Bridging the Gap

by Diane Tyrrell, C.C.D., M.A. Ed.

On one side, there are the emerging professionals, expressing frustration because they are not getting hired as the camp directors, or upper-level administrators, and not understanding why. On the other side are the owners/operators expressing frustration because they can't find qualified applicants to hire as the camp directors or upper-level managers. What's left in the middle is a gap created by skill-set expectations that have not been clearly and/or consistently communicated.

As an industry, we are very good at communicating the message that "camp is fun." We promote fun, develop fun, and train our staff to deliver fun. Camp staff know how to instruct fun, facilitate fun, and debrief fun. Some staff think camp is so much fun they decide to have professional careers in camp or youth development. With dreams of becoming the camp director or administrator, they return to camp each season, march off to college to get degrees in recreation . . . only to suffer from shock when faced with what it really takes to make it in this industry as a director and are not hired.

The problem is that many emerging professionals are lacking the skill sets required to be successful in the job as a camp director. Plus, we as an industry have not always been clear about communicating what the expectations are.

And what we are not telling emerging professionals is that the reality of running a camp is nothing like going to camp or being a seasonal staff member! Just as being a "good" camper does not equate to success as a camp counselor, being a "good" counselor or program staff member does not prepare someone for the demands of running the camp. Skills used for teaching swimming, arts and crafts, ropes course . . . have almost nothing to do with skills required for the day-to-day job of being a camp director! Running a camp is running a business (and this includes nonprofits). No matter how warm and fuzzy the mission statement, running a camp requires the same skills needed to run any business, such as knowledge of finance, human resources, marketing, accounting, etc. (As for the fun message? Being the camp director is often the least fun job in camp.)

Bridging the Gap

In order to help emerging professionals make it to the other side of the gap, we have identified skills and areas of professional knowledge that camp directors use every day—and that owners/operators are looking for when they hire directors/administrators.

In order to ensure this information is relevant and current, we surveyed several hundred directors, owners, and operators representing various types of operations (day, resident, private, nonprofit, special needs, etc.). The responses were so universal that this information could have been written after the first ten replies! In other words, this is what you really need to know how to do and be good at doing.

Skills/Areas of Knowledge that Directors Use Every Day

Attributes Important to Success (and Employment)

Camp directors must have strong skills in financial management, including understanding all of the fiscal processes that impact the camp's operation. Skills in budgeting and ability to understand the camp's financial documents, such as spreadsheets, reports, statements, etc. are also required. Employers also expect directors to have the computer skills required to operate finance and accounting programs.

Critical/Analytical Thinking
A director must have the ability to process information, using critical and analytical thinking, and be able to see the "whole picture" in decision making. Analytical/critical thinking is also required when directors have to process—and generate—statistical data.

Organization/Planning/Time Management
Directors have to juggle a lot of balls at the same time and be able to work in an environment where multitasking is an ongoing, never-ending process. No one is going to tell you "now do this" or "do this next" or "plan for this for next week." You must have planning ability to be able to work several weeks/months/seasons ahead and manage your time accordingly. Additionally, as a director you will be expected to take initiative and get the job done. Time management, including the ability to prioritize issues, is critical to success! Directors must have skills in short- and long-term planning, including strategic planning as applicable. Additionally, the camp director is responsible to ensure good record keeping, including being able to organize and track information.

Communication: Public Speaking/Public Relations
Most directors have some responsibility for representing the camp in public. This requires that they are able to communicate the mission through strong public speaking skills, the ability to make high-impact presentations, and be the "face" of the organization.

Communication: Employees/Volunteers/Customers
Directors constantly communicate with the people around them—employees, volunteers, campers, parents, user groups, etc. In addition to clearly communicating ideas, training, and procedures, among other things, directors must be good listeners, be able to praise the work of others, and be able to give constructive feedback. Directors must have negotiation skills, tact, and the ability to solve problems. Additionally, they should have strong phone skills, as the position requires frequent problem solving with upset parents, as well as program marketing—often over the phone.

