"The future begins with the past."
—Mary Chapin Carpenter

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the American Camp Association (ACA), we have had several opportunities to "look back" at the past 100 years within the pages of Camping Magazine. We have read about the influence of women on the shaping of ACA (Miranda & Yerkes, 2010), camp traditions (Swindle, 2010, "Camp"), and life stories by some of our veteran camp professionals (Swindle, 2010, "Voices"). Many of the underlying messages in these articles were often the result of specific personal leadership. But what stories can be told if we look at the organizational leadership of ACA over the past decades? What situations were key turning points for the organization as we struggled with both internal and external challenges that shaped ACA? What organizational leadership lessons were learned that might still apply today as we face our evolving future?

To tell this story of leadership, we need to understand the term "organizational leadership." This type of leadership is inherent to the very nature of the organization. According to the Web site Managing Leadership, it arises from the: "peculiar relationships that form among people joined together in a collaborative effort. As such, it takes on an identity of its own, existing in these relationships, rather than merely in the individuals who enter into them. Thus, it both influences, and is influenced by, those individuals. It communicates their organizational impressions and needs throughout the organization" (2010). Unlike the leadership of individual charismatic leaders, organizational leadership is unmatched in its ability to provide the functions of leadership to an organization, and is also far more reliably focused on the organization's ability to accomplish its own purposes and ensure its own sustainability.

For many of us, ACA exists solely within our current lens of personal knowledge and experience. We are aware of ACA's 20/20 Vision and the many changing societal factors that may affect our programs and our business models in the future; we strive for relevance while maintaining important traditions established over decades of camp experiences; we seek ways to demonstrate our professionalism and commitment to quality experiences. But what were the turning points confronted by the organization that evolved into today's ACA? We can't cover all of the important events that have shaped ACA in one article, but the following stories help illustrate the importance of organizational leadership and the lessons learned that still have application today.

Civil Rights

As described in Armand Ball's September/October Camping Magazine article, "How the American Camp Association Has Evolved Through Certain Crisis," civil rights were a huge challenge to the association. ACA actually became involved with issues of race long before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In fact, anti-discrimination resolutions around membership were in place as early as 1950. An example of this concern was a resolution passed by the Program Committee and Inter-Cultural Committee that ACA would hold meetings and conferences only at facilities that extended hospitality and guest privileges to all members of the association, regardless of race, creed, or color. A situation had arisen where black and white ACA board members walking together and trying to get a taxi had been threatened while attending a conference. At a Council of Delegates meeting during that same convention, an impassioned plea was made for an ethical stance against discrimination. When the vote was taken, wording was passed that non-discrimination would become a part of ACA's Member Statement of Ethics. The stance was immediately tested when the original hotel for the 1952 national conference did not comply, so the venue was changed to another hotel in Chicago. ACA's national conference did not go south of the Mason-Dixon Line again until 1974, when the meeting was held in Atlanta after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

While ACA had a non-discrimination policy regarding its membership, no such policy existed within the member camps regarding the desegregation of campers. When the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, many camps, especially private camps and camps in the South, practiced (unwritten) racial discrimination. However, in 1967, a lawsuit was filed against a southern camp because of racial discrimination. Since the camp was an accredited camp, ACA was also named as a defendant in the suit. For three years, divisive struggles were part of leadership meetings. No one wanted to interfere with a camp's autonomy as they struggled with meeting this new federal legislation, so ACA as an organization was caught in an internal battle that threatened to tear the association apart. Loyal members threatened to leave ACA if the organization adopted a camper non-discrimination stance. Religiously affiliated camps became concerned that their ability to serve specific faith-based needs would also be compromised.

As the lawsuit gained traction, key leadership recognized that compliance with the law was reaching a critical state. At the 1970 ACA National Conference, time was set aside where every person had a chance to voice their opinion about a proposed non-discriminatory policy around race. The meeting lasted for hours, but every person had a chance to speak. Afterward, the Council of Delegates convened on the top-most f loor of the hotel for the vote. Under tight security with only the delegates allowed to enter the meeting, the vote was taken. While not unanimous, the policy passed. It was one of the most challenging times in ACA's history, and required individual leaders to put aside personal views and unite. Scotty Washburn was president of ACA during this turbulent time, and in Scotty's words, "We had to do the right thing, even if it meant putting aside personal viewpoints and risking a loss of member friends, to move the association in the right direction."

