respect our director because we know she respects us.”
That’s the goal, isn’t it? Respecting our staff might not be hard to do. But where camp leaders often stumble is figuring out how to get their staff to recognize that they are respected.
Jack and I believe that this process starts well before the campers arrive.
A few years ago I worked with James Davis to put together a simple framework for helping staff make effective choices in unstructured or transition times. Ok, James made up all the important stuff, but I edited the video and helped set up the studio. We all have our roles to play. The vidoes disappeared into the internet abscess for a while, but now we have rescued them!
Introducing the DARLING framework
D - dangerous
A - alone
R - rough play
L - listless (bored)
I - intense competition
N - needs help
G - grow connection
James put together some simple videos below that you can use with your staff to help them see these situations more effectively.
The D.A.R.L.I.N.G Framework - Intro
The D.A.R.L.I.N.G Framework #2 - Dangerous
The D.A.R.L.I.N.G Framework #3 - arling
The D.A.R.L.I.N.G Framework #4 - Address The Group
Millennials Are The Worst :)
They (we?) are selfish, noncommittal, and disrespectful. This all may be true or it might be totally ludicrous, and the latest in a string of older generations complaining about younger generations. At the end of the day, summer camp is built on millennials, and we have to figure out how to connect with, recruit, and lead this generation as our staff this summer.
Depending how we define Millennials we might already be onto the next generation of staff. Could they be even worse? I kid of course. I was born in ‘88 and am a proud member of the millennial generation. But here’s the thing. Regardless of what we think, we need 18-25 year olds to make camp work, so instead of ringing our hands, let’s figure out how we can partner with them to make the best camp and help them.
Now more than ever before, our potential staff have a choice in what they do this summer. They can volunteer in cool places, travel, get internships that might advance their careers, make a lot more money than we pay them, choose a different camp, come and work for us, and more. Unlike generations before, and even older millennials, the staff we are hiring this summer can get on Google and find an almost limitless number of options for how to spend their summer. If we want to recruit the best staff, we need to understand what they are looking for and build our staff recruitment AND the actual staffing experience to match their hopes.
Why Work at Camp?
Below are the most common responses I hear from people about why they choose camp, in no particular order. For most of the staff we work with, they connect with each aspect in different ways.
Different Potential Outcomes Staff Applicants Might Be Looking For
I could imagine building a quick quiz that would rank these for each applicant and spit out a simple diagram. Similar to the True Colors Personality Test. Some diagrams also below.
Legacy - Connected to camp. Former Campers, parents were staff, that kind of thing.
Impact - Belief in the mission. Want to be positive role models for kids, connect to nature, reimagine a different way of working with kids etc.
Community - Making new friends, connecting to old, being a camp counselor is all about the community.
Career - How can camp help your career? New skills, 21st century skills, a network, a different experience. We are thinking long and hard at Stomping Ground about how we can be truly useful here. I think in the past we have only been mildly useful.
Fun - For a lot of people it is a lot more fun to play by the lake than sit at a desk. But staff are often giving up things like concerts, family vacations, or summer parties.
Money - It is a job. We don’t pay a lot at Stomping Ground ($275 a week for counselors 2018), but money is a part of the equation. Working at camp pays more than volunteering in cool places.
Each potential staff member will be looking for these with different focuses depending on a million individual circumstances. By better understanding what they might be looking for we can individualize our recruiting messaging and their experience at camp.
This might look like...
Great at some, not great yet, at others.
At Stomping Ground, like most camps, we do a great job with fun, community, and impact. Where we lose people is around career advancement and the ability to make money. We, again like most camps, have a pretty limited budget. This summer we will pay our typical counselors $275 a week, up from $250 last year and $225 the year before. Next summer we will pay $300, not nearly enough to compete with the other jobs our staff could work, but inching up toward minimum wage.
If we aren’t going to be able to compete based on short term financial returns, I think we need to be disproportionately good at long term career advancement so that we can make a good argument that giving up a couple summers of better pay results in a much higher long term upside. In many ways this argument is so that the staff, that already want to work for us, can convince their professors, parents, and advisors. This won’t be possible for everyone and that’s ok. If we can do this for the right people, we can create an unfair advantage because we actually genuinely care about each of our staff members.
We are in the beginning stages of this, and are taking a two pronged approach.
One - Helping our staff better understand themselves, what they want, and how to get there.