Communication: Written
The expectation is that directors have excellent skills in this area, as they must be able to write in a manner that is professional and correct! Camp directors (and job applicants) should clearly understand that e-mail, instant messaging, and text messaging language is not appropriate in a professional setting! (This is such a critical skill that it is a deal-breaker when it comes to employment!) In addition to professional letters and other forms of communication, directors must also have the ability to write policies, procedures, and manuals, among other technical documents.

Communication: Marketing/Customer Relations
Directors must be able to "sell" their programs to prospective users and/or parents. This includes an understanding of customer relations, ability to study the marketplace, and ability to work in a way that delivers best services. If customers are children, the director must be able to think like a parent—and develop marketing that shows an understanding of the viewpoint of parents. There is also an expectation that directors be Internet savvy for the purposes of marketing camp (not for surfing, e-mailing, or IMing).

Human Resources
Directors have to have strong personnel management abilities—skills in the hiring process that include interviewing, skills in staff training to ensure staff have the tools/resources to successfully do their jobs, and skills to supervise the work of others. Directors must also have an understanding of employment law, be able to develop policies, demonstrate skills in behavior management of employees, and be able to enforce regulations/policies with staff.

Relationship Skills
Directors must enjoy working with others, set a positive tone, be able to develop relationships, and have skills in facilitating relationship building in those they supervise. They must also have the ability to connect with and establish a rapport with others, including those who may be older or younger, and they must demonstrate an ability to motivate and praise the work of others. Directors have to be capable of dealing with complaints, possess mediation skills, and be proficient at dealing with correcting staff in a way that keeps the focus on the issue(s), rather than the "personalities." Also, understand there may be times when your obligation as a supervisor has to take priority over your desire to reach out and "grow people."

Risk Management/Legal/Regulatory
Running a camp requires an understanding of risk management and an awareness of the legal/regulatory requirements for all aspects of the operation, such as local and state ordinances, employment law, OSHA, insurance, etc.

Conflict Resolution Skills
As one director put it, "you need to be able to keep your staff from killing each other." (And, here's a heads up! If you are the type of person who avoids conflict, you should not be in this job!) Directors should possess knowledge and skills in the area of conflict resolution, have the ability to recognize problems early on and deal with them, and the maturity to solve problems. You will also have to be prepared to deal with complaints. This is an industry where the "product" you are working with is human—expect there will always be a customer (parent, volunteer, user group, etc.) who is not happy with everything they experience. You will be the one who has to address tough situations with campers, staff, parents, and users.

Decision Making
As a director, you are required to use skills to coach, reprimand, and create positive performance changes with staff—and still be respected (although don't expect to be liked). You have to make decisions in a manner to get the job done and understand you often have to make unpopular decisions. Unlike being a summer staff person or staff of an area, being a director requires decision making that focuses on how it affects the camp as a whole. The director must widen the scope of responsibility and concern; they can't be focused on one or two areas only. A successful director must demonstrate knowledge of the entire operation and understanding of the camp's policies and procedures in all aspects of the operation.

Most directors are expected, in the very least, to have an understanding of the facility operation, and to help ensure compliance with regulatory organizations as applicable. The director may also be required to manage property, be able to work with outside contractors, have knowledge of restaurant/food service management when meals are being prepared on site, etc.

If The Camp/Organization Also . . .
• Raises Money
Directors need an understanding of various types of fund-raising, as well as the skills to work on development and solicit funds, write grants, and manage the administration of funding from various sources.
• Has a Board
Directors need an understanding of the structure of the organization, including the ability to handle the responsibilities of the board versus those of staff, to facilitate board-staff relationships, to understand board development process, and to work on board development as applicable.
• Has Volunteers
Directors need the ability to recruit and supervise volunteers and to understand that the skills required for working with paid staff are different than those required for working with volunteers.