The decision had signi f ic ant repercussions for ACA. More than 100 member camps pulled out of ACA almost immediately. Some of them would return over time, but the struggle established an important turning point for the association and an impact that is still felt today as ACA continues to be concerned over the rights of individuals and respect for all people.

Fair Labor Issues

Historically, camps were not expected to pay minimum wage or meet hourly provisions required in other types of employment. However, in 1977, that exception seemed to be in jeopardy. For years, camps had been included along with the seasonal amusement and recreational establishments; but that year, the US Department of Labor ruled that camps and conference centers were more educational than the other exempted categories, and therefore did not fall within the exemption.

Realizing that this legislation would effectively destroy camp and conference businesses, ACA leadership had to once again confront challenging legislative actions. In an effort to gather more political clout, the International Association of Conference Center Administrat ions (IACCA) joined with ACA to bat t le this legislation. Many of the hearings had already been held around the new minimum wage and hour law without the knowledge of anyone from IACCA or ACA. With only one hearing left, much work had to be done. IACCA initially took the lead in getting some support from "friends" in Congress for the exemption.

After multiple disappointments from lack of support from other youth organizations and congressional backers, a breakthrough happened at a dramatic meeting with Senator Jesse Helms from North Carolina. Helms was well aware of the large contingent of religiousaffiliated conference centers and summer camps in western North Carolina, so he committed to securing relief for camps and conference centers. While his support was critical, it was still questionable if he would be able to push the exemption through Congress. Given that Helms was a known conservative, his support would be perceived as going against organized labor, and liberals were reluctant to give up this type of legislation.

At that point, ACA made a significant contribution when, with the help of key ACA California leadership, ACA delivered Senator Alan Cranston (who was the Senate Majority Whip) as a co-sponsor of the legislation. While this partnership between Cranston and Helms seemed highly unlikely (they strongly disliked each other), they came together to "save camps" because they both valued the contribution the camp experience made to youth and the business camps brought to their states. Throughout all of these efforts, a network of individuals were calling ACA and IACCA members and asking that they contact their representatives. Finally, on October 6, 1977, the amendment was approved on a voice vote. This legislative success is a testament to the strength of collaboration with likeminded organizations that extended our reach beyond our own membership and was more effective than independent efforts. Without this legislation, the sustainability of ACA would have been in jeopardy.

Standards and Professionalism

As early as the 1940s, the idea of establishing a set of "standards" of practice was gaining traction within the camp community. By 1948, ACA had authored the first set of ACA Standards that applied to camps, and in 1954, camps were required to show compliance with the standards in order to say they were accredited camps. Two years later, a special set of standards was published that focused on just day camps. This professional turning point for ACA helped set a course around professionalism and responsibility that has endured ever since. However, reaching this point did not come easy for the association.

The early days of discussions around standards and accreditation were often tumultuous affairs marked by indignation that an organization like ACA could dictate practices. The "old guard" argued that any good director did not need someone else telling him or her what a good camp looked like, and they certainly did not like the measurement and documentation required. However, other camp professionals argued for the need to have a set of standards that everyone would meet so there was consistent "good camping" across the country. A quote by T. R. Alexander, one of ACA's presidents during this era (1957– 1958), speaks to some of the tension within the board at the time: "The board must move to higher ground and divorce itself from personal and sectional viewpoints." Standards became more focused on health and safety issues with a clear articulation that it was ACA's responsibility to promote healthy, safe experiences. And the standards did not dictate specific programming; the camp could still control how best to meet its mission and goals.

