Planning for Growth: Preparing for the Future One Step at a Time

by Judy Hughes Astle

Many camps that serve only summer populations harbor dreams of serving children year-round. Camp Henry, located in Newaygo, Michigan, successfully made this transition as a result of intentional planning and implementation of specific strategies identified by the camp’s board of directors and staff.

Since 1993, camp leaders have updated or created many general and specific plans that have enabled the ministry to grow in numbers of people served and also in the quality and sophistication of the organization and operation. One step was taken at a time, each one building on the wisdom gained from the last, each step getting a little larger and a little more comprehensive, each step building on the interconnectedness of the whole.

Following are some of the thought processes, strategic steps, and management tools that provided the impetus for the transition from a summer camp facility to a year-round retreat center. After gaining confidence with small steps, larger steps were easier to undertake. The progressive steps, taken within the organization by board and staff, led to the understanding that greater expertise was needed for the largest steps — the steps that will catapult the camp to a much higher level of service — site planning and a capital campaign.

It is hoped that by understanding that growth is intentional, utilizing some of the progressive steps undertaken by Camp Henry, and asking yourself some serious questions, your site will also experience the joys of reaching ever more youth with the character-building and life-changing opportunities of a quality camp experience.

Understand Who You Are and What You Have

Before your camp can strategically plan for the future, you must understand your camp’s purpose and history. You must also evaluate the knowledge that you have about your facility, program, and clientele.

What's your mission?
To understand your camp’s purpose, revisit your mission statement. Remember, your mission is a statement of the essential reason for the existence of your organization and/or camp. Does it still define who you are? Have you moved away from your mission? Understand your mission. Own it. Breathe it. Live it. Camp Henry was fortunate to have a statement describing its mission to children in a Christian summer camp program and to youth, adults, and families in year-round programs.

How was your camp founded?
Take a look at your creation documents. How and when was your camp formed? What do the documents say that qualify who you are, who makes up your board of directors, and what your authority and scope of mission are? Do you have written bylaws? Camp Henry’s creation documents were quite short, and camp leaders took time to define written bylaws for its future operation.

What is your history?
Understand your camp’s history. The historical impact of your camp will thrill you as you examine individual stories of how camp impacted a former camper’s life’s work. It will inflame your passion about the successes of the past and the opportunities for the future. If you don’t have a history book, maybe a group of volunteers would write one, complete with photos, drawings, memories, and stories of the impact of dedicated leaders. Camp Henry was fortunate to have a history book written by talented volunteers for its fiftieth anniversary in 1987.

What are your program's strengths and weaknesses?
What are your program’s strengths and weaknesses? What do you do well and what do you do not so well? Program evaluation is an ongoing priority. Continually seek and evaluate opinions of campers, parents, counselors, staff leadership, retreat guests, and board members.

Who do you serve?
Who are your campers/guests? What kind of return ratio do you have? What ages, demographics, areas of the country, cultures do you serve? Consider updating your registration materials to collect demographic data about your campers so you can statistically analyze those you are serving. This demographic evaluation will allow you to make appropriate expense allocations to marketing, camper recruitment, and scholarship awards to broaden camper diversity.

What are your physical assets?
Do you know precisely what you own? How much land? How many buildings? How many vehicles? How many watercraft? How much equipment? You need to take a walking tour of your facility, with a knowledgeable person in tow and a clipboard in hand, and do a complete inventory of all your buildings, vehicles, watercraft, and large pieces of personal property. Identify the age, current condition, and projected life span of each asset. Also, identify when the asset was last fixed, replaced, or improved and in what way. Save it in a computerized format so that it can be easily updated. Each year, clearly define what projects have been accomplished and from what resource. This list becomes the facility care history and is a document you should update annually.

What about your natural resources?
What kind of land do you have? Woods, prairies, lake, stream, farm? What kind of trees and vegetation? What is their life cycle? What care do they need? Camp Henry contracted a wildlife biologist to study the property and create a land stewardship plan. The plan includes maps that identify the camp’s diverse natural resources and provides an accurate base map for the facility.

Evaluating your staff
What are the strengths and weaknesses of your personnel? Beyond personal work performance evaluations, how does your staff function together as a team? What does your organizational chart look like? Are the many work functions laid out to get the highest performance from each staff member and from them collectively as a team? Personnel evaluations identify personal strengths, weaknesses, untapped gifts, and dreams of service. By being flexible in rewriting job descriptions and cross-training employees, you can enhance group synergy by allowing each employee to shine in doing what they most enjoyed. Reward successes with praise and progressive responsibility.

Looking at your camp budget
How’s your budget? Do your revenues relate appropriately to your expenses? Do you understand the true cost of providing certain program or benefits? Are your sessions priced appropriately? Camp Henry did a cost analysis that showed the camp’s enrollment fees weren’t even close to covering true cost; this discovery resulted in the gradual increase of prices for the sessions. The understanding of true cost allowed the camp to improve programs and facilities by covering the replacement cost of equipment and maintaining facilities that were being depleted.

Maximize What You Have

Once you have identified your camp’s mission, history, and assets, you can use this information to adapt your program and plan your next steps.

