Effective storytelling has long been a cherished campfire activity. Likewise, storytelling is recognized in the broader community as an essential element of both marketing and communication. How can we tell our story and convey our message so that others hear it? Once we have their ears, what can we say to help them understand why they should care about camp?

The impacts of COVID-19 on the camp community and the summer of 2020 have been profound; felt in a myriad of ways across thousands of camps in dozens of countries. Camps have been threatened by closure, major procedural overhauls, and significant economic hardship. Camper families and staff have tried to stay connected with camp despite other social disruptions. Camp associations have struggled to support their communities and to represent the values, needs, and importance of the camp industry to policy makers, educators, corporations, and the public at large.

The International Camping Fellowship (ICF) is a global community of camps and camp professionals with over 5000 affiliates and members (both individuals and camps) and 20 national or regional association members. With diverse camp communities in many countries, it became apparent that the short- and long-term goals across the global community varied depending upon the specific cultural, governmental, and administrative structures of the country and the prevalence of the pandemic at the time.

The ICF Board determined that its best role in support of camp at this time was to create a concerted, international campaign to raise awareness of the benefits of camp. In so doing, it could also raise the voices of camps and camp professionals by seizing the attention of policy makers, educators, fundraisers, and families. With that attention secured, individual camps, organizations, and associations could then tailor their messages for optimal exposure in and maximum benefit of their communities.

In all good stories, listeners should find themselves in the narrative as well as recognize universal truths. ICF reviewed past camp awareness campaigns in considering how best to convey the story of camp today with both personal and universal themes.

ICC Canada 2008

At the VIII International Camping Congress in Québec, Canada, the theme of camp as something more than the sum of its parts — with the ability to change a camper or staff member’s life — surfaced once more. Peter Katz, an international singer-songwriter with his own experience grounded in camp, performed a song written especially for the conference. Following the conference, Katz gifted the words and music to the Canadian Camping Association and ultimately to the International Camping Fellowship.

Simply titled The Camp Song, the words and music have been embraced by hundreds of camps as part of their final-night campfire songbook. In part:

How can I explain what I take away
When the autumn falls and we go our separate ways
What is it exactly? How can I describe
All that I discovered by that fireside
Some things aren’t defined
Some things they’re just right
‘Cause it’s more than the green of trees
It’s more than the summer breeze
The smell of rocks and water
Washing over me
It’s more than the orange fire
It’s more than the fishing wire
It’s more than the cabin walls
Or that morning bugle call
It’s something you can’t touch
But you can hold so dear

ACA Because of Camp...® 2009–2011

The American Camp Association’s (ACA) Because of Camp...® campaign ran actively from 2009 to 2011 to bring awareness to the long-lasting impact of the camp experience. It centered on testimonials by prominent, recognizable public figures who attributed at least part of their success — in career, fame, family — to things they learned while a camper or staff at camp. The resultant video and page are still active on the ACA website, accompanied by links to further information on the benefits of camp.

CCA #Thanks To Camp 2016

A few years later, in 2016, the Canadian Camping Association/Association des camps du Canada designed and launched a campaign of its own titled Thanks To Camp. This was a two-year project with two distinct elements.

In the first year, the campaign made strong use of social media to invite everyone to "tell their story," capturing their message in whatever way they might choose. For many, it was as simple as holding a handmade sign completing a sentence that started with "Thanks to camp . . .." Social media readily lends itself to this kind of photo or brief video with the single-sentence caption. The campaign (and some camps who spring-boarded onto the campaign) generated a video of campers, staff, alumni, parents, and camp directors sharing their stories in creative ways. As with any social media campaign, it was necessary to seed the launch by organizing a series of prearranged posts and a small number of influencers to create a sensation and trigger others to participate. The hashtag #ThanksToCamp was a key element in igniting the campaign and turning it into a movement. It pushed the stories beyond those individuals already engaged with camp to include a wider audience — those who needed to become engaged with camp.