Over time, there was a wide acceptance across a broad range of people and camps. Many camps saw meeting ACA Standards as a source of pride and creating a vision broader than themselves. Then in 1965, the vision for a set of standards as a benchmark for practice paid off. As a result of a tragic canoe accident under the auspices of a camp, there was a campaign by camp safety lobbyist Mitch Kurman for a National Youth Camp Safety Act. While he was never successful in getting the legislation accepted by Congress, ACA's strong commitment to standards as a way to demonstrate professional responsibility reassured the political powers that ACA could self-regulate for the health and safety of campers and staff.

Fund for the Advancement of Camping

Throughout much of the history of ACA, the need for the association to "tell its story" was paramount to many of the turning points. Whether advocating with legislators, working with other youth organizations, documenting the impact of the camp experience, or answering media questions, solid research and facts have been an on-going need of the association. While a bit more focused in its impact, another of the key turning points in organizational leadership was the establishment of the Fund for the Advancement of Camping. Although not officially a part of ACA structure, this body was made up of key ACA leaders who were anxious to move the camp movement forward. They provided vision around articulating a need for research across a broad spectrum that included topics such as the economic impact of camps, the major re-writing of ACA Standards, helping private camps receive tax deductible scholarship money for bringing disadvantaged campers to their camps, and exploring the future of organized camping.

This early vision set the stage for more recent ACA research efforts, such as the first national outcomes study, the developmental supports and opportunities of camp, the business operations reports, the leadership and environmental stewardship project, and the healthy camps study. These early efforts demonstrated that the sustainability of the association was inherently tied to our ability to document the impact of the camp experience with unquestionable accuracy.

Lessons Learned

When looking at the turning points in ACA's history, the stories all point to the effects of organizational leadership on the various outcomes of the events. Had the outcomes deviated, we would certainly have a very different organization from what ACA is today. Taking a step back from the events allows us a perspective unavailable at that time — now, we can recognize the lasting inf luence of people coming together in collaborative efforts to give direction to an entire association. While not earth-shaking, the following lessons from these past turning points continue to have relevance today and provide potential guidance to the organizational leadership needed to face future challenges:

  • Strength through collaboration with other organizations around similar purposes is likely to result in success more often than trying to "go it alone."
  • Legislative awareness and advocacy is important! Establishing networks to communicate with political bodies and individuals as well as cultivating relationships with influential leaders are often critical to the association.
  • Opinions are important, but so are well-articulated and substantiated positions from which to argue.
  • Seldom do major steps forward happen without some amount of challenge and discomfort with the change.
  • Doing the right thing often comes with significant risks that must be acknowledged and accepted.
  • If the organization wants to control its own destiny, it has to be willing to do the work to establish appropriate professional benchmarks.
  • The "brotherhood" and "sisterhood" of camp professionals have a passion about camp that allows them to often put personal views secondary to the good of the association.
  • Respect based on human dignity and acceptance can allow bridges to be built where differences may initially be seen as problematic.
  • The strength of the organization is only as good as its collective leadership.

As we look forward to the next 100 years for ACA, we know we will continue to evolve from our past. We hope we continue to have the dynamic organizational leadership needed to confront challenges, take advantage of opportunities, and risk changes that will keep ACA relevant and vibrant while maintaining our credibility as we strive to make our 20/20 Vision a reality.


Ball, A. (2010). How the American Camp Association has evolved through certain crises. Camping Magazine, 83(5), 34–37.

Managing Leadership. (2010). What is organizational leadership? Retrieved from http://managingleadership.com/ blog/2004/07/15/what-is-organizationalleadership

Miranda, W., Ph.D., & Yerkes, R. (2010). Her story: The role of women in the formation of the American Camp Association 1910–1924. Camping Magazine, 83(2), 36–43.

Swindle, D. (2010). Camp Traditions: Memories in the making. Camping Magazine, 83(3), 38– 43.

Swindle, D. (2010). Voices of experience: Veteran camp professionals share their stories. Camping Magazine, 83(4), 36-39.

Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D., is director of research for the American Camp Association. She can be contacted at dbialeschki@ACAcamps.org. Jean McMullan and Scotty Washburn have contributed to the organizational leadership of ACA over decades of involvement; both served terms as ACA president and were members of key leadership committees and task forces.

Originally published in the November/December 2010 Camping Magazine.