Trends Affecting Nonprofit Camps

by Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D., and Karla Henderson, Ph.D.

Over the past century, nonprofit camps have served thousands of children, adults, and families in addressing social issues and have often provided the only opportunities that some young people have had to attend camp. These nonprofit agencies, however, are under increased pressures to scrutinize the scope of their services concerning appropriateness, commitment, and economic viability. The traditions of camping remain strong, but issues must be addressed if camping programs in the nonprofit sector are to flourish in the coming years. As organized camping becomes more market conscious, questions arise as to who will be able to go to camp, at what cost, under what external controls, and within what expectations for services and outcomes.

The American Camping Association Not-for-Profit Forum and Council recently funded a project to identify trends, issues, and possible strategies for addressing the issues that may confront camping programs in the short- to medium-term future (ten to fifteen years). Trends were defined as tendencies, drifts, or changes. Issues were problems due to the changing trends. Data collection involved three stages:

  • A literature review and interviews with selected experts in nonprofit camping agencies.
  • A questionnaire to acquire information directly from camping professionals and their agency executives about potential trends and issues.
  • Focus group sessions conducted at the 1999 ACA National Conference in Chicago.

The data were analyzed and the results organized into three categories: mission, strategic managment, and critical issues. Recommendations developed from the conclusions provide a starting point for identifying some continuing education activities that camp directors and staff might pursue, as well as some management issues that might be considered by local agencies and camps. Specific strategies will need to be addressed by individual agencies and camps.


Trend: All successful nonprofit organizations acknowledge the importance of mission statements.
Issues for camps include:

  • Using the camp mission as a roadmap for addressing today’s societal needs.
  • Fitting the camp mission with the agency’s mission and the national agency’s (if applicable).
  • Making camp programs mission driven.
  • Determining how the type of nonprofit organization (e.g., nationally affiliated or local) influences the way issues related to mission, strategic management, and prioritization of critical issues are addressed.

Trend: Camps have contributions to make in addressing societal problems.
Issues for camps include:

  • Showing how integral camps are to nonprofit organizations, even though some camp leaders feel less supported by the agency, the national office, parents, and campers than in the past.
  • Helping the public understand the value of camping programs.
  • Determining how and why camping programs make a difference in people’s lives and how to articulate the results and outcomes of camping programs.


  • Camp staff should articulate early and often the role they play. This role may be traditionally central (e.g., Girl Scouts) but must be continually articulated to agency executives, staff, parents, campers, funders, and the community at large.
  • All staff members must take every opportunity to tell the value of camping so that it is perceived as an important youth development activity.
  • Programs from agencies with national organizations must function as autonomous units with a broad flexible mission that allows the local unit to tailor their programs to fit their immediate needs and still remain within the national mandate.
  • Each camp program must determine what they can uniquely provide to meet the needs of the agency and the local community. Although camping programs do share some common concerns, procedures, and organizational climates, they also have individual differences and needs that must be determined for a particular locale.
  • Camp leaders must regularly review and re-evaluate the mission to determine what goals and objectives need to be implemented to address the mission.
  • Camps must articulate the outcomes they wish to serve and then develop a program with inputs and activities to address the intended outcomes. Evaluation should also relate to the intentions of a particular camp program. Each camp may vary in specific outcomes that may occur.
  • ACA, national agencies, and local camping units must make measuring camping outcomes a priority. Data to determine the impact of camps on human development is key.

Strategic Management:

Trend: Nonprofit organizations face fiscal challenges related to their mandate and role.
Fiscal issues include:

  • Addressing social issues with adequate funding.
  • Finding funding sources.
  • Keeping the tax-exempt status.

Trend: Leadership in any organization is key.
Challenges include:

  • Getting quality full and part-time paid staff.
  • Working effectively with nonprofit boards and volunteers.

Trend: Many youth services exist along with youth that have many needs.
This presents the following issues for nonprofit camps:

  • Effectively marketing outdoor programs to campers as well as to funding agencies.
  • Showing accountability to the public and to funders.
  • Identifying the unique contribution camping programs make in meeting the needs of youth.

Trend: Nonprofit organizations must be efficient in providing services.
Issues for camps include:

  • Using technology to the fullest.
  • Capitalizing facilities.
  • Expanding year-round facility use.


