The Overstaffing Fix: Prevent Burnout, Boost Camp Sustainability
The fall, for most camp professionals, is a time for rest, rejuvenation, and reflection about the previous summer season.
For me, that reflection never really happened until October(ish) because that’s when I finally felt like I re-emerged from the depths of my camp stress and chaos.
I think universally, camp people understand this feeling. I’ve heard sooooo many camp pros over the years, especially recently/ post-pandemic, describe their summers as a type of isolation or drowning. It feels like the majority of us are really great at naming/ describing this feeling, but aren’t super great at figuring out how to make it stop. I’ve been thinking about the camp industry and the sustainability of it all, and it seems like the future feels a little… Bleak? Especially if things keep pressing on the way they are now.
I mean, think about it… Camp is so freaking hard. Take the obvious “we’re in charge of children’s health, safety, and wellbeing” out of the equation, and we are still left with so many challenges at hand to just… Figure out. And more often than not, figure out without a lot of help, guidance, or support. So like, of course we feel isolated. Of course we are drowning under the pressure.
So How Can We Make Camp Feel More Sustainable?
On one of the recent podcast episodes, “Reflecting on the Camp Season” with Allison, Alice, and EmJ, I started thinking more about what we can do to make camp more sustainable for us as professionals… as humans.
In the episode, I heard Alice mention that one of their goals was to take care of themselves, and not feel guilty about taking a nap. And I was like, “Yeah! Why do we feel guilty about rest?” So relatable, but so ridiculous, right?
The camping industry as a whole, feels like it sort of runs on this model of give us everything you have and you’ll make a difference here. You’ll feel good about what you do. You’re giving back to the community. But like, what is that community giving back to us? Camp professionals definitely don’t get paid what they deserve, or get ample time off, or have an even remotely “normal” schedule when the summertime rolls around. We give up our time, our energy, our families/ friends to commit to this mission, and end up feeling spit out on the other side… just to do it all over again.
Now, this might be a pessimistic view on the industry, because of course, there are so many good things about being a camp professional, but we can’t ignore that we are all burning out and have no idea how to manage it. I was on the phone with Scott Arizala last year, and we had a conversation that made me realize there is something tangible we can do to manage it… And it’s so glaringly obvious/ simple. Overstaff.
If You Have the Staff, You Can Do Anything.
One line I’ll never forget that Scott said to me during that phone call was, “If you have the staff, you can do anything.”
And I know that’s kind of like a duhhh thing, but it was so groundbreaking for me. I wondered why I hadn’t ever prioritized more staff in my proposed budgets and overall staffing structure. Why wouldn’t I hire 10 extra counselors every year? I know that at least three won’t show up to training, two won’t vibe with camp, one will get fired for something, and this will all happen within the first half of our summer season. Not only that, but with being over staffed, the stakes aren’t so high. Counselors can be sick without feeling guilty, leadership staff can rest and take a nap without feeling wrong for doing so. The house of cards won’t fall down if the director leaves for an evening to have dinner with their family.
In the camping industry, we often default to this scarcity mindset and make detrimental decisions that usually center around bare-minimum staffing. But what if we changed that? What if we made it a priority to always be over staffed? What if that was the norm instead of the outlier? Don’t get me wrong, hiring enough people is already hard… However, this is the most important part about making your camp program work, and attempting to make it sustainable.
This might call for some change in your hiring practices. Maybe you start recruitment earlier, maybe you offer an incentive for return staff to refer a friend, maybe you reach out to organizations to establish partnerships that are mutually beneficial, maybe you cut your program back to a realistic state of camper population to staff ratio.
How does this work on a summer camp budget?
I think there are a lot of different ways that you can move across the spectrum from scarcity to abundance in staffing, but one of the most critical touch points will always be your budget. Budget season is around the corner for the majority of camps, so here are a few things you can try to move towards an overstaffed model:
- Start with your dream staffing structure. This should look like the most support systems in place for your camp, while also being over staffed after that. This will/should be your most expensive line item.
- Once you understand where that overall staffing expense hovers, look at your program costs and see where you can get creative. Could you get some of these supplies donated throughout the year? Could you start an Amazon wishlist? Could you run an appeal to your camp families/ members of your organization? Do you really need all the things you think you need? Sure, a new aqua toy is cool, but could that $10,000 funnel into your staffing expense?
- After you work out your program costs, start thinking about your camp pricing. Chances are, you aren’t charging enough for your “product." Raising your camp tuition even slightly can have major benefits/effects to you attaining the overstaffed staffing structure of your dreams, without gouging your camp families.
- Compile support for this shift. More often than not, I’ve seen camps default to staffing structures that fit the minimum requirement to save money and not lower their bottom line. Making this shift might very well do that for your organization, so be prepared to defend why it’s worth it. Look at past staff retention rates and discuss how losing valuable staff members to burnout is more costly to your program in the long run.
- Know that this might take some time. Maybe you don’t necessarily get to your dream staffing structure during the first year, but you get ¼ of the way there and your program is ¼ better for it. Those strides might need to happen for a few years before the dream is attained, but it’s worth inching towards it.
Budgeting like this, especially if you’re not used to it, can be hard. Here’s a staff budgeting tool to help you get started!