The second phase of the Canadian campaign was captioned #MoreThanJustFun. This phase linked the stories of #ThanksToCamp to key elements of current camp research and shared this information with readers in a relatable and palatable manner. This part of the campaign included a social media tool kit to help people better understand the verifiable outcomes related to social and emotional growth that camp can bring to a young person’s development. Examples of these two-slide posts included:

  1. First slide: Camp helps you invite over the new kid at school.
    Second slide: According to research, more than 65 percent of campers show positive change in terms of learning and growing with regard to social connections.
  2. First slide: Camp helps you want to share the last cookie.
    Second slide: According to research, 85.9 percent of campers found camp benefitted the development of intrapersonal awareness and allowed them to learn tolerance, patience, and the value of teamwork.

In each case, the second slide cited specific research related to the opening statement.

ICF 2020

As previously mentioned, the International Camping Fellowship represents diverse camp communities in many countries, with varying goals based on cultural, governmental, and administrative structures and current pandemic prognosis. Active, strong, and fully structured associations (ACA-USA, Australian Camps Association, Canadian Camping Association) exist alongside smaller, emerging, and volunteer-driven groups such as Panacamps, Singapore, and Spain. ICF determined that the best way to support the work of all its members was to embrace #ThanksToCamp on an international scale. This awareness-raising project during the COVID-19 crisis could be used in different ways by different groups to influence policy makers, fundraisers, families, and sponsors at a critical time and allow respective camp groups to use the messages and stories to address the survival and strengthen the recovery of the camp community in their country.

ICF #ThanksToCamp

With the Canadian Camping Association’s permission and support, the ICF Board committed to the project in June of 2020. At the same time and serendipitously, Katz asked if there was anything he could do to support camp at this critical time. The call went out for video clips, and ICF ambassadors in each country were asked to build up their capacity by mobilizing approximately 10 percent of their constituency to be ready for the virtual campaign launch on August 1. Held on Zoom, this launch was hosted by Katz and John Jorgenson, ICF president, and it included:

  • #ThanksToCamp stories from six continents by campers, staff, directors, alumni, and parents
  • A description of the campaign
  • A performance of Camp Song by Katz
  • A video embracing the full scope of the clips that had been received

Throughout the month of August, daily posts and reposts in seven languages led to over half a million exposures to the #ThanksToCamp message in English alone. Social media platforms expanded from Facebook and Instagram to LinkedIn, Twitter, VK (Russia), Telegram (Russia), and WeChat (China).

The results of the monthlong campaign continue to be felt and to be used to benefit a variety of camps and camping groups. Individual camps have implemented their own campaigns to assist with fundraising and/or increased awareness. Some countries have used it to support direct appeals to policy makers and governments for financial subsidy of camps, and in several countries it has become part of a movement to form a national camp association.

The second verse of Katz’s song concludes with the lines:

Some things don’t need words

Some things they just work . . .

During these difficult times, camp does indeed need words. It also needs pictures, testimonials, and stories. And those stories must be told and retold. They must be shared beyond the camp community itself so that those who need to hear it begin to understand the importance and values of our work in camps. Our collective stories give camps a powerful voice.

Going forward, the campaign has no end in sight. Individual camps and associations are encouraged to participate and incorporate #ThanksToCamp into existing or new campaigns. In this way we express appreciation for camp’s attributes and recognize how we are different — and how we thrive — thanks to camp.

For More Information

To learn more about the #ThanksToCamp campaign, visit:

John Jorgenson is a director of Camp Tawingo in Ontario, Canada, past President of ICF frequent presenter at ACA conferences, and keynote speaker abroad.

Gabrielle Raill is director of Camp Ouareau in Quebec, Canada, co-founder of Women in Camp Summit, podcaster/presenter, and graphic designer with Concept Citron.

Photo courtesy of International Camping Fellowship.

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