Building Your Dream Staff

by Constance Scharff

We all make hiring mistakes. Sometimes, the person we thought we got a sense of in the interview process is not at all the individual who arrives at camp. Other times, we have an intuition that a person may not be quite right, but we override that foreboding because of a glowing résumé or references. On occasion, we might feel pressured because the season is about to begin, so we go with a warm body or two and hope for the best. Any of these choices can lead to staffing nightmares down the road.

Hiring can be a joy. You can find and keep your dream staff with a little planning and effort during the screening and training process. To find and retain your dream staff, you'll need to define and keep your camp values in mind, train what you cannot hire, plan for your camp culture, and continually empower your staff. This may sound difficult, but it is actually more about how you manage your staff than adding work to your day. If you hire well, you will find that training and empowering your staff is as enriching for you as it is for them.

Planning for Camp Culture

Before beginning the hiring process, it is critical to plan for your camp culture. Camp culture includes the values that are most important in your camp and the manner in which your staff is asked to teach and live those values. How you rank various values will influence your ways of work. If you hire people with common values, you will build the foundation for a consistent camp culture and find people who will work to a shared purpose.

What are the values that you hope to instill in campers? These might include: fairness, caring, fun, safety, inclusivity, communication, teamwork, or respect. Values are different from skill building in that they can be a focus of any activity. Values develop differently at various types of camps. If your camp is for youth to learn peaceful communication skills, your facility has a different focus than a soccer camp where teamwork is a prioritized value. Choosing staff members who share your camp's values will blend together well and work toward meeting your outcomes, whatever they may be.

Your staff's diversity will also have a major impact on camp culture. Varied experiences and points of view can add to or detract from staff cohesion — depending on how diverse groups are managed. Diversity is not just about race. Country of origin, ethnicity, age, religious background, and experience all play into the diversity of your camp's staff. Hiring a diverse staff is vital for campers, as it allows them to have a greater number of people among whom to find an adult to relate. Hiring a diverse staff with shared values will help you add depth to your staff's and campers' experiences.

Creating or developing staff and camper traditions can also improve or solidify your camp culture. Some camps offer special ceremonies or incentives for campers who have attended for at least three years. Other camps have wishing ceremonies where campers and staff members can explore personal hopes for the future. One camp initiated the entire staff as members of an elite club. In order to earn the bandanna worn around the left ankle, a staff member had to do a good deed for another. Campers, not to be upstaged by the staff, got into the joy of doing good deeds to earn bandannas too. Many camps have mailboxes where campers and staff can write to a camp mascot and receive replies. The point is that camp traditions should be positive and foster the values that are identified as key to your camp culture.

Competency-Based Interviewing

There are two areas of personal attributes about which any camp director or administrator needs to know before hiring an applicant. The first is the specific skills this person would bring to the camp. If you're looking for a lifeguard, odds are that you won't hire someone for that position who is afraid of water. However, you might consider someone who is a certified lifeguard, has current qualifications in first aid, CPR, Water Safety Instructor (WSI), and three years experience on the job. The second attribute has to do with the applicant's values. "Does this applicant have values and priorities in line with those of my camp?" An applicant who believes in the outcomes of your camp will more than likely possess the internal motivation to do a good job.

The importance of hiring applicants who share a camp's values cannot be underestimated. Who would make a better camp staff person for your horsemanship program: someone who has horsemanship certification and is unable to articulate his/her values or someone who values working with your camp population and has seven years experience with horse 4-H? The question is not who has the most experience, although that is important. The real question is: "Which applicant has the internal motivation to be a successful member of my camp staff team?"

Of course, what you don't hire, you'll have to train. As an American Camp Association (ACA) camp, you'll certainly recognize the value of having staff members who are certified and experienced in all sorts of skills — from archery and lifesaving to boating and horsemanship. To this end, it is useful to recognize that training a good person who shares your commitment to outcomes may pay off in more ways than ticking off a standard during an ACA visitation. Showing staff members that you care enough about them to train them can lead to staff retention, greater motivation, and positive word of mouth about your camp once the staff person returns home.


Your compensation package for staff will make a difference in whether or not they choose your camp over another facility. Again, gauging what is of value to your applicants will be an important part of determining compensation. Compensation is more than salary — as camps that rely on volunteers will attest. Compensation includes salary, personal development, food and lodging, co-workers/team building, and quality of programming and ability to meet stated outcomes. Satisfying staff compensation needs means meeting expectations and being honest.

It is important for your team building and staff retention that you are very honest about what you and your facility can offer to potential staff members. For example, if your facility is extremely rustic with pit latrines and staff sleeping under the stars, it's best to let applicants know this up front. A virtual tour of your facility would be ideal to help applicants decide if your camp is right for them. Camp policies are also important to many applicants. What are your policies on dress, body art, and time off? Do you offer any amenities for staff members? Do you have a staff house or vehicles staff may use on time off? Will you pay for precamp training? Do you assist with travel costs? Your pre-employment package should address all of these issues.

