Employee Involvement: Applications for Summer Camp

by Meredith Cambre and Gwynn M. Powell, Ph.D.

Imagine you are the director of a summer camp. It's April, and your camper registrations are not coming in fast enough. You are not sure how many staff to hire with such low numbers of campers. You hope the situation will improve, but for now, you wonder just how the camp will survive this summer, financially speaking, with low registrations. You are frantically trying to find campers to fill the spots, and you begin to consider new and even desperate ideas to improve the situation. Unfortunately, this is not such a far-fetched scenario for many camp directors. Although we cannot offer any quick fixes, this article discusses an aspect of Total Quality Management (TQM) that applies to the camp setting and employee involvement.

The Problem

The inspiration for implementing employee involvement in camp was the result of a real camp facing a real problem. The real camp is a nonprofit that is owned and operated by a local council of a national camping organization and offers residential camp for boys and girls. In addition, they operate several off-season programs, such as horseback riding lessons, birthday parties, and rentals.

In the spring of 2003, this camp was facing the same situation described earlier. The camper registrations were much lower than they had been the year before. As of April 4, the number of camper registrations was 256, which was down from last year's 342 at the same date. Since camper registrations represent a primary source of revenue for the camp, this decline was a problem. Figure 1 shows the decline in camper registrations as of April 4 for the years 2000-2003. The council was also facing a reduction in funding from outside sources (such as grants and donations) of over 26 percent.

The decline in funding from outside sources and camper registrations was already affecting the economic situation of the camp in the spring. First, with fewer campers registered for the summer, the camp director was facing decisions about how many staff to hire, what program supplies to buy, and how much food to order. Fewer camper registrations meant fewer staff needed, and fewer camper registrations also meant less supplies and food to be purchased. The camp's budget for 2003 was based on estimated revenue from camper registrations, and such a decline in revenue was causing budgetary decisions to be difficult. Also, making such decisions is difficult when balanced against the hope that camper registrations will increase as the camp season gets closer.

According to the American Camp Association (ACA), these financial problems are not unique to the camp in this study (2001). Nonprofit camps in general are struggling to determine how to best serve campers with the limited funding they have and how to find more (ACA 2001). Nonprofit camp directors are being forced to concentrate more on efficiency than they have done in the past, and a lot of their focus is on making the most of the limited resources available to them (ACA 2001). Mission achievement and adequate budgeting are connected and must be done together (ACA 2001). The need to stay afloat financially, among other things, has resulted in some changes in the ways camps are operated (Lyons 1998). Indeed, camp directors are facing a work environment more like the corporate world and are being forced to adapt in order for their camps to survive (ACA 2001).

Employee Involvement: A Possible Solution

There are several ways to address a decline in funding for a camp. At their roots, financial solutions are all based on two things: (1) reducing expenses, or spending less money; and (2) increasing revenues, or making more money. Since the problem is that there is less money being generated by the camp, it might seem that the best way to handle the problem is to reduce costs so that less money is going out of the camp. During times of financial trouble, that is exactly what many organizations do. They go into crisis management mode and try to cut costs in whatever way they can to balance the budget (Chastain 1982). However, cost cutting is not easy or productive in the long term (Delvin & Godey 1994). When costs are cut, it can be difficult for organizations to meet their long-term goals or achieve their missions (Chastain 1982; Delvin & Godey 1994). Organizations that are experiencing financial trouble would do better to focus on cost management rather than cost cutting.

Total Quality Management

Total Quality Management (TQM) is a business management model that focuses on the continuous improvement of efficient operations in all parts of a corporation (Foster 2001). It has been shown that this efficiency, which is key to TQM, can result in greatly reduced costs and increased revenues for corporations. TQM has also shown success in nonprofit service organizations (Renee 1999). However, the usefulness of this management model for the camp setting has not been assessed. Renee (1999) says that "very little literature exists on how to apply the basic quality principles" to human-service organizations and other nonprofits.

TQM vs. the Traditional Approach
TQM is an approach to management that is quite different from the traditional approach. See Table 1 for a comparison of traditional management ideas and TQM ideas.

  • The first main difference is that — in the TQM approach — the business is customer driven. In the camp setting, the customers are campers and their parents. Thus, all decisions in the camp should be focused on the value that the decision will provide for campers and their parents. This approach differs from the traditional management approach, in which decisions would be based on the value that the decision provides for the company. Although this difference is subtle, it is very important. A camp cannot continue to improve its services if it does not consider customer value.
  • The second difference between TQM and traditional management is related to the rate of improvement. TQM seeks to improve continuously, meaning that change and growth are constant, and a camp should never be satisfied with the status quo. A camp should always be looking for ways to improve. On the other hand, traditional management seeks to maintain the status quo, and change is often used only in reaction to crisis. Such changes are generally big jumps, like buying all new computers, rather than small steps toward improvement. Such massive changes can cost a great deal of money and do not often provide the benefits that are promised.
  • The most important difference between TQM and traditional management, as it relates to camp, is the value placed on employee involvement in the organization. According to traditional management, each employee serves one distinct function and only has power in that function. For instance, problem solving is viewed as "the boss's job." On the other hand, TQM views each employee as part of the bigger system. As such, each employee has power to improve the entire system. Thus, problem solving is everyone's job. In order to improve the whole system or any part of it, it is necessary to empower employees with the knowledge, skills, and motivation to improve the organization.

