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Basic Steps in Strategic Planning
Someone reminded me recently that "it wasn't raining when Noah built the Ark!" At a time when management gurus echo the phrase, "out of crisis comes opportunity," it is indeed refreshing to contemplate camp planning sans pending disaster! In this context, we are free to think about planning as "invitational" — enhancing our camp communities to serve children and adults better. It is a process that invigorates rather than exhausts participants and brings about a greater sense of harmony and commitment to camp's mission.
A Brief History
Planning is not a new phenomenon. It has roots in military history. The Greek word stratego means "to plan the destruction of one's enemies." What remains today are the key words "to plan." By most measurements, strategic planning is a set of processes used in an organization to understand the present situation and develop decision-making guidelines for the future of the organization. The process usually includes the concept of mission and vision in the definition. These are linked to organizational objectives, implementing strategies and measuring outcomes.
Organizations throughout the country began applying strategic planning in the 1940s, and by the 1960s, the business sector had embraced the merits of strategic planning to assist in programming and budgeting. For many camps, this was not the case. During the 1960s and 70s, camps had seasoned executive directors who provided singular leadership — supported by philanthropic boards and a well-established and growing market for boys and girls. Many camp facilities accommodated one to three seasons of human use — with occasional woodsy critters occupying cabins in the "off season." During this era, decisions regarding next year's camper program were mostly "linear." Programming and expectations remained fairly constant from year to year. Campers were recruited to a traditional set of camp programs allowing most camps to meet with success.
Operational Planning Is Not Strategic Planning
In contrast, a strategic plan reflects fundamental choices about mission and overall direction — and offers a vision of the camp's future. A good strategic plan provides clarity for those annual operational tasks and "alignment" with the more global planning goals.
Good Planning Offers You a Roadmap
Today's high-tech GPS systems offer a road map with step-by-step directions assembled once a starting point and destination have been determined. Camp planners need only to articulate the starting point and the "destination" to begin the planning journey. In my experience good camp planning focuses twenty-four to thirty-six months into the future. This timeframe allows flexibility in the highly competitive market of today's camp industry.
Camp tradition has historically been a powerful force for many camps. The challenge today is to provide programming that children and their parents find relevant in our society. Singular focus camps abound. From academic to fine arts to athletics, children have a plethora of choices. These camps have grown at the expense of more traditional camps. Therefore, planning is critical if traditional camps are to survive.
Let's focus on five planning principles:
The best time to initiate the planning cycle is on the heels of your summer sessions. At this time, you can focus and reflect on your future. The plan you create can then be aligned with the budget process for the next calendar year.
A One-Page "Dashboard"
A Link with Key Constituent Groups
For example, there are camps that connect with their counselor constituent group using Web site chat rooms sponsored by the camp, mini-retreats, informal holiday gatherings, and formal planning sessions. The goal is to get ideas — lots of ideas! The Hallmark Corporation brings their staff of over 700 together annually to dialog with invited guests. In addition to the staff, those invited include poets, storytellers, scientists, and artists. The result of this interaction has generated more than 15,000 original card designs.
Camps need to sponsor, within the strategic planning process, "safe" environments for stakeholders to share ideas, raise issues, and challenge the status quo. Outside resources brought into the organization bring with them relevant ideas, best practices, and camp- related research to stimulate consideration of new and innovative activities.
You may be surprised at the breadth of your influence. When a camp made the decision to change their sequence and frequency of the ringing of the "camp bell" during summer sessions, it unexpectedly received negative feedback from the surrounding property owners — who used the bell ringing as a reference point for their daily activity!
An Annual Revision and Review
There are instances, however, in which organizations become so fixed on their strategic initiatives that they are unresponsive to needed "course corrections." As an example, since 9/11, parents have become highly sensitized to the "safety factor" for their children while absent from the home environment. Camps need to address this issue directly in their marketing and implementation strategies. Allaying parent and camper fears may be the most important first step in attracting campers in today's world.
There may be times when your strategic plan may need to be temporarily put aside. Should a crisis arise, such as a cash-flow problem or the departure of key staff, it is prudent to turn your attention to the issue at hand. The plan can always be put back on track with timeline revisions and other modifications.
Stakeholder Rewards for Desired Outcomes
Managing a successful camp today requires significant technical knowledge, skills, and a physical environment to accommodate a diversity of campers of varying size and capability. An illustration of this is the vast number and diversity of educational session offerings at ACA national conferences. However, all of this knowledge must be integrated in the planning process without "bogging down" the planning process — all the more reason to keep the planning process simple. Three elements to help you get started are:
Basic Steps in Strategic Planning
Remember that "less is more" when it comes to constructing organizational plans. The work elements of strategic planning can be synthesized into four steps.
A Word About Motivation and Creativity
Remember that reaching your camp vision is a journey not a destination. The process should be invitational, and in today's market, you need to be an "ambidextrous" organization. Ambidextrous organizations maintain built-in efficiencies, consistency, and reliability while at the same time promote experimentation, improvisation, and luck.
An effective motivational strategy is known as "skunk works." In this strategy, small groups explore innovative ideas that are compatible with the camp's mission. They study and implement pilot projects that could enhance the organization. Within this culture, curiosity should be an institutional attribute!
Creativity is akin to leadership! A successful leader is someone who can persuade people to change their ideas or behavior. Strategic planning is a process that causes us to examine our organization in a new and different way. Encourage your stakeholder groups to apply their "creative juices." Remember you are trying to do more than just survive. Instead, you are striving to create a sustainable competitive advantage. In a recent article, "Music Director Works to Blend Strength," in the October 27, 2003, issue of USA Today, Lorin Maazel, music director of the New York Philharmonic, said, "The only way to do that is to know the musical score and understand the problems they (the musicians) will encounter playing it" As camp directors, board members, and staff, we have to know the "score" and anticipate the impediments along the way.
Most of us have tucked away in our subconscious minds what the ideal camp experience looks like. Building that image into a well-articulated strategic plan is an achievement of the highest order. We, as camp advocates, are accustomed to providing thousands of "teachable moments" to our campers each year. Let us not forget that teaching is at the heart of leadership, and planning brings out our collective learning capacity.
Strive to make the planning process exciting and invitational. You will discover that not only will participants learn, but they will pass that learning on to others. The process is also highly infectious. Henry David Thoreau wrote in In the Conclusion of Walden: "If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours." Strategic planning offers you the best opportunity to realize unprecedented success. Embrace the process, and experience the fruits of your labors. You will not be disappointed!
Bob Ruch is president of Ruch Enterprises, a management consulting firm that specializes in leadership, organizational transformation, and planning. His client base includes camps, human service agencies, churches, hospitals, and schools with over 200 engagements since founding Ruch Enterprises in 1993. He is an adjunct associate professor at Des Moines University where he teaches "practice management" and "economics." A former camper and volunteer counselor, Bob currently serves on the Board of Camp Manito-wish YMCA, located in Boulder Junction, Wisconsin. He can be reached at 515-276-7262 or at Bobruch@AOL.com.
Originally published in the 2004 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.