Seven Habits of Highly Effective Camps

Christopher A. Thurber, Ph.D.

Rebuild or Reload?

Highly effective camps establish more than a healthy culture. They incorporate habits that keep the camping fundamentals solid and that afford them the luxury of fine-tuning the delivery of their stated mission. Such camps can elevate a simple kickball game into a classroom for teamwork and sportsmanship — without the campers ever knowing. They can nurture the strengths that individual campers and cabin leaders possess, thus increasing the likelihood they will return the following season. And, because highly effective camps are not overwhelmed with struggling to meet their basic needs, they can fine-tune their responses to feedback from campers, staff, and parents, thus setting themselves on a course of perpetual self-improvement. In summary, these camps do not rebuild each season — they reload.

Seven Habits and Their Benefits

Good camps have an explicit and thoughtful mission statement. Great camps succeed at actually delivering that mission. In my experience, such highly effective camps share seven habits that are essential elements of success.

  1. Internal leadership development
  2. Explicit expectations for staff
  3. Ample camper preparation
  4. Personal relationships
  5. Supervisors-in-residence
  6. Bi-directional communication flow
  7. Commitment to self-improvement

Incorporating these habits has three key outcomes for directors, staff, front-line cabin leaders, and campers:

  1. deep satisfaction;
  2. enriched learning; and
  3. increased tenure.

If asked, “Will you come back?” on closing day, children and employees at highly effective camps relate simple and beautiful words that go something like this — “I love this place; I learned a lot; and I’ll be back next year.” All three key outcomes are there — satisfaction, learning, and tenure.

Practicing these seven habits is a prodigious task that requires energy, vigilance, and patience. “No rest for the weary” is the rule of thumb at highly effective camps. But to those who have seen the benefits of their labor, no work could be more gratifying. The sections that follow describe the seven habits seen at highly effective camps, the benefits of their practice, and an action plan for adopting each one. (See chart for a summary.)

Internal leadership development
Internal leadership development (ILD) is a process of promoting and training your own campers to become junior leaders, leaders-in-training, and eventually full-fledged cabin leaders and senior staff. (See Camping Magazine, Vol. 74, November/December 2001, pp. 24-29 for detailed guidelines on designing an ILD system that works for your camp.) Having an ILD system at your camp means first having a clear idea of the qualities you seek in cabin leaders — such as enthusiasm, unselfishness, initiative, integrity, and a love of camp. You must then have a process of selecting, from among the ranks of your oldest campers, those who demonstrate trainable leadership qualities. Over the next two or three seasons of experiential learning, these young men and women will become your next generation of cabin leaders. ILD systems work best under the direction of experienced senior staff who can mentor and evaluate up-and-coming leaders. Some camps even have a designated leadership director, whose primary job is to coordinate the ILD system. New ILD systems take about five years to bear fruit and about ten years to perfect.

The benefits of ILD are manifold, but the best part is that your cabin leaders — those who deal most directly with your campers — have not a week of training, but two summers’ worth. There is truly no comparison between a first-time hire with no previous camp experience and someone who has grown up in your camp and then been mentored for two summers. Both will participate in staff training week, but your new hires will know roughly 10 percent of what they need to do their job well. By contrast, your homegrown leaders already understand and live the camp’s culture, know your policies and schedule logistics like the back of their hands, and have infinitely more experience working with your camper population.

What does that mean for you, the director? It means that during staff training week, you can fine-tune. You can focus on advanced leadership techniques, review the mistakes made in the previous season, and solidify bonds of friendship. Little of this precious time will be spent teaching camp songs, explaining the daily schedule, or praying that all those new hires will obey the rules and not quit before mid-season. Although painstaking to establish, ILD saves you time in the long run, provides multi-year training, and gives you peace of mind.

Explicit expectations
All of your employees, from the freshest junior leader to the most seasoned senior staff, will be better prepared to do their jobs when you’ve taken time to make your expectations explicit. This means spelling out, in great detail, each person’s job description. Don’t assume they know what you want, and don’t assume they will read lengthy written material. Clearly tell them, in face-to-face meetings, what you expect from them, what specifically is forbidden, and what the consequences are of breaking major rules.

