Return Staff Recruitment is a Year-Round Process
Industry-wide, we know that finding and retaining staff is one of the key issues that we are facing in the operations of successful summer youth development programs. This means that there is no time during our annual cycle that we should not be thinking about strategy surrounding this issue. At the end of the summer, as directors, our energy resources are often completely depleted and it can prove very difficult to put effort into staff recruitment for a summer that won’t start for another 300 days. However, continuing to show care during the end of the season can remind staff that your camp has a culture of care and mutual respect that may inspire them to return.
Sidenote: I want to be really mindful though, that showing care to your staff does not mean loosening the reigns during the close-out phase of camp. The better you are able to organize and mobilize your summer staff to “put camp back the way they found it” the more of your fall can be spent strategizing about next summer’s success instead of reorganizing the craft cabin. I often reminded myself at the end of the year that my summer staff could accomplish in a few hours what would take me weeks. Get them to help tie up the loose ends, otherwise those same loose ends may still be there when they show up next year!
Back to our regularly scheduled program: A natural tension exists in the need to retain staff and the need for them to perform a job that (no matter what staff centered shifts we make) is going to be difficult. Taking care of kids is difficult- take it from a seasoned camp pro and father of 2. Doing this sacred act, in an environment that is hot, buggy, away from home, provides little alone time and is full of big personalities is not for everyone. When we think about retention the core question seems to be- what staff is it beneficial to retain? As we think about community benefit, what staff are able to contribute in ways that help us further our mission of delivering quality program and which staff are not in aligntment with our goals? I think we then need to decide what post-camp communication investment is for all staff as a mark of gratitude, and what post- camp communication is intended for staff that we want to work to retain. Post camp gratitude communication must be authentic- and not seen as just a tool for retention. If done correctly- it will have the positive affect you are looking for without making you seem like a used car salesman or a multi-level marketing scheme. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Personalized Thank You Notes
This seems obvious- but I think we have a higher likelihood of trying to squeeze this one in before our camp staff banquet instead of giving it the time it deserves in September. Having a personalized thank you from administrative staff shows that you were invested in your boots on the ground staff’s interactions and that you value their work. Try to point out very specific, unique things that this staff member contributed. If you are having trouble thinking of anything- try to unpack by asking yourself “Did I spend enough time with this staff member?”, “How was this person coached for personal growth?” or “What opportunity did I miss to ensure that this staff member understood their personal gifts to the community?”
So often we try to double dip with our end-of-season evaluations and our personalized thank yous. This can be dangerous for morale as we must be absolutely transparent with our staff about their areas for concentrated growth- which no matter what will detract from the positives. We, as a culture, have a lot of unlearning to do when it comes to accepting constructive feedback and while you want to give praise in this meeting, a targeted personalized thank you note that is not accompanied with how they were inefficient with keeping their cabin clean (my CONSISTENT area of camp growth on almost every evaluation I ever received) is just going to hit differently.
Make a Plan for a Reunion
One of the best retention tools for staff is other staff. As cool as us camp directors are, one consistent reason that staff state they want to return to camp is the unique nature of relationships that are formed with their co-workers. Keep staff connected by thinking about what a winter reunion could look like, and making sure there is an appropriate budget that makes it attractive. Believe me- the $300 you will spend on a decent party at Applebees will be worth the potential for retention. Remember that your time has value and the less time you spend on recruiting new staff the more time you can spend focusing on other aspects of your total camp program. Choose a date when most folks will be off of school for winter break, and invite key alumni who have stayed in contact. This will continue to build an affinity network that builds organic bonds and encourages continued connection.
Once you have the winter reunion scheduled, make sure staff have a save the date in hand prior to getting re-integrated in their out of camp world. You want that date on the calendar while they are still riding on a summer high.
Hold a Feedback Session with Trusted Staff
Let's face it- some staff have the skills necessary to give critical feedback and some staff could use some coaching in this area. Invite staff members who you feel like can give beneficial feedback to participate in a solutions-based discussion. With the appropriate level of intentionality, frontline staff can provide key insights that we will not be able to access otherwise. Additionally, if we include them in changes that may be made they will feel a sense of ownership. This may translate into motivation for them to return to see their suggested changes through to production.
If this is a tool you choose to use ensure that everyone has a cooling off period after the end of the summer and that as administrators you enter the conversation with a sense of openness, curiosity and steer away from defensiveness. Your responsibility is to not stand in judgment of the ideas, or think through all the reasons they won’t work. Take care to listen to the intention behind the ideas, and see how much is realistically achievable. For example- if staff are asking for a sushi bar every Thursday night, what they might actually be requesting is more diversity in the dining hall menu. One of those things may be attainable, while the other may not be.
Allison note: Some of our TSCS members are using these post-summer debrief cards with their teams!
Personally Invite Staff Members to Re-Apply- with Details
When you re-open staff hiring for next season, send targetted messages to those you can see contributing to continued success of your camp program. Include personal reasons about why you are asking them to come back. For example- instead of “What a successful summer season we had! Wouldn’t you love to come back for a second summer?” try “The campers at Camp Lunchbox truly enjoyed your work in the nature cabin, your sense of humor and how supportive you were when they were missing home. We think you can be a huge asset to our staff in 2023 and hope you will consider joining our team again.” You can still do this is a merged letter with the details that should remain consistent (when and where to apply, who to contact with questions, session dates, etc.) but merging in some personalized touches may be the connection that gives you the edge.
Additionally- I think it is a good idea to tell returners what positions you think that may be a match for their skillset. Often marginalized folks doubt their skills and worth and may not apply for a “reach” position- while white cisgender men will apply for positions that are actually out of their skill reach. This creates a disparity in hiring and tips the scales when it comes to the demographic of leadership positions. If you do decide to do invitations of this sort, make sure that you are not stating that this is a job offer for that position, but that you think they may have the skills necessary to be successful. Although this type of transparency may cause dissension for those who think they are prepared for a position when your view is not in alignment with assessment, it can result in honest feedback conversations that can help staff members in the long run.
Allison note: This is a discussion TSCS members have been having in Slack this week, too!
Returning staff may be one of the most important resources that we can tap into. With a good strong basis of return staff you will have irreplaceable institutional knowledge that will ultimately make your job more focused on high level operational efforts as opposed to making sure the frontline staff know all the words to the camp cheer (don’t get me wrong- you need to participate in the camp cheer as often as possible but not at the detriment of making sure the books are balanced and the staff get paid.) Selecting return staff is a delicate balancing act between valuing returner’s contributions and not inviting staff to return just to fill empty seats. However, transparency in this conversation from start to finish will position your returners and yourself for future success.