It was July 1967, so the story goes, on parents’ weekend in Fairlee, Vermont. A group of camp parents whose children were sleeping soundly at Aloha, Aloha Hive, and Lanakila enjoyed cocktails on the porch of the resort across the lake. As they sipped and visited, a quiet word was passed through the group: The Gulick Family was thinking of closing their camps!
It is a familiar saga still today: After an illustrious run, beginning in 1905 with Harriet and Edward Gulick’s decision to open a summer camp for girls, the next generation of Gulicks had no interest in continuing the work so earnestly and wisely begun over sixty years before. With no young Gulicks to carry on, the Aloha Camps would be on the real estate market for development before the following summer.
It is said that tears were shed, and I am sure that another round of bourbon was quickly consumed, while these dedicated parents pondered the prospect of summers ahead. As they gloomily imagined a future without Aloha, a lawyer dad wondered if it might be possible to purchase (with what funds no one knew) the camps from the Gulicks and continue them as a nonprofit. After all, the Gulicks had been committed to camperships since the very early 1920s, and their deepest belief was that camp was much more than fun and games.
Multiple meetings and many conversations later, a dedicated if naive group of alums, parents, and staff created the Aloha Foundation. The camps were purchased over time from the Gulicks, and the vision started so long ago continues to this day. It has not always been smooth sailing! Leadership challenges, board micromanagement, dramatic financial close calls — all have been part of the mix, but with trial and error, a strong organization with five camps and a year-round outdoor education center has grown.
Watching the results of all these years at Aloha, I share with you a few bits of wisdom gleaned in the process. My thoughts have also been shaped by experiences over the years with others who have taken — more or less successfully — the same path. I am definitely not an attorney; my masters’ degree in medieval English literature is not an asset in the legal arena. Maybe, however, I can help outline some of the issues to consider in pondering alternatives for the future of your camp.
Some Good Reasons to Consider Nonprofit Status
- Saving your camp and its property. Assuming there is no qualified and appropriate emerging family leadership, you could consider selling the property to a developer or to another camp director, but perhaps you are more interested in keeping your vision alive.
- Assuring continuity of vision and purpose. You have invested your heart and soul into the mission of your particular kind of camp experience. You love what you have created and so do your loyal alumni, parents, and counselors.
- You welcome the opportunity that a change in status offers for clarifying the mission of your camp. Of course, you have always been deeply committed to this mission, but occasionally an outsider might have looked at your forprofit model with confusion. After all, most organizations in other educational and child-focused fields embrace the nonprofit or the publicly funded model. Though no camp — or anything else, for that matter — survives without careful financial management, there is a perception, true or false, that a nonprofit organization can be more mission-focused and less profit-driven.
- You have seen significant buy-in from your camp community as you have been sharing your mission and vision for your camp going forward. Alums, parents, campers, and staff have expressed enthusiasm for all that you do in evaluations, anecdotal conversations, and perhaps even with monetary support.
So you and your whole camp community feel committed to ensuring your particular camp vision continues in perpetuity, making a difference for years to come. This vision translates easily as a clear educational and charitable cause that can be shared and understood in a few sentences. Pretend someone asks you in an elevator between the first and eleventh floor what the mission of your camp is. Can you articulate it for them, and is it at heart a philanthropic mission, not a personal, private business perspective? If so, it sounds like you have answered the baseline questions. There is more to be done, of course, but you have cleared the first hurdles.
Big Warning Signs Along the Path!
If the following thoughts are part of your motivation in thinking nonprofit, please think again. There are red flags and big potholes ahead!
- Making lots of money! “Well, we can’t get this thing working to make a comfortable living, so let’s try the nonprofit model.”
- Getting others to foot the bill without giving up control! “We will just hire our friends to be our board and I can keep them in line.”
- Shoring up a weak organization! “Our return rates are low and our parents unhappy, so maybe we can recruit better as a nonprofit.”
- Assuming this is a minor change and things can go along as they always have! “This is a small matter of a little bookkeeping and that’s it.”
These imagined outcomes are unrealistic. Counting on any of them, even with the most in-depth and thorough planning, is not dependable and could lead to major complications down the road. And, in my experience, the beginning years of any nonprofit are complicated enough without adding avoidable, bonus challenges along the way.