  • Staff (full-time as well as seasonal) salaries and compensation packages need to be competitive with other available jobs to attract and retain the best employees.
  • Efforts must be renewed to recruit staff that represent the diversity of the campers participating or that a camp desires to have participate in camp programs. Staff (full-time and part-time) will likely come from a diverse workforce in the future.
  • Funding, especially for maintenance and upkeep of camp facilities, is a priority that must be addressed by camps.
  • Every camp executive and board must weigh keeping costs at a reasonable level to allow kids the opportunity to experience camp and still have an adequate budget to reach camp goals.
  • The camp mission and need for an adequate budget cannot be separated. Also, the mission must be applied to the facility operations and the camp priorities. The evaluation plan should also relate to the mission.
  • Camp organizations need to determine the percentage of costs that will be covered by fees and what costs will be covered from other sources.
  • Many potential funding sources exist for nonprofit camps (grants, government assistance, endowment funds). It takes time, energy, and a concerted plan to procure these funds.
  • Fund-raising for camping programs must be done for an intended, articulated purpose.
  • Staff training will be critical. A well-conceived training plan that addresses social and technical skills will be necessary. Money invested in training will likely have long-term benefits.
  • Volunteers working in nonprofit camps require applied personnel management strategies. They should be treated similarly to paid staff except without the salary compensation.
  • A potential shortage of full-time staff can be addressed by assuring that quality staff do not burn out or are unable to have a desired quality of life when they are working at camps.
  • Year-around school is not an issue for most nonprofit camps but the use and upkeep of facilities year-round is an issue.
  • A long-range maintenance plan should be developed at each camp facility.
  • A marketing plan should be based on responsiveness to community needs and be realistic in terms of what camps can provide.
  • Camps must market to both campers and funders.
  • Camps must monitor state and national legislation that affects regulatory issues as well as nonprofit status issues.
  • Camps must seek partnerships within their local communities for program development as well as funding possibilities.

Critical Issues

Trend: The demographics of American society are changing.
The changing face of America presents the following issues:

  • Recruiting campers and staff that reflect local and national diversity.
  • Resolving the income gap problem in our society
  • Using camp to address youth development issues.
  • Getting leaders that can serve as positive adult role models.

Trend: Accountability is critical in all social organizations.
This presents the issue of:

  • Determining what goals and objectives camping accomplishes


  • Camp staff need to examine fee structures to make sure that some campers are not being eliminated from camp. In nonprofit camps, the balancing of young people from all income levels should be considered.
  • Staff in camps need to examine cultural values that may preclude people from participating in camp programs
  • The focus on increasing camp numbers must examine how to make camps inclusive as well as how many campers can be reasonably served without sacrificing a quality experience.
  • Staff who can serve as positive role models must be hired and trained in what it means to be a positive role model.
  • Camp programs must address a variety of opportunities and skill levels.
  • Youth have many choices with what to do with their lives. In choosing to come to camp, they should know what to expect.
  • Camp programs attempt to address ethics and values; staff must be able to clearly articulate these values.
  • A camp cannot be everything to everybody. Each camp must determine what camper needs they can address and what groups to target in their recruitment efforts.
  • For effective recruitment, camp directors will need to be sensitive to diversity issues such as disability and income status.
  • A focus on recruiting campers who represent diverse groups must be done in collaboration with the agency at large and its recruitment efforts.

Looking to the Future

Nonprofit camping will survive into the new millennium. With a focus on mission, strategic planning, and making a difference in addressing critical societal issues, nonprofit camps will flourish. Big challenges exist, however, that camp leaders must address. Camp leaders may have to focus their energies in new ways, be more cognizant of changing social patterns, and adapt to a work environment more similar to the corporate world. Camp professionals will be asked to do more with less, wear more "hats," and still provide the stable camp programs that are often the most visible articulation of the agency’s mission and goals. When nonprofit camp directors are asked "What difference do you make?" they will have to show outcomes and results based on providing effective leadership, clarity of vision, and fiscal responsibility to demonstrate accountability and commitment of to the agency, the campers, and the local community.

Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D, is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Karla Henderson, Ph.D, is professor and chair at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Kate Dahowski of the University of North Carolina provided valuable assistance as a graduate student with this project.

A complete report from this study can be obtained from the ACA Not-for-Profit Forum and Council. Contact ACA at 800-428-2267.


Originally published in the 2000 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.