If most of your staff are former campers, stating explicit expectations is a straightforward task. For external hires, you must be especially careful — in both interviews and on-site training — to make your expectations explicit. If you’ll be asking your archery program head to help lifeguard, be sure she knows that ahead of time. If you allot your staff one weeknight off per week, make that clear, so they’re not disappointed on Saturday night. Also be sure you accurately describe your camp to prospective hires in all interviews you conduct. Describe your camp’s culture, traditions, daily schedule, spiritual and religious customs, work ethic, time-off policies, pay scale, and grounds for termination.

The central benefit of stating expectations explicitly is that you’ll never hear complaints that begin with “No one ever told me I had to . . . .” Most disgruntled staff would have been happy to do what their directors requested if they knew about it when they were hired. Disgruntled staff, of course, foment discontent among all but the most resilient and devoted staff. In so doing, they destroy morale.

Camper preparation
Campers, especially first-year campers, need coaching on how to get the most out of your camp. For starters, they need to know what to bring (and what not to bring!); how to prevent severe homesickness; which behaviors are encouraged and which are unacceptable; and what is included in the daily schedule. Campers’ parents also need lots of coaching on what to do with their own anxiety. Each summer, thousands of campers struggle with severe homesickness because their parents have made “pick-up deals” with them. Parents promise, “If you feel homesick, I’ll come and get you.” Such well-intentioned but ignorant remarks sabotage a child’s confidence and dramatically increase the likelihood that such a child will become severely homesick.

The benefits of proper camper preparation include both reduced homesickness and better camper behavior overall. Moreover, families with adequate preparation — those who have “bought in” to your camp’s rules, regulations, and behavioral standards — are far less likely to bring contraband to camp, argue with your discipline system, or complain about your policies. Providing ample camper preparation is the cornerstone of partnering with parents.

Personal relationships
Management experts and camp consultants alike emphasize the importance of directors establishing an authoritative leadership relationship with their staff. Cabin leaders are also urged to establish this type of relationship with their campers. Unfortunately, what sometimes occurs out of a misguided attempt to keep “professional distance” is that directors and senior staff fail to develop personal relationships with their front-line cabin leaders. Or, cabin leaders fail to develop a personal relationship with their campers. The solution? Directors and senior staff must learn each cabin leader’s name, know something about each one, and touch base with each one during the course of the summer to convey what is being done well and what needs improvement. For their part, cabin leaders must learn their campers’ names, know what they like and dislike, empathize with their emotional experiences, and guide them.

Some personal attention must also be paid to camper families, especially in pre-season. If you have a couple hundred camper families, you can actually get to know something about each one. If you have more, then your personal touch might come in the form of a signed holiday letter, photos posted on your camp’s Web site, or a camp news bulletin sent to each family.

Loyalty is the key benefit of establishing personal relationships with staff, campers, and camper families. Establishing personal relationships pays dividends simply because people enjoy recognition. They want you to know their name, something about their personal history, and something about what they do at camp. Only then will they be willing to respond to feedback. Staff and campers also want genuine, specific praise. Delivering this will make staff want to work twice as hard for you and will boost camper return rates.

When cabin leaders feel that their direct supervisors are out of touch with camper demographics, cabin dynamics, and specific camper issues, they become frustrated. Who wants to take orders or advice from supervisors who don’t live what they teach? Of course, every camp has some out-of-cabin senior staff positions — such as your program director. That’s a good thing, given the responsibilities and schedules of these folks. But what highly effective camps also have are some unit leaders or division heads who live in cabins with campers. In the camp’s management structure, these are essential players because they see, first-hand, what goes on. They are therefore in the best position to mentor younger cabin leaders and update the director about emerging problems.

There are several obvious benefits to having key leaders living in cabins. They know what’s really going on in your camp, which makes them seem approachable to your cabin leaders. Cabin leaders are also more willing to listen to feedback from someone who walks the walk. Best of all, having key leaders live in cabins helps nip most leadership and camper behavior problems in the bud before they become large enough to demand your precious time.

