Keeping staff engaged is an age-old challenge that begs for a new twist given our current times and circumstances. The Summer Camp Innovation Network organized a space for innovation by connecting 18- to 22-year-old university students with camp professionals to create synergy around engagement of staff. Daniel Shore and Kim Aycock challenged the teams to create an idea that motivates staff to engage between summers. 

The goal of the innovation technique is crafted around the idea of changing things that already exist to better suit what is needed right now. This process is designed to uplift and boost the time and energy you and your camp staff are already putting into the challenges your camp is facing, while inspiring more efficient and effective ways to keep both new and veteran staff involved and connected to camp. 

It is important to know how to think like an innovator and perform a similar process with your camp staff. Whether your program is day, overnight, or an after-school program, the innovation experience can be molded to fit your camp's needs. There are many resources to explore the innovation process, and what we offer here is simply the tip of the iceberg to help you get started. 

Choose a challenge you are facing as an organization. Start with a problem and follow these simple steps:

  • Engage in customer discovery. Invite your staff to talk to people about the issue to discover what the underlying issues are and their emotions around it. 
  • Change the lens and build on existing ideas. Utilize what you know or what you have seen somewhere else and apply it to your specific situation. Imagine what a popular company/brand would do if they were faced with the same issue. Look beyond camp to spark ideas.
  • Change, rearrange, and create. Innovation does not have to start from scratch! Take ideas from elsewhere and incorporate those ideas into the camp world. 

The special thing about this innovation bootcamp process is that we recognize every idea created has value, for either the camp team that designs it or for the idea that it sparks in others. You can be the judge of how worthwhile each innovation could be to implement in your specific camp or what tweaks can be made to make it work for your particular situation. Either way, the innovation process will continue to evolve! 

Working together in small teams once a week for a month during Innovation Boot Camp, each team applied innovation techniques and created an idea to motivate staff for you to consider: 

  • Virtual Scavenger Hunt: Introduce a new clue at each meeting that leads to a big final reveal right before camp starts. An example would be to have hints dropped each week that lead to the reveal of a new line of merchandise at the camp store or new camp activity. This slow release would keep staff (and campers!) excited and engaged until it is time to go to camp with weekly updates and puzzles.
  • Staff Connect the Virtual Pen Pal/ Mentorship Program: Connect returning staff with new hires to help them get excited about the upcoming season and build relationships before training. This could look like introductions and a game night to break the ice, staff chats with camp culture/experience, and Meet the Camper night.
  • Got Game: Host monthly virtual game nights to help staff connect and build community. The games could be played over Zoom, and the winners could receive prizes such as care packages sent in the months leading up to summer.
  • Reap Your Rewards: Engineer a pyramid of rewards encouraging staff to return to camp and recruit their friends. Examples of rewards would be camp merchandise, social media features, or breaks during the work week.
  • Staff Day Out: Host a sponsored day at camp (or nearby location) out to connect staff and let them enjoy fun camp activities prior to the summer season. 
  • Zoom Escape Room: Host virtual escape rooms through Zoom and possibly virtual reality (VR) as a team-building activity to help the staff connect before the summer starts.
    Committee Central: Invite staff to join committees to design different elements of the camp; for example, making theme nights or designing social media posts to help them connect with each other. This promotes being further invested in the camp by giving them a specific role in helping to plan for the upcoming summer. For example, you could create a committee to implement some of these ideas or give them the challenge and guide them through the innovation process.

Tweaking ideas and adjusting them to seal your camp's cracks is the goal of Innovation Boot Camp. State a problem, engage in discovery, and innovate based on ideas you already have will positively impact your camp by strengthening the connection to camp during the winter months. Invite your staff to engage, think and become active problem solvers. The results will surprise you and result in more people actively thinking about your camp, even when they are not there. The key to buy-in between summers is engagement with ideas!

This blog was written on behalf of Project Real Job’s efforts to help camps recruit, hire, and retain staff.

Photo courtesy of Mountain Camp

Isabella DeLong and Josh Hilger are sophomores in the Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management (PRTM) program at Clemson University. They were led in the Innovation Boot Camp Process by Daniel Shore, PhD, of (Strategies for Effective Teamwork, LLC — and Kim Aycock of (Kimspiration, LLC — with support from Gwynn Powell, PhD, and Teresa Tucker, PhD. The innovation boot camp brought together camp professionals and Clemson University students to explore staff engagement as part of their coursework.