An answer to this question of the century may seem counterintuitive, yet it is at the core of most camp communities: Relationships. More than ever, staff are looking for connection and belonging. So how do we focus on those needs without defaulting to the program needs we consider necessary to run camp? We will look at relationship development by flipping the order of our current recruiting, hiring, and staffing ideas. This can lead to various opportunities to earn and keep staff commitment.
Staff culture and camp culture are tied together. In fact, the culture our staff embraces and models is our camp culture. The values we have in place help us connect future staff to our camp’s mission after we discover their values and what is important to them. There is a difference between earning and receiving commitment from staff. Commitment to camp is not automatic; we must do our part to earn the staff loyalty and trust that will keep them committed through the end of the camp season.
Now is the time to look at our commitment to staff and this process. We often complain that there is a lack of commitment from staff. We may even hop on the bandwagon of thinking this is a generational issue, perhaps believing young people today can’t commit to anything compared to when we were their age. But actually, this boils down to a lack of commitment to us and to camp at this point. Staff are committed to school, family, friends, work, sports, music, art, etc. Camp may not be a priority (yet).
You may be wondering, “What are emerging leaders willing to be committed to?” It would be easy to think that staff return to camp because of the relationships with friends who work there or for the money. But we assume the answers without hearing directly from the source. It could be staff return because of different types of relationships, such as a connection with the camp mission, the environment, the work, etc., or a need such as a break from home or school.
To get a true sense of the commitment emerging leaders are willing to lean into, it can be enlightening to interview current staff, recent alumni, folks who may not be considering camp as an option, and those who may have quit mid-season. The goal is not to “push” people toward the predetermined assumption we have, but to “pull” facts out by the questions we ask. This requires a different mindset than we may be used to, and it may be difficult in the beginning to make this switch.
Interestingly, camps are not the only ones asking such questions around commitment. Employers across the board face this very issue as we see sign-on bonuses, salary increases, and other incentives offered to get people in the door and encourage them to stay. Schools are also struggling to understand what makes students want to commit to organizations, clubs, and teams. In a recent Growing Leaders blog, “The Art of Drawing Commitment from Students,” Tim Elmore shares that the issue is tied to an outdated sequence of priorities from the adults doing the recruiting (2021).
He says that in the past, commitment was achieved by:
- Believing what we believe. We need them to embrace our mission and core principles.
- Behaving like we behave. We want them to begin looking and acting as we do.
- Belonging to our group. Once they implement these, then we allow them to officially join.
A strategy that is more in tune with the needs of youth today is to build relationships and a sense of community before convincing them that working at your camp is a good idea. “Students today would rather join a small affinity group and belong to this group, even before they embrace the beliefs of that group,” Elmore says. This suggests that today’s staff most likely will respond to the reverse order of priorities for earning commitment. After all, the needs and wants of a current generation are often in response to what they perceive as missing or “wrong” in previous generations.
Gen Z (born between 1996 and 2010) as a whole wants diversity and inclusivity that mirrors their current world, livable pay, and a healthy and safe (physically and emotionally) place to work. We recognize these are generalities about a group of people and not true for every individual in this generation. But because Gen Z tends to be values-driven, they typically look for meaning and purpose in what they do and choose brands and experiences that best align with their beliefs. They also have high expectations for proactive communication that provides clear guidance and frequent feedback, strong personal connections, and transparency in their place of work.
Unfortunately, we have observed a common approach for recruiting staff at in-person/virtual job fairs that is diametrically opposed to what this generation needs and wants. Picture rows of tables in a large open space with displays (or breakout rooms with slides) full of photos of smiling faces. We grab the closest person and start talking about our beautiful 954-acre property, the sparkling lake, the newly built ax-throwing range, the very popular gaga pit, etc. We ask questions to see if this person could fill the master underwater basket-weaver position we desperately need. We do what we’ve always done to sell the camp program and property. But the student leaves not feeling any sort of connection with the camp or the person(s) representing the camp.
Instead, we suggest focusing on the person and not the position. Relationship building is an ongoing conversation with staff from the first meeting. Think of modeling this conversation on how you want staff to engage with campers (and camper families). Remember, the focus is on them (and not on you or camp).