This is means taking time out of staff orientation to focus on them. To run workshops about professional development, career skills, and resume building. For specific staff we try to help them gain the skills they want if those skills also can help camp.
Things like paying for a great staff member to become an EMT because they want to be a doctor some day or sending staff to a leadership retreat. Many camps do this and we are just getting started with it at Stomping Ground. Kurtz wants me to let you know that if you have seasonal leadership folks looking for new skills The Summer Camp Society just launched an online interactive course designed just for that...
--> TSCS Seasonal Leadership Seminar <--
Two - Leveraging our network -- to connect current and former staff with the right mentors.
This is the Kookie Idea.
At camp we have a huge number of people that care about what we do, camper parents, alumni, donors. They already love camp, most want to help but don’t know how. Many are very successful in their fields. Our newest endeavor at Stomping Ground is what we are calling the Stomping Ground Support Network, you could call it the alumni network, but we don’t have many alumni yet. Basically, we built a quick online form for people to fill out saying the would talk with staff members interested in learning more about their industry. The next step is learning from our staff this summer what they are looking for and connecting the right mentor with the right staff member. We will also probably send an email with all our staffs’, who are looking for jobs, resumes to this group in September.
I love getting to build a staff community, recruit the best people, and lead a group of passionate summer staff each year. It is one of my favorite parts of running camp. As camp directors we get to choose how we do that, and I hope I can keep choosing to try and find new and different ways to bring value to our community both because it helps in recruiting and because it helps the people we care the most about. I would love to hear in the comments some different ways you are bringing value to your staff. THANK YOU! Have a great summer.
This is how my brain works…
The best way to become a camp director, or really get any job, is to know the person making the hiring decision. The next best is to have an incredible recommendation from someone the person making the hiring decision trusts. This all only works if you are awesome/qualified at what you want to do. If the person hiring knows you and thinks you suck… That’s no good. More on this thesis here. How to become a camp director.
So now we have a new problem, how do we build relationships with people who might be hiring or people that the people hiring trust? Become a badass videographer. Hear me out.
Video is King
Video is king is the hottest buzz in marketing. Some articles below.
So if you are a badass (read probably only have to be mediocre) video creator you can help anyone that wants to sell anything without spending much money. Really you just need to use your time.
If you can help people that need to sell things we have a new ven diagram. People that want to sell things and people hiring deciders (I am the decider) trust. Who is in that circle? Other camp directors, camp consultants, other youth development professionals… If you know a specific decider you could make a more specific list.
He is what I would do after making a few, even mediocre, videos. Find the closest relatively popular camp consultant. I listed a few below, but there are plenty more.
Sarah Kurtz Mckinnon - MI
Steve Maguire - MA
Dr. Chris Thurber - MA
Travis Allison - ON, CA
Beth Allison - ON, CA
Scott Arizala - MI
Send an Email
Send them an email, be honest, saying something like…
“Subject: You Inspire Me. I’m Future Camp Director.
I am a college student and I love camp. What you do inspires me and I would to find a way to thank you. I am also a videographer, here is one of my videos. I would love to come to your next event or even just meet up at a park/camp/school and make a video for you. For free of course.
Anyway! Thank you again, please let me know if that is something I could do for you. OH! And just so you don’t think I am a creep or something. I worked at Camp Stomping Ground last summer. You can email or call the director there to make sure I am a reasonable person.
Jack Schott - firstname.lastname@example.org
All those people above are great, generous, kind people that would probably take you up on this offer. One, because it would help them, but even more because they would want to help you.
Now Make The Video
Then make a great video for them. After, do it again for three or four more people. AND! If you do it for someone like Steve, he is super tight with Scott, Chris, and Kurtz so my guess is he would help you connect with the next person.
Now, you have three-five videos make for some of the most influential consultants in camp. When you apply for your next job ask them to send a quick email to the person doing the hiring explaining their work with you.
I have never seen anyone do anything like this in the camp industry and it wouldn’t work for every camp job, but my bet is this would land you a job over the next twelve months. If you are good. If you are qualified and have some track record as a seasonal staff leader.
**** Kurtz and I are dreaming up a month long seasonal leaders training aimed at helping middle managers, unit leaders, assistant directors, division heads, and more be the most effective this summer. If you would be interested in learning more as that comes together check this out and fill out the super quick form. *****
--> Seasonal Leadership Program <--
A Note from Jack
I run a sleepaway camp called Stomping Ground. We try stuff. One time we had no bed times. That didn’t work. (I should write about that later)
My favorite part of The Summer Camp Society is the sharing of ideas. I love getting to hear about the ideas that folks have tried, what has worked, and hasn’t. Every camp is different, but we all have so much in common. Why reinvent the wheel?