Bi-directional communication flow
Communication happens at all camps, including camps that struggle to deliver their mission. What makes a highly effective camp stand out is bi-directional communication flow — messages and feedback travel smoothly up and down the management tree. At all camps, employees at the bottom of the hierarchy receive messages from above. At highly effective camps, messages are also sent in the other direction, so that directors and senior staff receive frequent reports from the front lines.

This is not to say that the upper management of camp needs to be informed every time a camper burps, but they should know about such things as severe homesickness, enuresis, and aggression. The benefits of bi-directional communication flow are similar to those of having supervisors-in-residence, with two added benefits. First, armed with accurate information about noteworthy campers, directors are in a better position to handle phone calls from anxious parents. Second, directors can be assured that the information they share with division heads and unit leaders gets disseminated. Few things make cabin leaders feel less important than finding out details of important camp events at the last minute…or worse yet, finding out from their campers. At highly effective camps, every employee feels both responsible (they are entrusted with information) and responsive (they entrust others with information).

Commitment to self-improvement
A genuine commitment to perpetual self-improvement dovetails with the preceding six habits and is the lifeblood of highly effective camps. Establishing or enhancing your internal leadership development, explicit expectations, camper preparation, personal relationships, supervisors-in-residence, and bi-directional communication flow will require careful self-examination. Living each of these habits demands that you and your staff decide what your camp is meant to do. If you are a force for change in the universe, what do you seek to change and how? If you represent certain values, what vehicles do you use to communicate those values and how do you measure their effects?

No source of information is more valuable than empirical data. Gut feelings and anecdotes have tremendous value, but are less reliable than information derived from the scheduled administration of well-designed questionnaires or from structured feedback sessions. You need not conduct major research at your camp each season, but it is worthwhile to gather data regularly from campers, parents, and staff in a way that tells you whether you are actually delivering your stated mission. Humility is only half of the self-improvement equation. You must also gather hard data to see where you may be falling short of your stated goals. Many camp consultants offer research services and can provide objective feedback on your camp’s strengths, as well as ideas for remedying weaknesses.

Besides professional consultation, other essential sources of data include: regularly scheduled full-staff meetings, ACA standards visitors, state inspectors, and structured reports from all levels of your leadership. Finally, to disseminate what you learn from all these data, it’s imperative to learn and teach how to give and receive feedback. Many camps falter not at the data-gathering phase of self-improvement, but at the implementation phase.

Mission-driven or Market-driven?

These seven habits of highly effective camps are certainly practical — in the sense of being useful and realistic — but only to a mission-driven camp. Are you mission-driven or market-driven?

For mission-driven camps, the ends justify the means. For example, if part of such a camp’s mission is to instill a sense of personal responsibility in its campers, the cabin leaders and campers might clean the cabin each morning and complete camp duties each day. If parents and campers complain “we didn’t pay good money to clean like slaves each day,” a mission-driven camp will politely suggest the names of other camps, but will not succumb to such complaints. If such a camp sticks to its principles, all the bunks will eventually be filled with children whose parents respect the notion that a sense of personal responsibility is earned through hard work and accountability. Ultimately, a mission-driven camp’s integrity pays dividends. Bunks are full and children are absorbing the camp’s mission.

By contrast, a market-driven camp will adjust the means, even if it entails compromising the ends. For example, a market-driven camp might respond to parent and camper complaints of “slave labor” by making the cabin leaders clean the cabins alone or by hiring a custodial staff to perform camp duties. Market-driven camps seek to please their customers without educating them. They are more concerned with giving campers what they want than giving them what they need to absorb the camp’s mission.

As you strive to make your camp even more effective, examine the ways in which you are mission-driven and market-driven. The more mission-driven you are, the more easily you will adopt these seven habits. And the more you adopt these seven habits, the more campers will take home your mission.

Christopher A. Thurber, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, camp consultant, and coauthor of The Summer Camp Handbook. For questions about this article suggestions for related readings or to inquire about staff training at your camp, send an e-mail to


Originally published in the 2002 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.