As camp professionals, we hear many stories about the impact of our camps on the lives of our participants. Often, when these alums come back and share a story or two with us from the past, they finish with a wonderful line that we probably have all heard:
“I loved my time at camp, so please let me know if there is anything I can ever do to help.”
When was the last time you followed up that offer with a request? If you never have, the time is now to get the courage and respond immediately with, “Fantastic! Have I got a job for you!”
There is not a more boisterous and loyal bunch than summer camp alumni. These folks will send children and families your direction, host events for you, even clean bathhouses for you to feel the connection to camp once again. When we do not tap this underutilized resource, we are not taking advantage of one of the finest assets we have as a business: our loyal alumni network.
I entered my job as a camp director with some common understandings about what our key assets were within the organization. We had top-notch talent in our full-time and seasonal teams. We had a superb asset in the ranch where we operated our pro¬grams, and our backcountry use permits gave our campers access to some pretty amazing spots. However, these strengths were just the ones that were most apparent, and over time, the staff and I began to realize that we had another asset that is common to almost all camp directors: Our alumni were loyal and motivated. These alumni would go to the ends of the earth to promote and endorse our experience. Just as we took advantage of our permits, our ranch, and our best employees, we decided to take advantage of our alums and put them to work.
The summer camp industry follows a marketing model in which we are only at the forefront of individuals’ minds for parts of their lives. Here’s an exercise to demonstrate this: Draw a chart. On the x-axis, write “age” and the numbers one through eighty. On the y-axis, write “interest level” and the numbers one through five.
The age on the x-axis is self-explanatory: These are the age ranges of people we interact with as camp professionals in a lifetime. On the y-axis, you have the attention that we attain from individuals. A five would be a high level of interest (most likely with
a new parent or a new camper), and a one would be a low level of interest (twenty-somethings who no longer work with us or parents whose campers are gone from our programs). When put together, we can map the interest levels that exist from our constituents over their lifetime (see Figure 1 ).
Commonplace in this exercise for all camps is that we observe a wave that has peak levels of interest when kids come to our camp, then advance to our staff, and then again when they are parents and even grandparents. Low levels of attention will occur all the times in between.
Now, where do the alumni fit in this equation? The alumni are the individuals who will help to drive those low levels of interest to medium or high levels. You can never fully get to that moment when someone feels like a camper, staff member, or camp parent again, but what if we could spark something in our alumni that raised their level of interest during those down years? In doing so, you will never totally leave the landscape of a client’s mind, and, consequently, this will drive your performance results for years to come.
When our program actively began to engage our alumni, we saw an increase across the board in our retention rates, our staff referrals, camper referrals, camper enrollment numbers, and our fundraising dollars. Further, we saw that we had increased attention levels at all ages. The well-defined wave turned into more of a ripple because we held people’s attention for longer periods of time. This success is not unique to us. Other camps are conducting the same efforts, and universities are the example of what we all should strive to attain. Colleges and universities invest millions in their alumni engagement departments, as they know that the alum is the one who will speak the best about your institution and will help to drive your results.
From “Why” to “How”
Since we now know the “why,” we must focus on the “how.” How can we implement a quality alumni relations program at our camp? First, it begins with your camp defining what it means to be a member of the alumni. Then, it means looking at your current database and making sure you have adequately kept track of these individuals while also continually updating and inputting data. Finally, it means developing and rolling out an outreach plan that makes sense for you, your camp, and your alums.
Definition of Alumni
To make this work for all of us in the camp industry, we should expand our definition of alumni. I was not a camper at the camp I direct; however, I would go to the ends of the earth for this program. A parent might feel the same way if their child has a transformative experience at your program. Consequently, we should all consider defining alumni of our program as all campers who attended our programs, all staff who have worked in our programs, and all parents who have had a child in our programs. With this expanded definition, not only can we reach more people, but when we later develop our plan of action, it will make us concentrate on our unique alumni constituencies who have different needs and wants.