Some Sensible Next Steps
- Make a very careful self-examination. Think really hard about how such a dramatic change will affect your future, your dreams for yourself, and your family. Picture this new and different relationship with camp: Does it feel right and good from most perspectives? A little angst is fine. After all, you are sending your “baby” out into the nonprofit world. But are you at least 85 percent sure it will be the right move? Hold multiple conversations with any family members who will be touched by your decision. Do they understand and support you? Are they waving multiple red flags? Are they asking good questions, and is the conversation generally positive? Proceeding in the face of family disagreement is possible, of course, but time spent talking through the issue and developing consensus early generally tends to create a happier outcome!
- Speak with a trusted lawyer. At this point, a good attorney can give you the questions to ask and the information to gather before making any sudden moves.
- Speak with your accountant or auditor. Talk about assets and what might be included in the nonprofit. Ask about financial risks and essential records. Consider with this knowledgeable person the financial ramification on your family and your needs going forward. Make a financial plan.
- Share ideas with select valued alumni, staff, parents, and friends. Listen carefully and objectively to their feedback. Ask them to share positive and negative reactions. Have another person with you as you listen to their thoughts, as hearing clearly may be harder than you think. Compare notes and write down all relevant points, positive or negative.
- Revisit all the feedback received so far. You will have a first reaction to all you have learned and heard. Write it down. Write down your elevator speech. Keep a file of legal opinions you have gathered and any other relevant feedback.
- Set up a meeting with a camp or two who have taken this path recently: ACA may well be able to help you locate several that are similar in many aspects to your own. Invite the directors to lunch or dinner. Relax with them and hear their stories. What worked easily? And what was unexpectedly hard? Talk finances and talk family. Hear the challenges they faced and what they would have done differently, knowing what they know today. Ask how their board works and whether being educational and philanthropic feels natural or like a tight shoe every day.
- Take a deep breath and a time away from thinking about the question. Run a camp season, feel what you love about what you do and enjoy it. Watch for signs of readiness to move on or retire. These may be subtle (I still loved camper hugs before bed, but hour-long lunches began to drive me crazy). At that point, you may find clarity and recognize your fatigue, in the face of the nonstop nature of the job. Or, of course, you may see that you are really not quite ready to step back, even a bit.
- Ask your staff leaders to be honest and brutally clear about your role at camp. Did they feel your energy flag or your temper show itself in situations when you had been calm before? Were you energized by new ideas and willing to try new things? Were you absolutely exhausted, beyond the expected tiredness, at the end of the day or a session? Write down their feedback and tuck it into your growing file.
- Welcome a period of (relatively) quiet time after camp. Take another deep breath. Breathe for a few weeks, then take out your notes and files and read through them slowly. At that point you will begin to trust your gut and see the path ahead much more clearly. There is no right answer here: Even in my own fiercely held hope that a beautiful camp will stay a camp and not become an enclave of McMansions, I can imagine situations where remaining a camp would not be the best option.
Whatever you eventually decide, this process will have been a healthy one for you and for your whole camp community. Your decision will be clearer and based on real research, real numbers, and real expectations. There is no rush: The more you can find certainty and clarity, for yourself, your family, and your camp community, the smoother the transition.
It is July 2012, and parents’ weekend is in full swing in Fairlee. Well over 1,000 children proudly show off newly perfected skills and introduce camp forever-friends. Counselors enjoy conversations with appreciative family members. Cameras click and folks picnic everywhere, while family dogs catch Frisbees, adding to the general, cheerful chaos. Our five camps are bustling; the lawns are green; the lake sparkles; and the cabins — neater than usual — shine in all their historic and rustic glory. Over 1,500 acres of forests, fields, and shoreline are forever safe from development. The whole Aloha community knows beyond a doubt that these camps will be here when it is time to welcome the next generation of children and the next . . .
Was the path smooth to reach this place? Definitely not! There were days of deep financial worries, disagreements about personnel and program, board and management growing pains, and challenging decisions every day. But, watching these children grow and laugh and thrive, knowing their lives are transformed here, was it worth those challenges? Absolutely!
Camps of the Aloha Foundation
The mission of