Basic Steps in Strategic Planning

September 2004

Someone reminded me recently that "it wasn't raining when Noah built the Ark!" At a time when management gurus echo the phrase, "out of crisis comes opportunity," it is indeed refreshing to contemplate camp planning sans pending disaster! In this context, we are free to think about planning as "invitational" — enhancing our camp communities to serve children and adults better. It is a process that invigorates rather than exhausts participants and brings about a greater sense of harmony and commitment to camp's mission.

A Brief History

Planning is not a new phenomenon. It has roots in military history. The Greek word stratego means "to plan the destruction of one's enemies." What remains today are the key words "to plan." By most measurements, strategic planning is a set of processes used in an organization to understand the present situation and develop decision-making guidelines for the future of the organization. The process usually includes the concept of mission and vision in the definition. These are linked to organizational objectives, implementing strategies and measuring outcomes.

Organizations throughout the country began applying strategic planning in the 1940s, and by the 1960s, the business sector had embraced the merits of strategic planning to assist in programming and budgeting. For many camps, this was not the case. During the 1960s and 70s, camps had seasoned executive directors who provided singular leadership — supported by philanthropic boards and a well-established and growing market for boys and girls. Many camp facilities accommodated one to three seasons of human use — with occasional woodsy critters occupying cabins in the "off season." During this era, decisions regarding next year's camper program were mostly "linear." Programming and expectations remained fairly constant from year to year. Campers were recruited to a traditional set of camp programs allowing most camps to meet with success.

Operational Planning Is Not Strategic Planning
Camps typically have a lengthy list of operational goals — cabin and washhouse upgrades, expanded tripping, dining hall renovation — all represent work elements that are usually accomplished in one year or less. They are considered operational in nature and do not reflect the overall mission.

In contrast, a strategic plan reflects fundamental choices about mission and overall direction — and offers a vision of the camp's future. A good strategic plan provides clarity for those annual operational tasks and "alignment" with the more global planning goals.

Good Planning Offers You a Roadmap

Today's high-tech GPS systems offer a road map with step-by-step directions assembled once a starting point and destination have been determined. Camp planners need only to articulate the starting point and the "destination" to begin the planning journey. In my experience good camp planning focuses twenty-four to thirty-six months into the future. This timeframe allows flexibility in the highly competitive market of today's camp industry.

Camp tradition has historically been a powerful force for many camps. The challenge today is to provide programming that children and their parents find relevant in our society. Singular focus camps abound. From academic to fine arts to athletics, children have a plethora of choices. These camps have grown at the expense of more traditional camps. Therefore, planning is critical if traditional camps are to survive.

Let's focus on five planning principles:

  1. A timeline of between twenty-four and thirty-six months
  2. A one-page "dashboard" summary
  3. A link to key constituent groups
  4. An annual review of the plan
  5. An incentive plan for outcome achievement

The Timeline
The recommended timeline of twenty-four to thirty-six months allows an organization sufficient time to accomplish key priorities without losing touch with the dynamics of the marketplace. A concentrated period of between sixty and ninety days is all that is needed to bring your plan to fruition.

The best time to initiate the planning cycle is on the heels of your summer sessions. At this time, you can focus and reflect on your future. The plan you create can then be aligned with the budget process for the next calendar year.

A One-Page "Dashboard"
In developing an updated strategic plan for an organization recently, the format we devised was a one-page view of the organization's plan that we called a "dashboard." This concise document included the organization's mission, vision, values, pillars of excellence, and major initiatives. There was one major initiative for each pillar. The result was a plan for their Web site, annual report, and other key documents that was easily understood and eye catching.

A Link with Key Constituent Groups
"Feedback is the breakfast of champions," writes Ken Blanchard in The One Minute Manager. As you develop your planning process, keep in mind the broad spectrum of constituents. A typical camp organization will have a long and diverse list of stakeholders — they include campers, their families, board members/donors, the management team, seasonal and year-round staff, alumni, neighbors, volunteers, and others. Be creative in offering forums for dialog with these groups as your plan is being developed.

For example, there are camps that connect with their counselor constituent group using Web site chat rooms sponsored by the camp, mini-retreats, informal holiday gatherings, and formal planning sessions. The goal is to get ideas — lots of ideas! The Hallmark Corporation brings their staff of over 700 together annually to dialog with invited guests. In addition to the staff, those invited include poets, storytellers, scientists, and artists. The result of this interaction has generated more than 15,000 original card designs.

Camps need to sponsor, within the strategic planning process, "safe" environments for stakeholders to share ideas, raise issues, and challenge the status quo. Outside resources brought into the organization bring with them relevant ideas, best practices, and camp- related research to stimulate consideration of new and innovative activities.

You may be surprised at the breadth of your influence. When a camp made the decision to change their sequence and frequency of the ringing of the "camp bell" during summer sessions, it unexpectedly received negative feedback from the surrounding property owners — who used the bell ringing as a reference point for their daily activity!

An Annual Revision and Review
Albert Einstein was once questioned by a graduate assistant as to why he used the same questions on his exams year after year. His response was that while the questions were the same, the correct answers changed based on new available information! The relevant data sets and market forces on which you built your planning assumptions are not standing still! Monitor your progress — make adjustments along the way, keeping an eye on your mission, vision, and values as reference points. Apply the management tenet that "information is your main competitive advantage and flexibility your main weapon."

There are instances, however, in which organizations become so fixed on their strategic initiatives that they are unresponsive to needed "course corrections." As an example, since 9/11, parents have become highly sensitized to the "safety factor" for their children while absent from the home environment. Camps need to address this issue directly in their marketing and implementation strategies. Allaying parent and camper fears may be the most important first step in attracting campers in today's world.