Camping Coast to Coast
Before The Summer Camp Society, Laura, the other director and founder at Stomping Ground, and I traveled the country for two and half years visiting about 200 camps and 47 states looking for and sharing great ideas. That was awesome, but now that we run camp it’s hard to keep up that lifestyle…
You can see more about that journey at Camping Coast to Coast.
Ideas for 2018 Doc
Each week when we meet for The Summer Camp Society I keep a document open, Ideas for 2018, and I add new ideas from other folks or new ideas that are sparked from conversation. Most participants do something similar. I love it. Not all these ideas are going to work and a some of them I won’t get a chance to implement this year, but if just a couple of them turn into hits than I will feel great about it.
As we developed the program we started something called “Somebody’s Something”. The idea is similar to a Mastermind Group or Consultative Problem Solving. One person is on the hotseat. They explain a problem, project, or idea they have, and we all try to help. It’s an awesome exercise both for the person getting specific advice and for all the rest of us thinking about similar problems we might have. I can’t wait to get back into Somebody’s Something groups. I have never been on the hotseat and the takeaways have still been out of this world.
Over the next few weeks I am going to try to write up a bunch of the ideas we are hoping to try. This one is all about staff ideas. Next fall I’ll try to give you the feedback on how they went. We are calling it Try Things Camp. As a camp community we have so much to learn from each other. I hope some of these ideas resonate with you and maybe inspire you to find a community to share ideas with.
5 STAFF IDEAS 2018
1) Pre-season Zoom Groups
Kurtz inspired this one. We hire a lot of new staff and, like most of you, spend a ton of time during staff orientation on teambuilding and skills development to help our team be as prepared as possible for the summer. We also have extensive interviews and pre summer conversations between Laura and I and all the staff. Last year we had a seasonal leadership team member call each new staff and welcome them to camp, and it was pretty good. This year we are doubling down on welcoming staff early and often.
We are paying one of our seasonal leadership staff members, Klee, to develop a preseason welcoming plan. Klee is dividing all the staff up into groups of about 8 that will have meetings on Zoom each month starting in April. Your Zoom group, lead by a seasonal leadership staff member, will stay the same throughout the preseason and into staff orientation. We already have groups about that size that meet each night during staff orientation so these Zoom groups will continue through that. Maybe we will do meet ups each week in the summer.
The hope is that, by starting to build small communities before getting to camp, new folks can get more comfortable more quickly with our larger community and have a chance to ask questions, make jokes, and be more of themselves when they arrive. Klee is developing a curriculum for the preseason meetings, but mostly it will be simple conversations and get to know you activities.
2) Internal Grants
Kurtz shared this idea from her time at Ann Arbor YMCA. The idea is super simple. What if we put aside a specific amount of our programming budget for the staff to use? Let’s say we had $1000. Any staff could put together a quick proposal and get access to some of that money to improve camp. It could be starting an outdoor cooking program, putting twinkle lights up in the shower house, or a million other ideas we haven’t thought of yet.
In the past, we have just encouraged folks to let us know when they need things or have an idea, but what I love about this program is it gives less vocal staff a specific way to make lasting impact at camp.
3) Counselor Roles Breakdown
I wrote about this in the summer camp pros group on FB. The bones of this idea I dreamed up with Carlie, from the Takodah YMCA. We were talking about training staff to work in adventure playgrounds and other camper driven play spaces, during a one on one. This got me thinking, how we can better support our staff through their different roles as camp counselors? Almost no one task of being a camp counselor is super difficult, but the hard part, the real art, is knowing how to mix between a leader, a follower, and the many other facets of our work at camp. We wrote up this quick synopsis of 7 Roles of a Camp Counselor as an intro. My guess is we will use these terms this summer and simplify this as the summer goes on.
The hope is that by codifying the different roles we can better support staff if they are struggling to help kids through tough times, lead activities, remember to help kids find their toothbrushes. Instead of looking at each one of those as separate issues thinking “What role of counseling aren’t you quite getting if you can’t remember the toothbrush? And how can we help you in that space?” That would be being a caretaker and it probably means we can get better at a number of other aspects of caretaking as well.
