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How the American Camp Association Has Evolved Through Certain Crisis
Crises are not new to camps or to the camp movement. Two world wars, the Great Depression of the early 1930s, and a polio epidemic all tested the viability of camps and their camp association. Each crisis demanded an examination of possible approaches and tested the creativity of the movement.
Examination of four problematic periods in the past half-century of organized camps may add perspective to the recent American economic crisis and its long-term effect on camps, as well as the evolution of the American Camp Association (ACA).
Establishing a National Home for Camps
The development of a consistent and stable professional organization for camp directors grew out of many struggles to gain a meeting of minds over a twenty-five-year period from the start of the Camp Directors Association of America in 1910 and the National Association of Directors of Girls' Private Camps in 1916. Both merged into the Camp Directors Association (CDA) in 1924. CDA struggled to maintain a consistent membership of around 400 and to find a headquarters location (moving from Boston to New York to Ann Arbor to Chicago).
This was a stormy period in which leaders from various parts of the country were attempting to understand differences in camp philosophies and attitudes in different parts of the country while trying to gain acceptance of some type of professional standards for the field. Directors, as always, were strong minded, independent and assertive; at times creating discord, competing interests, and little harmony.
By 1935, membership dropped to 200 and the CDA was reorganized as the American Camping Association1 and moved to Chicago in rented quarters. In 1955, Indiana University offered the ACA a lease of six acres on its Outdoor Education Campus at Bradford Woods, near Martinsville, Indiana, at $1 a year. This opportunity for stability enabled the small association to raise $75,000 from its membership to build a headquarters building.
The symbol of a permanent national headquarters owned by its members with a small staff of six inspired the association's membership and laid the foundation for the growth of the organization. By 1960, ACA had more than 7,000 members. Though a debate would continue off and on for years as to whether a metropolitan location might be more advantageous to the association, the financial and symbolic stability offered by a national headquarters building has endured.
Confronting an Ethical Issue
In the late '50s and early '60s of the last century, the civil rights movement created a new sensitivity to the willingness of our society to serve all persons regardless of race or ethnic origin.
As early as 1950, ACA adopted a resolution that national meetings would be held in places that were open to all. In 1965, the association's board recognized the importance of clarifying its statements relating to race and creed. Amendments to ACA's bylaws were adopted in 1966 that stated ACA membership and all of its sponsored meetings (national, regional, sectional) would be open to all persons, regardless of "race or creed," and that hiring practices of the association would not make employment decisions based on "race, creed, or sex."
A third statement was added which "recommended that ACA member camps be opened to persons of all racial or religious groups, recognizing the right of a camp to give priority to its own membership" (ACA Board of Directors, 1966).
The discussion of this latter statement at the section, national board, and Council of Delegates level created great unease on the part of directors of many private independent camps who were unsure that the parents of their clientele would be accepting of such integration. Many camps still did not accept African American campers and felt this requirement was contrary to the ethics of the association.
Though this appeared to be a non-issue in many parts of the country, it created extensive discussions and disagreements, particularly within the sections that covered the southern portion of the country. Most camps in the southern part of the country had not yet integrated their camps. Though Brown v. Board of Education had been decided by the Supreme Court in 1954, many school systems had not yet been integrated.
Leaders in ACA from various sections pointed out that such a requirement would lead to a loss of a number of camps in the association's membership. The largest numbers of such private independent camps were located in North Carolina and Texas, though additional ones were scattered in other southern states. Owners of these camps were most vocal in stating that their present clientele would not be accepting of integration and that such a move would endanger their livelihood.
Subsequently, changes in ACA's constitution that made these changes legal were brought to the 1966 Council of Delegates and approved. As a result, a large number of private independent camps in North Carolina and Texas did not renew their membership or accreditation the following year. Association income suffered, as well as its leadership, since a number of these directors had provided strong leadership in sections, the southern region, and national board.
The overall camp movement was supportive of the change, feeling it was consistent with the mission of the organization. It took over twenty-five years before any significant number of the dissenting directors or their camps returned to the association. In this period, hard feelings were eased as some directors changed and acceptance of integration became more prevalent.
It was not until 1970 that the association's bylaws were revised to require that a compliance statement be signed by camp directors desiring accreditation to the effect that they complied with "the Standards and membership policies of the Association" (ACA Board of Directors, 1970). This provided some enforcement of the earlier statement.
Threat of Bankruptcy
Another crisis arose in the early '70s when the association found itself in dire financial straits. With a declining income, the national board had wrestled with the development of a more equitable membership/ accreditation financial arrangement for several years. These difficulties resulted in a special study committee and the adoption of a new membership structure in 1972. Shortly thereafter, the association executive vice president retired and additional time and efforts went into filling that vacancy.