Expand your program within your mission
By looking at campers’ needs, you can adopt or create programming to meet those needs. Camp Henry learned that their campers needed to learn skills that would improve their lives. They needed to learn how to work together and how to make friends and care for each other. They needed to learn to care for the natural environment. They needed mentoring and strong role models. They needed to learn integrity, character, morals, and faith by example. They needed programming that would continue to challenge them as they grew into teenagers and responsible adulthood. What do your campers need?

Create quality communication materials to describe your program and facility
Camp Henry upgraded its brochures, going from basic black and white with no photos to four-color presentation with lots of photos of campers in action. They created a strong Web site and a video for their newly developed challenge courses. Camp leaders wrote articles for the local papers and shared with the entire community the successes of particular programs. They also shared program success with other agencies, significantly broadening the number of agency-funded campers in the summer program, providing a quality camping experience for the at-risk children in the community.

Develop your natural resources
Showcase your natural areas. Make them accessible. Camp Henry reclaimed wetland areas and developed them for program use.

Create a plan for the ongoing maintenance of your existing facility
Camp Henry developed their inventories and facility care history into a master facility rotational plan. The plan describes ten zones of the camp property and sets a rotational plan that will provide attention to every zone in camp, two zones a year for five years, and then start all over again. This provides assurance that everything is looked at on schedule and that preventive work is done before crisis management is required.

Improve your existing facility
Winterize where possible, pragmatic, and cost effective. Add as many program enhancements as you can. Utilize as many different areas of your site as you are able. The diversity of your program and your program location will offer flexibility of use to multiple groups on site at the same time.

Improve your operational effectiveness
Consider contracting for a professional operational analysis, which will provide recommendations for improving effectiveness of the total operation. Adopt those recommended operational changes that will work for you and ignore recommendations that do not support your long-range vision.

Set a Course for the Future

A strategic plan is the next step in planning for your camp’s future. In 1997, Camp Henry decided to create a strategic plan for their future. The camp created task forces of key individuals within the camp and its parent organization to evaluate the camp’s future needs. The task force again looked at mission, organization, and resources (program, facilities, personnel, and administration). The group determined that major building projects were necessary to continue to offer quality program at their aging and outdated facility and created a comprehensive list of building needs that would serve the future. In 1998, a task force examined the camp’s financial resources and determined that outside funding would be necessary to complete the project.

Professional assistance for comprehensive plans
Camp leaders had no good way of determining where buildings should be placed on the Camp Henry property and how the placement would impact what was already there. They also lacked the skills to design the buildings. Additionally, the prospect of looking outside the organizational resources for funding caused the group to realize that additional credible resource analysis and strategic site planning would be necessary to effectively seek funding from community individuals, businesses, corporations, and foundations.

The camp would need a master site plan. Master site plan development is a process of identifying, organizing, and establishing directions for all aspects of physical development required to accomplish the mission of the organization. It involves:

  • describing and quantifying the program to be served by the camp. This includes identifying ages of participants, the types of grouping, the nature of their activities, their personal needs, as well as the unique programmatic characteristics.
  • analyzing the site and facilities to determine characteristics of the land, the existing structures, and other dynamics that must be taken into account as either assets or liabilities in the planning.
  • identifying the codes and standards that regulate or define specific aspects of the development.
  • designating land use zones within the camp property that maximize the natural amenities of the site and separate conflicting functions from each other.
  • conceptually determining the structures to be altered and constructed to meet program needs, as well as other physical development to be undertaken to create an exemplary site.
  • documenting the details of the plan developed including footprints of buildings, a projected budget, and priority list for implementation.

After interviewing three site planners, the group selected planners who shared their passion for the camp’s mission. The planners reflected the camp’s beliefs that program defines facility, that natural areas are to be preserved and appropriately utilized, that program area should flow outward into natural areas, and that minimalism reflects our values for scope of design. The planners’ expertise brought the camp valuable information about other sites in the United States and trends within the camp industry. The completed plan condensed all of the camp’s needs into one cohesive whole.

Simultaneous to the site planning process, the camp worked to identify fund-raising counsel for their first capital campaign in sixty-three years of existence. Again, they chose consultants who reflected their passion for the camp’s mission. The consultants were products of youthful camp experiences and knew firsthand the life-changing value of the camp experience.

Both the site planners and fund-raising counsel joined the camp board members and staff for the final meetings that synthesized the plan in the hope that the greater mutual understanding of the program and goals would only benefit the success of their development efforts.

One Step at a Time

Camp Henry didn’t start big. The board of directors and staff started small, with things that they could analyze and improve by themselves. The first steps, though small, were the foundation of their intentional growth. Each successive step got a little larger and a little bolder. Each study and task force added valuable group consensus.

It starts with one step and is followed by one step at a time. Take that step. You can actually start with any one of these management tools or assessment procedures. It doesn’t really matter where you start. It only matters that you take that first step and keep on walking toward your goals.

Judy Hughes Astle is an attorney and has been executive director of Camp Henry for the past eight years.

The implementation of aspects of Camp Henry’s land stewardship plan was covered in greater detail in the article "Your Wetlands Are Not a Wasteland" in the September/October 2000 issue of Camping Magazine.


Originally published in the 2001 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.