There may be times when your strategic plan may need to be temporarily put aside. Should a crisis arise, such as a cash-flow problem or the departure of key staff, it is prudent to turn your attention to the issue at hand. The plan can always be put back on track with timeline revisions and other modifications.

Stakeholder Rewards for Desired Outcomes
Strategic initiatives must be realistic and attainable. The camp director should set performance goals that tie directly to the plan outcomes. Governing boards need to support the director by allocating necessary resources and by assisting in overcoming barriers to achieving planned outcomes. Tying compensation of the director to strategic and operational performance objectives is a growing trend. Keep in mind that the CEO is the architect of organizational performance. It is the role of the board to establish policies to guide, direct, and assess organizational performance.

Getting Started

Managing a successful camp today requires significant technical knowledge, skills, and a physical environment to accommodate a diversity of campers of varying size and capability. An illustration of this is the vast number and diversity of educational session offerings at ACA national conferences. However, all of this knowledge must be integrated in the planning process without "bogging down" the planning process — all the more reason to keep the planning process simple. Three elements to help you get started are:

  1. Get organized. Determine what groups will be involved, outline your planning steps, and obtain commitment to proceed with the planning process.
  2. Take inventory of your assets. This involves a review of camp history and all of the components of the internal and external environment.
  3. Set the direction. Ask leaders to determine the best possible direction for the future of camp. It is important not to let the realities limit the vision — instead you raise your "reality" in the direction of your camp vision, one step at a time.

Basic Steps in Strategic Planning

Remember that "less is more" when it comes to constructing organizational plans. The work elements of strategic planning can be synthesized into four steps.

  1. Conduct a brief assessment of your camp's current business using a Strength, Weakness, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) analysis. Discuss your culture from a board, management, staff, and customer perspective using objective data. These will include key benchmarks for the camp industry. (Also, a growing body of research on camp performance exists that can be helpful in this process.)
  2. Create a future image of your camp. Create several "blueprints" making distinctly diverse assumptions. In each case, you address the question of "what can we do to ensure that our camp is indispensable and recognized as a leader?" Remember that being "unique" is not necessarily a leading attribute and can leave your camp with a shrinking marketplace as trends change. Instead, look to deliver a premier set of core programs that will be indispensable over time to your customers. Strategic thinking begins with top management but should quickly flow to other stakeholder groups within your camp community. The best results of strategic thinking are generated from a team!
  3. Establish goals and objectives. Based on the strategic profile gathered from creating your image, you are now ready to establish a set of goals and objectives which are realistic and attainable. Be sure that your goals are important to your stakeholders. Be sure there are measurable outcomes associated with each goal that allow you to document your progress.
  4. Identify three to five initiatives for implementation. The final stage identifies the most critical issues or choices facing your organization. The question you need to answer is "How do we get there?" It is important to set timelines for each initiative along with the actions that will be required to achieve the objective. It is at this point where decisions are made regarding the allocation of scarce resources. Referring back to the SWOT analysis you conducted in Step One, focus on building your core competencies while reducing or eliminating your weaknesses. Your action plan will identify the desired outcome with target dates and personnel assigned to each activity. Action plans should be flexible to accommodate changes in strategies that are determined to be most effective.

A Word About Motivation and Creativity

Remember that reaching your camp vision is a journey not a destination. The process should be invitational, and in today's market, you need to be an "ambidextrous" organization. Ambidextrous organizations maintain built-in efficiencies, consistency, and reliability while at the same time promote experimentation, improvisation, and luck.

An effective motivational strategy is known as "skunk works." In this strategy, small groups explore innovative ideas that are compatible with the camp's mission. They study and implement pilot projects that could enhance the organization. Within this culture, curiosity should be an institutional attribute!

Creativity is akin to leadership! A successful leader is someone who can persuade people to change their ideas or behavior. Strategic planning is a process that causes us to examine our organization in a new and different way. Encourage your stakeholder groups to apply their "creative juices." Remember you are trying to do more than just survive. Instead, you are striving to create a sustainable competitive advantage. In a recent article, "Music Director Works to Blend Strength," in the October 27, 2003, issue of USA Today, Lorin Maazel, music director of the New York Philharmonic, said, "The only way to do that is to know the musical score and understand the problems they (the musicians) will encounter playing it" As camp directors, board members, and staff, we have to know the "score" and anticipate the impediments along the way.

Teachable Moment

Most of us have tucked away in our subconscious minds what the ideal camp experience looks like. Building that image into a well-articulated strategic plan is an achievement of the highest order. We, as camp advocates, are accustomed to providing thousands of "teachable moments" to our campers each year. Let us not forget that teaching is at the heart of leadership, and planning brings out our collective learning capacity.

Strive to make the planning process exciting and invitational. You will discover that not only will participants learn, but they will pass that learning on to others. The process is also highly infectious. Henry David Thoreau wrote in In the Conclusion of Walden: "If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours." Strategic planning offers you the best opportunity to realize unprecedented success. Embrace the process, and experience the fruits of your labors. You will not be disappointed!

Bob Ruch is president of Ruch Enterprises, a management consulting firm that specializes in leadership, organizational transformation, and planning. His client base includes camps, human service agencies, churches, hospitals, and schools with over 200 engagements since founding Ruch Enterprises in 1993. He is an adjunct associate professor at Des Moines University where he teaches "practice management" and "economics." A former camper and volunteer counselor, Bob currently serves on the Board of Camp Manito-wish YMCA, located in Boulder Junction, Wisconsin. He can be reached at 515-276-7262 or at

Originally published in the 2004 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.