With the arrival of the new executive in the fall of 1974, two immediate steps were taken to help with the situation: bringing Camping Magazine back in-house to increase future revenue and disbanding the Family Camping Federation, which had created a significant drain on the association's finances.
It was apparent that the association had a negative cash/asset position. This required a cash infusion to provide ongoing capital. No source of a cash infusion existed except to seek a bank loan. Two factors made the acquisition of such a loan extremely difficult:
- The association headquarters leased the land on which it sat and banks would not consider it for collateral.
- The economic downturn of the early '70s was affecting financial markets.
Finally, a Chicago bank made a loan with the provision that all membership payments would be mailed directly into the bank for deposit there, and paperwork forwarded to national headquarters. This loan provided some relief, but national staff were furloughed for two weeks or more before the end of the fiscal year to help ACA weather the financial strain.
With these steps underway, the ACA National Board was asked to take two additional steps:
- An unprecedented personalized appeal to ACA sections to make loans from their section savings (which in some cases were significant) to the national organization. This was the first awareness most sections had of the extent of the association's financial crisis.
- An appeal to the membership for persons to buy a life membership, the funds to be used as a reserve for cash flow purposes.
As ACA executives and board members traveled to sections explaining the extent of the situation, sections began to respond generously. Within a year, there was sufficient cash to allow normal operations. It took several years to regain financial viability and repay the loans. Later, some sections changed their loans to contributions.
The association survived a possible bankruptcy through the unified support of its membership through the sections. A sub-board of national trustees from within and outside camping was established to develop and oversee an endowment fund. Out of this show of unity, an endowment was well established, and by 1986, the membership gave over $1 million to build an addition to its national headquarters.
Helping Camps Protect Against Child Abuse
The next issue arose in 1983, as the nation was suddenly shocked by extensive news reports of accusations of sexual abuse of a child in a preschool in California. As the initial shock of the populace began to abate, other abuse allegations occurred in care centers in several eastern states. Over time many of the allegations proved false, but the national consciousness had been alerted to the dangers of sexual abuse of children.
Though none of the cases reported in the media involved camps, it was apparent to national youth-serving organizations and camp leadership at the national level that camps were prime candidates for similar problems because of the age-group served, as well as the proximity of adult leadership to children in those living situations.
At the time, there was an informal organization of camp specialists serving national youth organizations and religious groups that met two to three times a year to share developing trends and concerns. That National Camp Executives Group researched how some organizations were developing preventative measures and what unique issues the camp setting offered. Out of this grew a set of voluntary guidelines for camps to protect both campers and staff from abuse incidents.
From this, articles in Camping Magazine and sessions at section and national camp conferences dealt with these guidelines and the broader implications of potential child abuse in the camp setting. The National Standards Board reviewed revisions of existing standards and developed new standards in regard to the issue. A telephone hotline was instituted at the ACA National Headquarters to assist camp directors in dealing with crisis issues. Professional public relations assistance was secured to examine the potential issues and assist as needed.
A Responsive Community
Though these are only four of a number of crisis points affecting the camp movement over the years, each of these demonstrates the ability of the camp community to respond in a positive fashion rather than in panic or retreat when faced with crisis. In the first case, camps overcame differences in philosophy and practices to join together and raise the funds for a national headquarters building that would develop a sense of permanence for the association.
In the second, camps stood by an ethical principle even though it might endanger the association's membership numbers, unity, and finances.
In the third case, groups of camps united once again not only to ensure the survival of their national organization, but also to provide the underpinning of an endowment program to help protect its future.
In the fourth, camps examined an emerging national social issue and took proactive steps in advance of such a crisis that could potentially affect camps and the children in those camps.
Two former presidents of the association said it well:
"Indeed, it is living proof of the indestructibility of camping interests that the [a]ssociation has survived."
— Barbara Ellen Joy, 1945 (Eells, 1946, p. 113)
"[ACA], once born, often struggled, but always survived with the firm dedication and determination of leaders who had a vision to see the potential which was and is inherent within the organization."
— Fred Rogers, 1960 (Eells, 1960, p. 114)
1The original and legal name of the association is American Camping Association, which preceded the change of its public name to American Camp Association in 2004.
ACA Board of Directors. (March 1966). Minutes.
ACA Board of Directors. (February 1970). Minutes.
Eells, E. (1946). History of organized camping: The first 100 years. Unpublished report.
Eells, E. (1960). Fifty year report to ACA membership. Unpublished report.
Armand Ball, Sanibel, Florida, directed church and YMCA camps, was executive of ACA 1974–1988, and co-authored with his wife Basic Camp Management. An ACA volunteer for over fifty years, he helped found the International Camping Fellowship. E-mail the author at email@example.com.