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Dave Bell from asked me to write a post about transitioning to a new camp a couple of months ago.  I did my best to procrastinate, but this proved too interesting a topic to put off.

While some of us may be fortunate enough to spend our entire careers at one camp, most of us will work for multiple programs at multiple facilities.  Each camping program has its own traditions.  They sing their own songs.  They play their own games.  We, as camp professionals arriving at a new facility, need to figure out how to acclimate – fast.

How do we ensure this transition is successful?  Having worked with 3 YMCAs in the last 15 years (and 6 camps), I thought I’d share a couple of observations:

  1. Make sure you know why you’re there.  You were just hired for this great new camp gig.  Congratulations!  While you may be charming, witty, and good-looking – chances are that those are not the reasons you were hired.  The person or people who hired you believe that you can do something for their camp.  What is that thing?  Did they hire you to grow their program or maintain it?  Were you brought in to create a new teen camp or build a ropes course?  Which is more important, growing revenue or increasing participation?  If you want to keep this job for more than 18 months, make absolutely certain you know why you are there.
  2. Slap a logo on it.  Alright.  You are transitioning to a new camp.  Chances are you are also transitioning away from an old camp.  Get rid of all your old camp t-shirts.  Tear the bumper sticker off your truck.  Give your old camp fleece and hat to someone who can wear them – because you can’t wear them anymore.  You have a new camp.  Make sure you are your new camp’s biggest cheerleader.  Visit the Trading Post and purchase your camp’s stickers, t-shirts, and caps.  Yes, it may cost you a few dollars – but you make the big bucks now, right?
  3. Walk every inch of the camp and turn every door knob.  In preparing this article, I walked upstairs to Sue Williams’ office (she’s the Summer Camps Director at the South Mountain YMCA Camps), and I asked her what advice she would give a new camp director.  This one is 100% her suggestion.  Sue recommends taking your first day and visiting every nook and cranny of your new camp.  Turn every door knob to see what is normally locked and what is normally left open.  Read every sign at every program area.  Taste the coffee and hot chocolate in the dining hall.  This research will prove invaluable on many levels.
  4. Make nice with the camp staff.  You would think this goes without saying.  In my experience it bears repeating.  Take the time to get to know your colleagues and the staff that works for you.  Invest in them, listen to their views, and take advantage of their experience.  Ensure the first real conversation you have with your peers is not to ask them for help.  Focus on building the relationship and reap the rewards of those efforts later – when you really need them.  It is critical that you understand – that you believe – that every member of your camp’s team makes a positive contribution to the success of your program.  Believe it because it is true.  From food service to the facilities crew, from the office to the summer camp cabin – every staff person has the ability to positively contribute to the camp experience.
  5. Shake some hands.  Meet with one alum per week.  Call one current camper family per day.  Bring the summer camp staff in for a retreat weekend (or at least give them all a call).  For all of these interactions, listen more than you speak and be sure to validate their camp experience.  This process does not end after the first 6 months.  Shaking hands and sharing with key stakeholders will continue as long as you have your shiny new camp job.  However, there is something you need to keep in mind while you are having these conversations.  If you take nothing else from this post, please, at all costs, resist the urge to spout these words, “Well, at my last camp . . . .” 
  6. Be a sponge.  Visit your camp’s website.  Read the old blogs.  Watch the videos.  Read the menus.  Visit your camp’s Facebook page.  Read the evaluations.  Listen to how your phones are answered.  Study your new camp like you are preparing for the SATs.
  7. Know your dollars and cents.  Dave Deluca, from YMCA Camp Mason, shares this one.  Make it a mission to learn your budget – whether you’re the assistant summer camp director or the CEO.  Know your budget.  Which programs generate money for your organization?  On which programs is your organization choosing to lose money?  If you provide scholarships or financial assistance for your programs, where does it come from?  Follow the money and you will determine the strengths and weaknesses of your camp.
  8. Don’t try and change the world in your first 6 months – unless you have no choice.  If you have the luxury of stepping into a program that is doing well (i.e. hitting budget, attracting new participants, demonstrating good retention rates), be patient.  Observe a season.  See what your new camp does well.  Ask “why?”  Determine what areas you can plus and make a list of what you feel needs to change.  Make those changes with respect.  If you don’t have this luxury, avoid making decisions out of fear.  Watch, listen, and be decisive.  If you have to act quickly to repair the program, go with established best practices in the first 6 months.  After 6 months, prepare to get radical.  Write the “big outrageous plan” and get feedback from people you respect in the field.  Listen to that feedback and then write a better plan.  Don’t hesitate.  Trust the plan and run with it.
  9. Start saying “we.”  When you’re talking about your new camp’s programs, staff, and heritage, you need to use the words “we” and “ours.”  You may not have been canoeing Lake Swim-a-lotta since 1924, but you need to talk like you have been.  It matters.

Congratulations on your new job.  You were chosen for a reason.  If I may offer one more suggestion, leave it better than you found it.  With each major decision you make at your new camp, ask yourself if this change will leave your camp better than you found it.  I ask myself this question at least once a week.  Quite frankly, it helps me sleep at night.

We’ll see you at Camp!


For more information on Nathan’s camp programs, visit the South Mountain YMCA Camps website at

Summer Camp Source: Nathan Scott Brant