Building Principles: On Capital Campaigns

by Rick Stryker, P.E.

I'm a giant fan of clever TV commercials. Have you seen the one for a certain job service where two office workers are in a jungle, and one unsuspecting individual goes for a plate of donuts? Even as the other fellow is trying to warn him about it being a trap, the hungry one reaches for a pastry and falls into a pit; he's trapped in a pointless, endless meeting. It seems that capital campaigns at camps follow a pattern not much different from going after those easy donuts and landing in the bottom of the pit. And, since really large fund-raising efforts (and the capital projects that follow) don't happen more than a handful of times in any one career, there's a fresh crop of folks grabbing at the easy treats all the time. The lessons learned from one experience are often forgotten or lost before the next campaign rolls around. This month, we're going to look at some of the most common pitfalls associated with large-scale efforts to raise money for improved facilities, and we'll look at how you might avoid them the next time around.

You can put lipstick on a pig . . . but it's still a pig.

In our situation, a coat of paint is no substitute for real, substantial ongoing care. Raising money for new facilities when the existing ones are in bad shape is more than a challenge. It's nearly impossible! This is a two-pronged issue. First, savvy contributors look at what you have and their physical condition as an indication of how prior gifts have been cared for. Convincing donors that their money is in good hands where they can see a different history before their eyes may be an impossible task. Next, without having a detailed assessment of what's in place and how it fits into the program plans, dumb stares will be all that's available to answer potential donors' questions about what it would cost to overhaul a building rather than constructing a replacement.

Closing the Barn Door After the Horse Is Gone

Some capital campaigns focus specifically on deferred maintenance items. But to try to raise money for work before you know what it may cost is short-sighted at best. Imagine that a contributor donates a substantial sum for renovation of a building. With money in hand, a contractor's hired to re-roof, replace windows, and add heat and air conditioning. After the exterminator was finished and the insect damage repaired (!), it appeared that the worst was over because the shell was done just in time for the winter. The contractor was getting ready to install the heat when he discovered that the foundation was failing. Unbelievable? Impossible? I wish that it weren't so. It happens more often than folks will admit, and it's because they're simply in a hurry to run before they're ready to crawl, let alone walk.

It may be painful, maybe even embarrassing, but complete an honest and detailed inspection of what you have and what it would take to put each facility on an acceptable standing. What's "acceptable?" Generally speaking, my standard is that each facility should be in a condition and repair such that an adult guest, your insurance underwriter, and the local building construction inspector would take no exception. That's a tall order for sure, but isn't that where the facility should be all along? With all of the other distractions vying for parents' money, the bar has been raised to get campers in your door. It's what's required to be competitive.

If You Build It, They Will Come

Unless you want to be in the business of competing with the Orlando-style resorts, you may be on a fast track to frustration and disappointment. If you think about it, the difference between camps and a theme park is found in a single word: "Program." Your marketing materials promise a life-changing experience that only your organization can provide. The facilities and amenities of the site ought to be intertwined with the program, supporting it and providing the experiential icing on the cake. The facilities themselves should never be the focus of camp if for no other reason than any attraction at one facility can be duplicated somewhere else. Consider ropes courses. Not long ago, folks were scrambling to keep up with the industry's Joneses, and the course installers couldn't keep up with the demand. Before very long, most everyone who had the space and the money had one. Today, with the exception of the organizations where this sort of experiential education was and is an integral part of the program, many camps are now struggling with the cost of maintaining, operating, supervising, and insuring an attraction.

You need to look hard and long before adding attractions to camp. Program is what makes camp, camp. Age-specific program offerings will allow campers to grow into and through a range of experiences that they'll keep for a lifetime. Don't try to compete with the water park by being one. Instead, let your facilities support and enhance the programs that set you apart.

The "Five-Color Cartoon"

We've all seen the blackline map of Camp Wherever with dark green trees, light green fields, brown roofs, gray roads and trails, and blue water. The idea of that display is to convey the relative location of the facilities at camp both existing and proposed. As a concept tool, it can really help folks envision the facility in a future state by providing a simple, clear visual aid around which donors and staff can rally. The utility of the five colors is pretty clear, but why would I call it a "cartoon?" Sadly, it's because most of the time, little to no consideration has been made as to the real-world limitations of the site. When the time comes to actually construct that first building, it turns out that the organization is still years away from construction. Infrastructure components like water supply and sewage disposal, parking, lighting, sedimentation and erosion control, and storm water management facilities are most often given only a nod if considered at all. Local jurisdictions often have land development procedures including zoning regulations that may have a fundamental effect on not only where facilities go, but even whether they are permitted. More often than not, none of these issues has been considered when the consultant prepared the drawing, mostly because they require a substantial amount of planning that would constrain the consultant's ability to deliver the plan that the client is requesting. You might think that they've borrowed a phrase from the hospitality industry, "We're in the people-pleasin' business!" because instead of opening all of the closets and checking under the bed for regulatory gremlins, the consultant focuses on telling the client what they want to hear. Without a doubt, the fivecolor cartoon is a super tool, but it is by no means a finished product.

The Cart in Front of the Horse?

Smart development directors will tell you that there is a lot of timing involved in an effective and successful capital campaign. Fund raising can drag out to a point where it's counterproductive. Donors begin to get anxious about seeing their contributions come to life as promised. If plans aren't ready for construction promptly, people may begin to feel cheated. Worse yet, if the five-color cartoon has to be overhauled completely in order to gain local approvals, they may feel like they were misled or that the organization doesn't have its act together.

What about the five-color cartoon and the horse pushing the cart? When you're considering a "master plan" document to guide the long-term growth and development of your property and program, make sure that all of the bits and pieces are accounted for before you unveil the future of camp. Sure, go ahead, raise money by the bucketfuls! But while you're doing that, get all of the approvals and regulatory hurdles cleared so when you're ready to start building, you are truly ready to go.

Nonprofit agencies live and die by both the generosity of their donors and the skill by which capital campaigns are managed from beginning to end. Make sure that your organization is ready to seize success by tackling the not-so-fun parts of facilities planning before the first fund-raising event. Remember the adage, "Fail to plan, and plan to fail."

Rick Stryker is a professional engineer with Camp Facilities Consulting, providing study, design, permitting, and construction consultation services to the camp and conference center community. Camp personnel may contact him at 570-296-2765 or by e-mail at

Originally published in the 2008 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.