Whether you plan to be at your camp for another 2, 5, 10, or 20 years, it’s not too early to start your camp’s succession planning. Camps are unique businesses that closely reflect their owners or leaders. It takes a lot of planning and communication to navigate the transition to new leadership. And although it may be hard to imagine today, there will come a day when you will no longer be at your camp. If you love your program and want it to continue thriving for future generations, you need to start making some plans.

Whether you’re a camp owner or a longtime, year-round camp director, retirement is much more complex than just notifying your employer that you’ll be leaving. You’ve likely developed your own unique job description complete with a mish-mash of tasks that you fear might not get done if you aren’t around.

During the pandemic, Susan Reeder (Carmel Valley Tennis Camp) started a support group specifically for female camp owners within the Western Association of Independent Camps (WAIC). The group became an important point of connection and sharing as we navigated our tasks and emotions while operating our camp businesses during that extremely challenging time.

After talk of COVID vaccinations and testing protocols waned in 2021, we kept meeting, and succession planning became a frequent topic in our monthly meetings. When Julie Walton, of Walton’s Grizzly Lodge, created a subgroup dedicated to camp succession planning, several of us jumped at the opportunity to join. We’ve been meeting monthly since late 2022, and our collaboration has led to countless crucial insights.

As group members shared their unique areas of expertise, we all learned so much. Brooke Cheley of Cheley Colorado Camps shared important insights about family and business communication in her work as a fourth-generation camp owner/director, and Pam Nootbar, MBA, of Kennolyn Camps taught us about critical financial and legal tasks, which included buy/sell agreements and how to restructure organizations. And in addition, the group provides accountability.

Having a supportive group of people with whom you can share confidential information and challenges you face is incredibly valuable. If you are contemplating or already planning for a leadership transition at your camp, find a person or group in a similar phase of their camp career with whom you can collaborate and share as you prepare.

If Camp Is Your "Calling"

Those of us who are decades into careers as camp owners or directors can feel that our lives are so intertwined with camp that it is hard to imagine not having camp at the center of our days.

Camp is much more than a job. It’s a calling — an all-encompassing lifestyle, complete with coworkers who are family, or feel like family, and sometimes even our physical home. Our personal lives — and what we may perceive as our life’s purpose — are intertwined with camp. So it’s understandable that many camp owners and directors delay talking or even thinking about leaving their camp jobs.

After four decades in the industry, I’ve known many camp owners and directors from previous generations who struggled with letting go of their roles and inadvertently created challenges for the next generation of camp leaders. I urge all camp directors to think of their camp job as just one part of their greater life’s calling, not as the only part of it.

Guiding Principles as You Plan

 "A big portion of your life's work is seeing that it continues," advises Julie Walton. Having put a lot of time and thought into the succession planning process for her camp, she shares many valuable ideas and tools with us, including these foundational principles: 

  • Know why you are creating a succession plan. 
  • Have a clear vision about where you are headed and a detailed understanding about where you are starting. 
  • Begin by identifying your overarching goal. 

At Walton’s Grizzly Lodge, the succession planning goal is to ensure the camp’s longevity for future generations of campers and to maintain family harmony. That’s such a perfect goal that I’ve adopted it for my own camp’s plan.

Know Where You Are and Where You're Going

Succession planning is an opportunity to reimagine the future of your business. Use it well! 

As Walton says, "It’s important to start by imagining the future. If you could start over with setting up your camp business, what would you do differently? What would remain? Would tasks be organized and assigned in the same way? Are there other resources or components that would be included? Succession planning provides an exciting opportunity to be intentional and aspirational. Begin by imagining the best version of your camp."

Equally important to planning ahead is to be clear about your current situation. It is helpful to create a detailed organizational chart to identify the current roles and responsibilities. You might be surprised how duties have shifted over the years. Some things may no longer make sense or be efficient, existing only because, "That’s the way we’ve always done it."

Having a detailed and accurate picture of the organizational structure of your camp enables you to assess if there are more efficient ways to organize duties, create clearer lines of communication, and identify areas that need reworking.

Getting to the nitty gritty, some important tasks you may want to prioritize include:

1. Review your current organizational structure and jobs.

  • What roles do people currently have?
  • Who holds decision-making power?
  • What tasks fall to each individual?
  • Do you have an updated, detailed job description for everyone currently running your camp — one that reflects current roles and specific duties?

2. Create an aspirational organizational structure.

  • What would be your camp’s ideal organizational structure? Look at other industries for ideas on how to divide duties and decisions.
  • How can duties be streamlined or make more sense? Especially for people who’ve been at camp for a long time, duties often evolve into a variety of diverse areas.

3. Assess your camp’s strengths and areas for growth.

  • How would you like to see your camp program grow or change in the future? 
  • How does your camp program need to grow in order to stay viable?
  • Which traditions or practices (called “institutional memory”) do you want to cement into your camp’s future? 
  • Are any practices in need of an upgrade?
  • Have you requested outside input? Look for an open support group or a family business advisor to help you identify blind spots.