Google Careers (n.d.) invites the applicant to self-reflect as step one of forging a relationship, which is not a common practice we’ve seen in the business world. Interesting dialog, a list of questions, and a visualization exercise are offered as job seekers embark on this journey, all prior to moving further into the hiring process. Google’s website says, “If we hire you based on your skills, we’ll get a skilled employee. If we hire you based on your skills, enduring passions, and distinct experiences and perspectives, we’ll get a Googler [insert camp name + “er”]. That’s what we want.”
Reflection questions might include:
These questions could be on your website and/or could be sent directly to anyone who expresses interest in employment at your camp. You can then refer to these questions during the interview phase to continue building relationships.
The next step in Google’s hiring process allows applicants to feel what working at Google is like. “The goal here is that the job you land on should exist at the intersection of who you are and who we are.” We want our staff applicants to get information that will help them know us/our camp a little better. An example of a narrative is found on the career information page for You Need a Budget (youneedabudget.com/careers), which helps folks see who they are joining and how they can belong:
One time the Marketing team dressed up in random costume accessories and went to a fantasy roleplaying theme park where they joined the Pirate’s Guild, went on quests, and earned enough gold to sponsor the resident acting troupe. Because conference room presentations and trust fall exercises aren’t really our thing, you know?
If your narrative is effective, applicants will see themselves or not see themselves working at your camp.
You might think with so much information in this type of job description, applicants won’t read it all the way through. This is a definite possibility; however, in our experience, we have found that putting forth the information is better than not making it available. The narrative-style job description gives a more conversational tone that reads easily and quickly. We recommend dividing the information into sections, enabling prospective staff to pick and choose what they would like to know more about based on what aligns with their goals for the upcoming summer or long-term plans.
By starting the conversation with an understanding of the applicant’s values before even mentioning what camp can provide, we begin to understand who they are and what they want, and a relationship starts to form. This allows us to hire the people we want and create a job based on their strengths and camp needs. It was not surprising that the riding department at a camp that did this when they were short-staffed quickly enlisted the help of 14 staff to do barn chores on a rotating basis.
Being transparent about why each staff member is needed goes a long way for buy-in to the camp’s mission and, in the end, will make for a more committed employee. This was a lesson learned the hard way when a very talented yet disgruntled volleyball instructor came marching into the camp office because of a mismatch in expectations between what was perceived as their role and what was actually needed.
The instructor was told that camp was fun and they would be teaching volleyball and coaching campers. The reality was that the campers at this particular camp didn’t care much for volleyball and made teaching it difficult and not so fun. The job should have been described as “looking for someone to get campers excited to play the game.” (Then, as a result of this excitement, campers will want to improve their skills.)
If we go back to an earlier idea and reverse the order so that belonging is the priority before someone buys into the mission, we can initiate small steps that build trust and loyalty. Over time, this will help us earn the commitment we feel is lacking in staff today. Elmore offers a visual model using concentric circles that helps us see what this could be like: “We create spaces for staff to put their toe in the water in the outer layer. Work on helping them feel they belong. As they move from an outer layer to an inner layer of commitment, look for that belonging to lead to aligned beliefs and behavior” (Elmore, 2021).
As shared in a Harvard Business Review article, Coqual — a global, nonprofit think tank and advisory group that was founded in 2004 to address bias and uncover barriers to advancement for underrepresented populations in the workplace — defines what belonging looks like in their workplace. Employees are (Kennedy & Jain-Link, 2021):
- Seen for their unique contributions
- Connected to coworkers (and the community)
- Supported in their daily work and career development
- Proud of the organization’s values and purpose
It is not a stretch to use the same or similar wording for the camp environment. (Staff belong at camp when they feel seen, connected, supported, and proud.) We are fans of spelling this out further to show what belonging looks like when it is “in action,” and we invite you to empower your staff to help with this.
On the outer layer of the concentric circles, belonging may look like welcoming a new staff member by assigning a veteran buddy. It might also come in the form of a campaign of short videos introducing the staff team one at a time while offering a tidbit on camp life. The next layer may be a series of Zoom meetings with a small cohort that eventually leads to an introduction to the larger staff community. First-time and veteran staff may be asked to weigh in on a camp policy, bring new life to a fading program, or create a new tradition altogether.
