How would many businesses be expected to survive — let alone prosper — if they close down for eight months of the year and lay off their best employees? Until relatively recently, most summer camps fit that description. However, as Bob Dylan once sang, “The times, they are a changing.” Camps are seeing the opportunities to expand their programs and use their facilities to help those that they serve throughout the year.
An increasing number of camps are finding it is smart business and economically feasible to remove their “closed for the winter” signs and keep their operations running throughout the year. It may be a bit premature to call this a full-fledged movement, but it is clear that camps are beginning to take advantage throughout the year of our major assets — beautiful environments, dedicated employees, and creative programming.
The Barton Center for Diabetes Education — best known for our Clara Barton Camp, founded seventy years ago to serve girls with Type 1 diabetes — decided in 1990 during a strategic initiatives brainstorming session with staff and volunteers to test the waters with a few mission driven off-season camping programs. There was certainly some trepidation associated with the decision.
Could an annual operating budget be funded by year-round programs — considering that 50 percent of the campers typically needed scholarship assistance? Could dedicated fundraising be initiated to expand and improve winterized facilities? Would campers come during the school year when many traveled long distances to attend? Should the audience be expanded to children and families, children with friends, and teens and young adults?
Diligent strategic planning and resource building over a number of years made the resounding answers to these questions, “YES!” Over the past twelve years, The Barton Center’s programs from September to May have grown from one program serving twenty children and their parents in 1990 to thirteen programs involving seven hundred children and families in 2001-2002. Our off-season programs (see sidebar) range from weekend programs that begin Friday evenings for grandparents, parents, and toddlers to full week, school vacation programs for teens, friends, and siblings.
Instead of being a financial drain, our winter and fall programs today help to support a professional team of camp program staff by generating 5 percent fee-for-service revenue in our $1.3 million budget. Perhaps more importantly, funders have been more generous, and requests to new funding sources have been highly successful because we are now “a health education center for youth” and not just “a camp for girls.”
The biggest reward, though, is that we’ve been able to serve new populations with important programs that wouldn’t be possible during the busy summer months and have built an outstanding professional staff who can now count on a year-round paycheck and benefits. Our full-time staff has grown from five in 1990 to thirteen today, including the executive director, director of development, special events coordinator, day and resident camp directors, finance manager, office manager, facilities manager, and diabetes team leader (nurse).
We’ve learned many lessons over the years running a year-round program. In order for a year-round program to be successful, you must incorporate the following:
- Strong mission, committed leadership, and vision
An essential step in the planning process is for stakeholders to revisit the organizational mission. The mission needs to be clear, unique, and strong. Leadership must be willing to work hard toward new goals with one eye on the horizon and the other on the balance sheet. Neither should tip the scales in either direction.
- Needs assessment
It is not enough for a committee to believe a program will benefit its constituents. It is essential to canvass those who might be served. The birth of some of Barton’s programs evolved from this step. Grandparents Weekend was in direct response to expressed feelings of isolation on the part of grandparents following the diagnosis of their grandchild. At Grandparents Weekend, no parents are allowed and grandparents are paired one-on-one with a diabetes “teacher.” This gives parents a respite and puts grandparents back in touch, fostering their self-confidence and building a family support system.
- Program planning
Year-round programs cannot be thrown together as if they are less important than the often larger summer camp. No matter how small, the same detailed planning process must be followed. Volunteers are often easier to recruit, since off-season programs are typically shorter in length. Local colleges may be willing to offer educational credits for students involved in the planning process. A nurse partnership program, for example, allows master’s level nurses to receive credit for staffing programs while public relations students have received credit for special projects such as development of camp marketing materials. But remember, every regulation and standard must be maintained regardless of program length or size!
- Physical facilities
Ample indoor and outdoor space is essential for off-season programming especially in harsh climates. Cabins, if they are to house families and adults, must be comfortable and allow for more privacy than a camp might typically offer during the summer. Camps are not easily “winterized,” and careful planning for facility use is paramount. Professional assistance in this regard is available through many camp planning consultants or even local architects (who were once campers themselves). Easy access to the site, ample parking, and pathways that can be carefully maintained in any weather are essential.
This case is easy if the planning is complete. Funders willing to give to summer camp can easily see that expanding a season allows more children to be served. Carefully prepared business plans showing the projection for revenue and cost impact are important, too. If homework is well done, the reward can be immeasurable. Start funding initiatives with current donors and expand the base from that success. Marketing efforts, including media coverage, will help also and can be easier to implement during the “off-season.” Reprints from a feature story The Wall Street Journal did on our inter-generational programming, as well as other newspaper and television coverage, have enhanced our reputation, visibility, and credibility.
Start slowly and build over a five-year period. Include this growth period in your business plan. Do not judge a program based on the success of its debut. It takes three years to decide whether to keep a program on the “do” list or to replace it with another concept. Marketing is an essential part of the implementation process. It may not be a simple task to get constituents to accept “change.” After five years, people may still ask the age-old question, “So what do you do in the winter?” — even after they have attended a program. Insure that every aspect of the program has been covered from program design and volunteer recruitment to food and facilities. Capitalize on the success of your summer camp and use it as a basic concept. Are campfires the most beloved part of your summer camp? Incorporate them into the off-season program, even if it means digging a fire pit in the snow.
Always have participants evaluate programs before they go home. Do not file the evaluations away to collect dust. Use them, read them, compile them, and build on them. Evaluations are your most important ally. We’ve learned from our evaluations that physical comfort is much more important to parents than children. Old camp cots with skinny mattresses and macaroni and cheese for dinner don’t get rave reviews from moms and dads—thus new beds have been purchased for the cabins and meals have a grown-up flair. Comments from evaluations have also served as a wonderful marketing tool as favorable quotes are used in our brochures and on our Web site.
- Continued Planning
Go back to the drawing board after each program. Make adjustments, brainstorm new ideas, try new things, and start the process all over again.
Shelley D. Yeager, M.A., L.C.S.W., became executive director of the Barton Center for Diabetes in 1986. During her tenure, The Barton Center has grown to a year-round facility serving 1,500 families. She is an officer of the Diabetes Camping Association. She holds a Master of Arts in Social Work and Sociology from Boston College and a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work and Sociology from St. Lawrence University.
Originally published in the 2002 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.