If you are going to college to become a camp professional, the recommended majors and minors are:

Why Isn't Outdoor Recreation or Outdoor Education on the List?
A degree in "general" recreation/outdoor education focuses more on programming and activities, verses a degree in recreation or outdoor education management, which has a stronger focus in administration. While outdoor recreation/education type coursework is suitable for "lower level" staff, it won't translate well to the business operation requirements of camp. (Remember, the ability to deliver a program was not identified as a skill critical to being a camp director.) Unless the course work has a predominant focus on management, the emerging camp professional should major in something else—the number-one recommendation is business management.

And Some Other Stuff . . .

  • Gain Experience in Multiple Settings
    Gain supervisory experience in at least two distinctly different camp settings. When hiring, owners/operators are looking for someone with a broad body of knowledge. If your experience is all in the same setting, your knowledge is going to be limited to "how we do it here at Camp XYZ."
  • Get Out of the Woods
    You made a choice to have a career in camp administration—start learning about camp administration. Get a job/internship/volunteer where you can learn about the behind-the-scenes operation of the camp or manage an aspect of the business operation, such as food service, health care, transportation, or other aspect of the administration. Help in the accounting office, answer the phones and talk to parents, learn the registration system, or help with promoting the camp to customers. Anything that builds your administrative skill set is a positive step.
  • Master the Transitions and Changes in Relationships
    A difficulty for those transitioning from staff to supervisor is working though the changes that must occur in relationships with other staff. To make a successful transition, you must understand that you are no longer a peer or a pal—you are their boss. You need to create and maintain a professional "distance" between yourself and those whom you supervise—and separate yourself from the summer staff and the "social aspects" of camp. Before being hired as a director, owners/operators are going to want to make sure you understand your role as a supervisor and recognize you are moving to a professional role.
  • A Director is Expected to Embody the Camp's Mission and Philosophy
    The camp's/organization's mission will impact just about everything. As the mission is part of the camp "lifestyle," your personal life—activities, personal appearance, conduct—may be impacted, as you are the "face" of the camp. As a director, you are expected to have a "mission mentality" and be driven by business thought processes that apply to the mission. You are expected to have the proper attitude and respect for the goals, policies, and procedures of the organization you are joining. In your day-to-day work, you must ask yourself, "how does what you are doing apply to what you say you do?"
  • Networking to Learn and the Continuous, Upward-Improvement Slope
    The camp industry is continuously evolving, and professionals should be on a continuous upward improvement slope. Attend as many training and educational events, and activities as possible, including those by camp professional organizations, kindred or related groups, and business organizations. Network with other camp professionals, including visiting camps, and talking with directors about what they do in their jobs. Directors and owners share that they have often learned more from the directors of other camps and camp leaders than they ever did from books or courses!

Reality Check

Camp Is a Lifestyle . . . Not a 9-to-5 Job
When I say, camp is a lifestyle, I mean your work impacts your life, and your life impacts your work. For a full-time, year-round professional, this means every aspect of your life. A commitment to camp as a professional means that you should be prepared to work long days and weeks, including weekends and nights (and usually for no extra pay). The responsibilities, workload, and long hours impact the time you have to spend with others, and how that time is spent. If you live on site, expect challenges in balancing private/family time with work. And having a job that is a lifestyle can pose extra challenges if your spouse/significant other is not also a "camp person."

Like marriage or joining a religious order, making a decision to commit your life to camp should not be entered into lightly. Before you jump into this job, you need to know that being a camp director, while rewarding in many respects, is a stressful job! The responsibility of being a camp director is intense, and there is tremendous time commitment and personal sacrifice. Emerging professionals are encouraged to have some frank, unvarnished talks about the lifestyle of being a camp professional with current directors.

Diane Tyrrell, C.C.D., M.A. Ed., has been working in camps for twenty-seven years and directing for eighteen years, with experience in nonprofit and for-profit operations. She is currently director of Camp Motorsport, the president of American Camp Association (ACA), Virginias and serves on the ACA National Board. She lives in Virginia with her husband and two sons.

Originally published in the 2007 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.