Managing the Database
The next step is the most challenging part of the whole alumni outreach process: managing the database. It is not enough to have a great and well-regarded database system. We must not only have a great system, but we must utilize it appropriately. While many new systems will advise you on how to best use their services, it will still not input the constituents with all the necessary information, which will be the most tedious part of the alumni outreach journey. I can assure you this is well worth your efforts and will quickly pay dividends (and could be a good volunteer opportunity for an active and interested alum).
At the outset, connecting all of your constituents with their relationships (i.e., immediate family, extended family) will seem like a tiring game of six degrees of separation. But these relationships, and their birthdays, interests, and professions, will help as you work to connect them with camp.
This information will be most important when your database is well on its way and you begin to mine the database for various categories of constituents. Looking for alumni from the ’80s to host a mixer in a certain location? If you have entered the information appropriately, queries like these will begin to point you in the right direction as you begin your outreach process. This area will require an initial investment in technology and potentially another person on the team to assist with data entry, research, and queries.
Driving Performance Results
Now that your database information is set, you can begin to use it to drive your performance results. First, you should analyze where you want to see the results. At our organization, we really wanted to reach others in the low points of that already-mentioned attention chart. Consequently, we began outreach in the way of alumni events for our young alums. These are gatherings the night after a promotional event in a certain city where we relied on social media to garner the interest of our alumni constituency in the age range of twenty-two to thirty-five. We picked the restaurant/bar, invited everyone to attend, and once there, took five minutes to give a report on all that is happening with us at the camp. The feedback we received from these events was fantastic, and a critical aspect was that we also documented who was at each event so we could track their desired level of involvement with the organization. We also used these events as a way to update their current contact information as well as the contacts of other camp alums with whom they had a connection.
The key here is to pick an area where you would like to see improvement. At the end of most of these events, we asked for their help. Common requests were: “Spread the word about enrolling early!” or “Tell every great twenty-one-year-old you know to apply to work with us!” What we found was that this was a great way of getting folks involved with our camp experience. They felt connected to the camp and then would turn around and advocate for us. We received great recommendations for staff members, and word began to spread about enrolling early. It seemed to us that the alumni of our camp were waiting and eager to be asked to help the cause.
Table 1 shows some basic ways we used our database to drive results.
Develop the Plan of Outreach That Works for You!
The last step in this process is to develop a plan that will engage your constituents while not adding to your already-heavy workload. Develop a plan that you think will resonate with the intended audience. Also, you will want to develop a plan that does not detract from your overall goal of running a fantastic summer program (no alum wants to be connected to something that is not running well). Your alumni outreach could be an event at a bar for twenty-somethings in the off-season or an annual report letter to your whole constituency that tells of the strategic direction of the organization. Maybe you would like to develop a volunteer board of directors to run the financial aid portion of your operation, or you would like to use alumni volunteers to help get camp up and running prior to the summer. Or maybe you just want to form a parent panel that will offer you feedback on new initiatives you are considering.
Whatever plan you develop, follow it year after year to enhance the experience for your alumni — and make sure that the initiative plays to each alum’s desire to reconnect with the organization that they care so much about. When you create this for your alumni base with your new outreach efforts, your alumni support will in turn benefit the overall strength of your camp program.
Academic Impressions. (2013). Alumni relations ROI: An approach. Retrieved from www.academicimpressions.com/news/alumni-relations-roi-approach 
Council for Advancement and Support of Education. (2013). Explore the history of alumni relations. Retrieved from www.case.org/About_CASE/CASE_History/100AnniversaryAAS/100AnniversaryExplore.html 
The Fundraising Coach. (2013). A fresh look at alumni relations. Retrieved from http://fundraisingcoach.com/free-articles/a-fresh-look-at-alumni-relations/ 
BizEd. (2013). To alumni with love. Retrieved from www.bizedmagazine.com/features/articles/to-alumni-with-love.asp 
Tom Holland will become ACA’s Chief Foundation and Funds Development Officer effective November 15th. He holds a bachelor’s degree in secondary education and a master’s degree in business administration from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. A former high school history teacher, Tom has spent the past six years as the executive director of the Teton Valley Ranch Camp Education Foundation. He currently lives in Jackson, Wyoming, with his wife and three daughters.
Originally published in the 2013 November/December Camping Magazine.
Photo courtesy of Tom Holland.