4. Work with your legal counsel to create plans for business-related items you or your camp may need, including:

  • Codes of conduct 
  • Buy/sell agreement
  • Clear understanding of shareholder’s function/duties
  • Clear understanding of board of directors’ function/duties
  • Family council
  • Estate planning / financial planning
  • Formulas for profit distribution, capital investments, and donations

Invest in Communication

Clear and transparent communication with all stakeholders is extremely important to meet your goals of both future success and family harmony. Invest in regular communication about succession planning with all people involved, including:

  • Family members who work in your program
  • Non-family members who work in your program in key roles
  • Family members who are owners/shareholders but don’t work in the program
  • Board members or alumni who are involved in your program

Consider setting up quarterly meetings to review key ideas and get input. Remember the importance of transparency regarding the roles of family and nonfamily members. Are there roles or responsibilities that only family members will hold? How will nonfamily members be supported if they supervise family members? Are there boundaries or guidelines that need to be established and communicated?

A "family council" can be an effective structure for discussing family matters and keeping them all in the communication loop. The council can provide a way for family members not working in camp to be involved without interfering with the business’s daily management.

Final Succession Planning Thoughts: What about You?

It’s important to think not just about your camp’s future success, but also about your future well-being. Consider these questions:

  • Do you want a clean break when you finish working at camp, or do you want to stay involved in some way? 
  • If you want to stay involved at your camp, in what capacity?
  • What hobbies, jobs, or other activities would you like to spend more time doing once you’re no longer involved in the camp program’s day-to-day running? 

Take time to write down or discuss with a friend what tasks you’d like to remain involved in at your camp in two years, five years, or whatever time frame is appropriate for your personal goals. During your transition out of full-time camp involvement, you’ll need to periodically assess how you’re feeling, what to prioritize, what to let go of, and what support you need. As with any life transition, you may benefit from personal coaching or therapy.

During my camp’s succession planning process, I met individually with a strategic planning advisor who identified three tasks to focus on. These have been moved to the top of my current job description as I phase out of day-to-day duties at camp:

  1. Share the vision: Make sure my camp’s vision, mission, values, and goals are documented and shared with all staff, campers, and parents.
  2. Protect the brand: Train leaders in the voice and practices that represent my camp’s unique brand.
  3. Create institutional memory: For traditions that I feel are important to my camp’s program, I have been training others and documenting systems. 

Here are two examples:

  • We sing a specific song to end our final campfire, and for the past four decades, I’ve accompanied the singing on guitar. For the past several years, another director has also played guitar. Over the past few summers I’ve missed a few campfires, but the tradition continues without me.
  • Talking with parents, especially ones who are upset, has often fallen to me. In recent years, I’ve trained frontline staff and directors on telephone skills, reviewed key phrases that can be helpful to calm down parents, and helped with calls on speaker phone. Instead of taking over the call, I’ve coached young leaders on how to handle the situation and been there to support and back them up.

As Walton wisely says, "Key for us as we work on succession planning and changing our role from everyday doer to being a mentor or resource for others is to determine 'which balls are rubber and which ones are glass.'" 

For me, the three tasks I listed represent the glass balls, the values and priorities that are most important for me to focus on as I set up the next generation of my camp’s leaders for success. Make it your goal to identify your own glass balls — and then set out to do the same.

Additional Resources

  • The Family Council Handbook: How to Create, Run, and Maintain a Successful Family Business Council, by Christopher Eckrich and Stephen L. McClure
  • Camping Magazine — “The Big Missteps in Camp Leadership Transition,” by Bob Ditter: ACAcamps.org/article/camping-magazine/big-missteps-camp-leadership-transition
  • Harvard Business Review — “Merit or Inherit: How to Approach Succession in a Family Business,” by Josh Baron: hbr.org/2022/09/merit-or-inherit-how-to-approach-succession-in-a-family-business
  • TED Talk — “Family Businesses Are Here to Stay, and Thrive,” by Vikram Bhalla: ted.com/talks/vikram_bhalla_family_businesses_are_here_to_stay_and_thrive
  • BCG — Family Business: bcg.com/capabilities/corporate-finance-strategy/family-business
  • BCG — The Soft Rules of Family Business, by Janmejaya Sinha, Carol Liao, Saurav Mohanty, and Ryoji Kimura: bcg.com/publications/2020/managing-soft-rules-in-family-business 

Photo courtesy of Many Point Scout Camp, Ponsford, MN.

Author’s Note: Special thanks to Julie Walton (Walton’s Grizzly Lodge) who contributed content, advice, and input for this article. Without Julie’s many hours of research and work on her own camp’s succession plan, as well as her generosity in sharing what she’s learned with others, our succession planning group and this article would not exist.

Audrey Monke, with her husband, Steve, has owned and directed Gold Arrow Camp (Lakeshore, California) since 1989. On her website and podcast, Sunshine Parenting (sunshine-parenting.com), Audrey shares ideas, stories, and resources for parents and youth-development professionals. Audrey’s book, Happy Campers: 9 Summer Camp Secrets for Raising Kids Who Become Thriving Adults, (Hachette-Center Street, 2019) shares strategies for bringing the “magic” of camp home.