We know of camps that have successfully implemented “sticking a toe” in the camp water by hiring first-year staff for a shorter season (four to five weeks vs. ten to twelve weeks). We anticipate pushback because of the potential animosity of veteran staff who stay for the entire summer. To put this in perspective, think of a sports team. The best players — those with the most training and experience — are often the ones who are called upon to give the most time and effort in an intense game situation. They sit on the bench minimally or not at all. Having more experienced players model culture and behavior is critical to a team’s success.
Some day camps have done this by offering shorter shifts, six hours rather than eight or ten, or four days a week instead of five. We see it in overnight camps when staff may be given a week or more off at a time during shorter sessions or job-sharing is offered for longer sessions. This allows for really great staff, the rock stars who tremendously impact your camp, to come for a period of time that better matches their availability. This flexibility may mean hiring more staff, but it can open doors to a greater sense of belonging and commitment as staff move toward the inner circle of being “all in.”
The book It’s Your Ship tells the story of how Captain Abrashoff took over as commander of the underperforming USS Benfold and created a crew of “confident and inspired problem-solvers eager to take initiative and responsibility for their actions” (Abrashoff, 2012).
If we heed Abrashoff’s principles and foster an “it’s your camp” mentality, we will:
- See camp through the eyes of the staff: By soliciting staff suggestions (and listening aggressively), it becomes clear what promotes commitment to the vision and mission of camp. What do staff need to be successful? What stressors or barriers get in the way of this success?
- Communicate, communicate, communicate: The more we communicate the plan, the better staff perform. Implement a system where they hear from you/camp leaders often.
- Create buy-in by focusing on purpose: Commitment will skyrocket when staff believe what they are doing is important.
Sharing ownership with staff boosts their engagement and invites belonging. As these principles suggest, staff/camp culture is a reflection of values in action. Likewise, culture also reflects the “inaction” of values — if we are not connecting staff values to camp values, we go nowhere. Staff commitment is a reflection of camp commitment. If your camp is 100 percent committed to staff, what mindset shifts might you need to make to receive the same commitment in return?
Photo courtesy of TIC Camp, Annadale, VA.
Abrashoff, M. (2012) It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy. New York, NY: Warner Books, Inc.
Elmore, T. (2021, July 6). The art of drawing commitment from students. Growing Leaders. growingleaders.com/blog/the-art-of-drawing-commitment-from-students
Google Careers. (n.d.) How we hire. careers.google.com/how-we-hire/
Kennedy, JT. & Jain-Link, P. (2021, June 21). What does it take to build a culture of belonging? Harvard Business Review. hbr.org/2021/06/what-does-it-take-to-build-a-culture-of-belonging
Monster.com. (n.d.). 11 strategies for recruiting seasonal employees. hiring.monster.com/resources/recruiting-strategies/workforce-planning/hiring-seasonal-workers/
Stahl, A. (2021, May 5). How Gen Z is bringing a fresh perspective to the world of work. Forbes. forbes.com/sites/ashleystahl/2021/05/04/how-gen-z-is-bringing-a-fresh-perspective-to-the-world-of-work
Wisman, L. (2021) Impact Players: How to Take the Lead, Play Bigger, and Multiply Your Impact. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
You Need a Budget. (n.d.) Work that matters. youneedabudget.com/careers/
Authors’ Note: This article was written on behalf of Project Real Job (ACAcamps.org/resource-library/jobs-recruitment/project-real-job) whose purpose is to support camps in their efforts to recruit, hire, and retain staff.
Kim Aycock, MST, has several decades of experience developing young people with skills robots are unable to do. While blending the talents of a master teacher with the knowledge of a seasoned camp expert, Kim ignites the learning for varying levels of camp pros worldwide through her interactive and innovative presentations. Kim speaks at regional/national conferences, contributes regularly to Camping Magazine and ACA blogs, and serves as co-chair of ACA’s Staff Recruitment and Retention Committee.
Jolly Corley, MS, has worked the past 20 years developing dynamic, thoughtful workplace culture, especially at camp. Jolly’s passion is helping others cultivate their purpose. Using games, theater, and life experiences, she prepares staff to understand that our own experiences are the most useful tools for reflection and growth to a solid foundation in becoming leaders for life. Jolly collaborates with organizations nationwide to present ideas and actions that promote personal and professional growth.