Staff Orientation Session
On top of this, it gives us some simple brainstorming or skits to create during staff orientation. I can imagine breaking our staff up into the 7 groups and asking them to think through scenarios at camp where each role is applicable. Then, what can go wrong if we neglect different roles or use different roles in the wrong situations. Maybe each group dreams up scenarios and writes them on index cards. Then groups pulls a card with the scenario, and they suggest what roles might be the most effective in that scenario. Maybe! Level two is pulling a scenario card and a role card, then acting out what/how that role would look in the scenario. It could be really silly and lead to some great debrief discussions.
4) You’re Hired!
I thought of this one week as Luke, from Beacon Bible Camp, was explaining his process for bringing volunteers to camp. I know at least YMCA Camp Seymour and Camp Augusta have their own versions of this, but we never did. In a further attempt to help welcome new staff into our community, we built a very simple page on our website to help them see a little more about what they are opting into. It includes a video encouraging them “Don’t take this if…”, a video from staff orientation, and some articles to read about our take on working with kids at camp. Now, we send to it all staff after we offer them a job and before they accept.
5) Make My Day Book
This one I learned from Jason Smith at YMCA Camp Kitaki. Often, at camp, people have rough days and other folks want to help or I just want to say thank you in a meaningful way, but we don’t totally know how. At Kitaki, they have their staff all fill out a quick one page questionnaire during staff orientation asking how someone could make their day. Then they put a copy of all those pages in a binder where all the staff can access them. Now, when you want to thank someone or give them a quick pick me up, you can check the book and know exactly what they have asked for. Why guess if they would prefer chocolate or a handwritten note? It is kind of like bringing the Love Languages to life at summer camp.
Thanks for spending a few minutes deep inside my brain with me! I am excited to keep digging into different ideas and sharing. If you have cool staff ideas that you want to share I would love to read them in the comments or if you want to get together and dream up ideas with us, check out The Summer Camp Society program!
Winter Semester 2018 Application Deadline:
Friday, February 9 @ 11:59 p.m. EST
I have a ridiculous idea.
In 2015, Laura and I ran a trip for teens from camps across the country. We got in a van and visited 7 camps over 17 days in the Pacific Northwest. Along the way we visited national parks, learned a ton, and made lasting friendships. It was amazing.
Being able to see different camps in action and debrief with like minded camp folks from across the country was transformative. Each camp was uniquely different while at the same time being remarkably similar. It pushed all of us to think differently about what was possible, what made camp camp, and gave us enormorse insight into what our impact might be. We stayed up late talking about the power of camp and imagining ridiculous ideas for what we might create some day.
Ever since that trip, Laura and I have wanted to be able to offer something similar. Something that could give that wider perspective and possibility in a short period of time to passionate potential camp directors. With the growth of Stomping Ground from one week in 2015, to three in 2016, and four in 2017 we just couldn’t find the time to facilitate another trip.
Here’s my ridiculous idea…
What if we could put together a program where a group of 5-10 amazing staff (18+) traveled together visiting and working at a handful of camps. Learning from the different way things are done, working with experts and making a little money as you went. What if this cohort of passionate camp staff went on an adventure like this...
Training and Volunteering at Camp TBD (Jun 4-16)
Advanced Autism & Diversity Training w/ Sylvia van Meerten(Jun 17-20)
Training and Working at Camp Stomping Ground(Jun 21- Aug 4)
Traveling and Visiting a Couple Camps (Aug 5 - 11)
Training and Volunteering at Camp Highlight(Aug 10-19)
Volunteering at Camp Tall Tree (Back with Sylvia Aug 20-25)
*** This schedule is preliminary and will change
Plus make some money
Here’s the fun part! Because you would work a bunch of weeks at Stomping Ground, Stomping Ground could cover the cost of the program and pay you a stipend, probably about $1,000. Not a ton of money, but getting paid to travel, learn, and play with kids is pretty awesome.
This is exactly how I would have loved to spend a summer while I was in college. Instead of wondering what other camps were like, go out and see them. You will get to work with camps pushing the limits with what is possible with kids in a variety of settings, build authentic relationships with a bunch of camp directors and camp staff, and have a better understanding of what a career in camp might look like.
This program isn’t for everyone. It will be hard and requires a willingness to work hard, think creatively, and try new things. We are looking for passionate camp folks looking to make an impact, learn a ton, and push themselves and the cohort to new levels. If that sounds like you, sign up to learn more about the application process.