Total Staff Involvement

TQM requires the total commitment and involvement of the entire staff (Foster 2001). TQM is a management style that must start from the top (Foster 2001), with the total commitment of camp directors. The commitment required extends to every corner of the camp's organizational chart (Foster 2001), from directors to counselors to food service staff. The reason for this employee involvement is that the camp's program staff are the ones interacting with children, using supplies, using utilities, and creating the camp's product (the camp experience) for campers. These are the people who are closest to the camp's main source of revenue (camper registrations) and to the camp's main costs (program supplies, food, utilities, etc.). Thus, if there are ways that the camp's product could be improved to increase revenues or the camp could be more efficient to reduce costs, the staff may see them. Camp staff typically have a lot of influence on costs and revenues but are not included in budgetary decisions. Why not capitalize on a resource that every camp has — the knowledge of the staff — to improve continuously?

How Employee Involvement Works at Camp
Because employee involvement is central to the TQM model, the first step for the camp in question was to begin to involve the camp's employees (summer staff) in the camp's financial situation. Employee involvement can take many forms, but one way that was tried in the camp mentioned earlier was an Employee Involvement Program (EIP). The purpose of the EIP was to involve the staff in helping the camp to reduce costs and increase revenues. The program consisted of two EIP meetings, regular weekly check-ins with staff, and visual reminders.

EIP Meeting One
The two EIP meetings occurred early in June (during staff-orientation week) and early in July (during the middle of the summer season). With the staff sitting in a semi-circle, the first meeting began with an explanation of the EIP. Next, the camp was discussed as a business. It was explained that the camp provides a product for customers. For camps, the product is the camp experience for each camper. There are two kinds of customers. First, there are the campers, who actually use the camp's product (the camp experience). Second, there are the parents who determine whether to buy the product offered by the camp (by registering their children). There was also a presentation of the camp's major costs and sources of revenue.

Brainstorming was the next step. The staff were given fifteen minutes, a pen, and several blank Post-it® notes to quietly brainstorm as many ideas as they could generate for the camp to reduce costs and increase revenues. After this, the staff shared their ideas by placing them on flip chart papers posted on the walls of the room. The ideas were organized into categories, including food, maintenance, utilities, program supplies, publicity, fund raising, and risk management. The staff were given five more minutes to write any ideas sparked during the time when they shared their ideas. It was then explained that feasibility, defined as "capable of being accomplished by this staff during this summer" must be considered. The staff chose five main ideas to become the goals of the EIP. These five goals were discussed to determine a plan of action to achieve them. The plan of action addressed who would do what, when, and how it would be done. After this process and agreement, the meeting was adjourned.

EIP Meeting Two
The second meeting in July was run similarly, beginning with updated budget information for the camp, followed by a discussion of the five goals chosen in the first meeting to determine which to keep, which to change, and which to delete. The group then brainstormed new ideas and shared them. Finally, they developed a new set of four goals that integrated the old goals with the new ones. A new plan of action was determined, and the meeting was adjourned.

Regular Check-ins
The EIP utilized regular weekly check-ins and visual reminders. The regular weekly check-ins occurred on opening Sundays during the staff meeting before the campers arrived. During these check-ins, the goals chosen by staff were reviewed. The following questions were asked:

  • What have we tried?
  • What has worked?
  • What has not worked?
  • What should we try differently?
  • What should we keep doing without changing?

The visual EIP reminders were posters hanging above the staff sign in/out table in the office. This area was a high-traffic area for staff, but an area that campers rarely saw. The brightly colored posters listed the goals agreed upon and specific actions associated with each goal. For example, one of the goals chosen was to "recruit campers," and the actions listed along with it were, "Make camp great — they'll come back; invite friends, family, anyone with kids!" Another example of a goal and actions chosen was, "Conserve energy. Turn off lights wherever you go and teach your campers to do the same!"

Effects of Employee Involvement

In order to assess whether the EIP had any impact on the camp's costs and revenues for the summer of 2003, changes in the financial figures for categories chosen as goals for the staff were explored. The categories, figures measured, and specific goals that the staff chose are listed in Table 2.

Goals Chosen by Staff
One of the goals chosen by staff was to recruit campers. They planned to do this by: (1) making contacts with family, friends, and anyone they knew with children to encourage them to register for camp that summer; and (2) providing campers with an excellent camp experience, one they would want to repeat. They also recommended that satisfied campers and parents be allowed to register for camp the following summer (2004) while the camp experience was still fresh in the fall. Based on this recommendation of the staff, the camp director opened camp registrations for 2004 in August of 2003. Previously, camp registrations would not have been open until January.

Camper registrations for the summers of 2000-2003 were reviewed, and there did not seem to be any increase in camper registrations during or after June of 2003 (the date that the EIP began). However, by January 1, camper registrations for 2004 had reached 100. Registrations for 2002 and 2003 did not reach 100 until the middle of March. These results suggest that the staff were not able to help the camp to increase revenues for the summer of 2003, but they may have helped to increase revenues for the summer of 2004.