Praise, recognition, and perks might also be part of your compensation package. There is no unanimity of thought on what types of recognition or perks are appropriate. Some camp directors swear by earned recognition, such as "Staff of the Week," as incentives for excellent performance. Others shun such ideas as bribes. Whatever your thoughts on the topic, you might want to consider various types of rewards from which you might choose to compensate your staff.

Empowering Your Staff to Excel

Once you've found the right staff person, the wooing shouldn't stop. A wonderful, warm letter from the camp director(s) starts you out on a positive note. Do you have a CD of camp songs or camp photos? If so, send those along as well. This will help you begin to build your camp culture and get your staff member in the camp spirit. Set up a monitored chat group so that your staff can begin to get to know one another. You'll be pleasantly surprised by how enthusiastic they help one another become. Anything you can do to help your staff feel welcome and important will go a long way toward their initial excitement and retention over the course of the season.

A precamp chat area can help you begin to orient your staff. Returning staff members can take on leadership roles in this forum. For example, you might have one staff member lead a discussion asking people to share personal accomplishments. Returning staff members might share how camp has had a positive impact on their lives. As people focus on their strengths, you'll be able to gauge who might be able to assist with precamp training by learning more about staff member experiences and areas of interest.

Both new and returning staff can be asked to participate in your precamp training. This will help reinforce the development of your camp culture, empower staff to share their skills, and keep your training fresh by providing a variety of training methods and styles for your staff. Watching these presentations may also help you to develop individual development plans for staff members to help them become the best staff person possible over the course of the season.

Plans to help individual staff members improve their performance, grow, and increase their responsibility are significant aspects of staff development. Allowing staff to experiment with new ideas or ways of work will allow for innovation in your program and may provide campers with new activities. Increasing staff responsibility where appropriate allows staff members to learn new skills such as supervision, delegation, or planning. Giving staff members freedom of choice in regard to activity implementation provides campers with some novelty in camp programming. Letting staff members know formally and informally what you see as their strengths and weaknesses allows you to work on developing both as you progress together over the season. Ongoing interaction, up/down and down/up reviews, and inservices not only fulfill ACA-accreditation standards but also help to improve staff members' energy and vigor for your camp program.

Staff Retention

Available from ACA
Training Terrific Staff by Michael Brandwein

Most camps like to have staff who return from one year to the next. These staff members can anchor the camp staff by providing cohesion, connection to values and traditions, and leadership. The question many directors and administrators wrangle with is, "How many and which staff members do I really want to return?"

If you've done a good job with hiring, training, and supporting a quality staff, you're likely to get many staff who want to return to have another wonderful summer at your camp. This is a benefit for you as it enables you to pick and choose whom you would like to return. You can work to increase the number of returning applicants by maintaining year-round contact with your staff, such as through a December newsletter or e-card.

Even if every camp staff member reapplied to work at your facility, you probably have a few that are not the best fit for you. This is natural, even if you had a great summer. You will probably also want to make room for people you have grown into staff, if you have a Counselor-in-Training program at your facility. If international staff members are part of your community, there are many who, depending on their country of origin, will be unable to obtain a visa for a second or third year at your facility. You may have those who have been at your camp too long and are no longer fresh or have developed a sense of entitlement about their position. Family situations often change over the course of a year, and some of your staff may be unable to return. There are people for whom you might not have a position, such as someone who is truly ready to be a director.

Whatever the reason, it is good staff management to rehire only the best of the returning applicants on your roster. By doing so, you will start yourself again on a solid track to creating and recreating your dream camp staff year after year.

Praise and Recognition

Many camps provide staff members with perks to show appreciation for a job well done. While bonuses are not required, some camp directors and administrators have found these tools useful in staff development and retention. Recognition might include:

An extra T-shirt
A photo of the whole staff as an end-of-season gift
Recognition as "Staff of the Week" with a photo placed on the bulletin board where parents and campers might see it
Gift card to local store to those who are "Staff of the Week"
End-of-season monetary bonus
Mid-season staff party
Special events/activities for staff, such as horseback ride or pool time
Food provided to staff (such as sodas or ice cream)
Extra time off
Random acts of kindness
Comfortable staff house
Rented movies for time off
Use of camp vehicle

Constance Scharff has been a camp professional for fifteen years and has held most positions at camp. Most recently, she served for three years as camp administrator for a Girl Scout camp in Southern California. Scharff is currently completing a master's degree in transformative leadership at the California Institute of Integral Studies. She also mentors young camp professionals.

Originally published in the 2005 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.