The other goals chosen by staff were related to cost reduction. The first of the cost-reduction goals was to conserve electricity by including conservation education in the camp program. The next goal chosen by staff was to reduce food waste by serving campers reasonable portions (rather than letting them serve themselves). The last cost-reduction goal chosen by staff was to minimize the cost of program supplies by using natural supplies where possible (such as leaves and sticks for arts and crafts) and maintaining other supplies well.

Financial figures for these categories of costs were reviewed for the years 2000-2003. Because it is logical that with more campers, there are more costs (and fewer costs with fewer campers), the actual figures were divided by the number of campers registered for that summer. These per- camper figures were then multiplied by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) in order to account for inflation in the figures between years. The CPI compares the buying power of one dollar in different years by standardizing dollar amounts against a base year (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2004). The adjusted figures were then compared by date to determine whether the costs for each of the categories discussed were less during and after the EIP. During the summer of 2003, there did not seem to be a cost reduction in utilities nor food and beverage. However, the camp did spend 3 percent less on program supplies per camper during the summer of 2003 than during the summer before.


In the short term, the EIP program was successful in terms of finances and staff culture. The staff achieved their goal of reducing program costs. Although the staff were not able to increase camper registrations for the summer of 2003, they were able to suggest some changes in the camp that have increased the number of early registrations for the summer of 2004. In terms of the staff culture, the EIP seemed to open lines of communication between directors and summer staff that had not been opened before. The directors were very supportive and willing to implement changes in policy and program as suggested by the staff.

Critics of TQM have claimed that the training costs involved in implementing the model will outweigh the cost savings produced by the change (Schmidt 1998). However, the costs resulting from the EIP were minimal. Because the program took place as part of the staff orientation and weekly staff meetings, the only cost directly associated with the EIP is the value of using that time for some other purpose.

The EIP was not without its challenges. It is important to note that there were no changes in camper registrations or utilities and food costs during the summer of 2003. This situation could be the result of trying to assess a TQM effort too early or the fact that some of those costs are fixed. For example, a certain amount of electricity is needed to operate the camp, regardless of the number of campers or the conscientiousness of staff. Thus, it is possible that although the staff did what they could to reduce electricity and food costs, those categories could not have been affected in such a brief time due to fixed costs. Although there were no short-term cost reductions or revenue generations detected for those categories, it does not mean that the program was not successful. It would be necessary to continue the EIP effort and continue examining the financial figures to determine any long-term successes.

Available from the Bookstore
Basic Camp Management 6th Edition
Management Tool Kit (Revised)
Ten Steps to Fundraising Success

TQM is a management style that is meant to be used throughout an organization. If you are a camp director and are thinking about implementing any aspect of TQM in your camp, try to implement them all. Implementing TQM may require big changes in a camp's culture, and these changes will only be successful if they are done together (Renee 1999). Also, TQM is not a quick fix. If positive results are to be achieved, you must stick with it. TQM efforts can show great benefits when they are considered in the long run (Renee 1999). If you are interested in TQM and wondering whether it might be appropriate for your camp, learn more about it. As you learn more about TQM, it will become clear whether it is suitable for your camp.

Because camp directors are facing a work environment more like the corporate world, it is important to explore corporate management models and determine how they can be used in camps. For the camp directors that identified all too well with the scenario presented in the introduction, TQM and employee involvement will not solve their immediate problems. However, if these directors begin to incorporate employee involvement into their camp operations, they may not find themselves facing such a scenario in the future.

American Camp Association. (2001). Camping programs offered by not-for-profit agencies: can they survive? Retrieved April 19, 2003, from www.acacamps.org/nfpc/research.htm.
Chastain, C. E. (1982, November/December). Strategic planning and the recession. Business Horizons, 39-44.
Delvin, J. & Godey, J. (1994). Six steps to effective cost management. CPA Journal, 69 (10), 74.
Foster, T. S. (2001). Managing Quality: An Integrative Approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Lyons, K. D. (1998). Developing a sense of community through counselor orientation in traditional and contemporary summer camps. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Georgia, Athens.

Resources for TQM
The Baldrige National Quality Program Web site explains the criteria for winning the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. The “Frequently Asked Questions” link explains why quality in organizations can be profitable and provides some other useful information about focusing on quality in an organization.

There are several other Web sites that are free and provide useful introductory information about TQM.

If you are still interested in learning more about TQM, consider buying a textbook on the topic. One textbook that is referenced in this article is Managing Quality: An Integrative Approach by Thomas S. Foster.

Meredith Cambre, M.A., earned a business management degree from Louisiana State University and went on to pursue a master's in recreation administration from the University of Georgia. Having completed that degree, she is now the camp director for Camp Ruth Lee in Louisiana which is owned and operated by the Big River Council of Camp Fire USA. She has experience directing both day and resident camps.

Gwynn M. Powell, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at the University of Georgia. Please contact Powell through e-mail, gpowell@coe.uga.edu, for further information regarding article content or to share research ideas.

Originally published in the 2004 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.