Meet ACA's New CEO - An Interview with Tom Rosenberg

November 2016
Tom Rosenberg

With 27 years of experience as a camp professional, dedicated ACA member, and volunteer, Tom Rosenberg is well positioned to be at the helm of ACA's continued efforts to ensure diverse, life-enriching camp experiences of the highest standards of quality and safety for every child.

Tell us a little bit ab​out yourself.

I am lucky to be from two very special places, New Orleans, Louisiana, until I was 11, and San Luis Obispo, California, through high school. To my family I was a young entrepreneur, Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox's character on the sitcom Family Ties), but in truth, I always wanted to be both a teacher and in business.

I attended Tulane University for college and then worked for a commercial bank for a few years before attending graduate school at the University of Southern California (USC). My BS is in management, and my MBA is in finance and marketing with a focus on strategy consulting. I love thinking about how different kinds of businesses work and what would make them more successful. Catch me for five minutes and I'll start unpacking your business model. That's the business side.

I also am a camp person, of course. I loved all four of my years as a camper and six as summer staff at Blue Star Camps in North Carolina. As a youngster growing up out West, I was fortunate to have had many wilderness adventures in the Sierras through Boy Scouts. I went to scout camp and eventually became an Eagle Scout. My years at Blue Star and in Boy Scouts each had a huge influence on me. My mom raised my brothers and me in California without my dad. Summer camp and scouting taught me lots of the life skills I needed.

How did your professional camp life begin?

In 1989, in my last year at USC, my camp directors, Rodger and Candy Popkin, asked me to come back to Blue Star to work for them as a camp professional. I had a strong desire to be out in nature teaching kids and thought to myself, This will be an interesting experiment. I joined Rodger and Candy after graduation and fulfilled my dream of being a teacher and in business for 22 years there. I learned so much about character development, community, and leadership from them. I am indebted to many wonderful role models over the years, but especially to Rodger and Candy who "taught me the ropes" and nurtured my desire to stay in the field and grow as a camp professional.

In 2011, my wife, Pam Sugarman, and I decided to move to Atlanta with our son, Daniel (now nine years old) to be close to family, so I was able to look around and ask myself, "Do I want to stay in camping?" I'm so glad, especially now, the answer was "yes."

The Board of Directors at Camp Judaea in North Carolina was looking for someone who could help the nonprofit Jewish Camp realize its potential, and soon after our arrival in Atlanta I was hired as the executive director. Over five years, the board, staff, alumni, and I built an even stronger camp, based on a clear, relevant, 50-yearold mission and laser-like focus on values. During that time, we hit our stride and grew camp enrollment by over 50 percent. Today Camp Judaea is investing in new facilities and program innovation to build on these successes.

I understand firsthand the perspectives of camp directors working in the for-prof it and nonprofit sectors, which will help me serve the field of camp and our members well.

When did you first become involved with ACA?

I first became a member of ACA in 1984 as a college student after being hired as a unit leader. I wanted to learn more about how camps are managed and run. I got fully involved in 1990 after I became a full-time camp professional. I started out volunteering for our local ACA conference and enjoyed the camaraderie and learning. ACA soon became family to me. Rodger (Popkin) gave me the time and encouraged me to volunteer and take professional development courses.

So you've had mentors along the way. What would you say have been the most valuable lessons they and camp have taught you?

To nurture a successful camp community you must relentlessly pursue clarity of vision for your camp. Understand your stakeholders. Know your program essentially, what makes your program unique and what your program is not. Lead with strength, caring, love, and respect, and do not allow others to compromise on the ideals and essence of your program. Invest deeply in your staff and volunteers. They are the heart and soul of your organization. Nurture a strong community of adults, young and old, to create an extraordinary summer camp community for your campers. The most successful camps have exceptional staff communities.

What was so enticing about being the CEO of ACA?

I understand the power of camp. I am positive that in 21st-century America, having children and young adults learning life skills and values in a model community — learning to communicate face-to-face, testing their individual boundaries while enjoying the substantial benefits of being in nature — is critical to our nation. All kinds of camp-like experiences can and do change the world one young person at a time. Therefore, it's an irresistible opportunity for me to use my skills to lead ACA to even greater success.

Do you have a vision for ACA, things you want to focus on?

My personal, now-not-so-secret dream has always been that every child has access to at least one week of camp every year. To achieve greater accessibility and afford-ability we must use research and evaluation to help us improve the quality of the programs we're offering — to achieve greater outcomes for camps and the children they serve. We need to share "our stories" more effectively so the public, grant-makers, and policymakers understand the transformational nature of camp. We must build public trust and understanding in our professional field of camp. Through professional development, demonstrated program quality improvement through evaluation and accreditation, we validate the integrity of camp experiences in the public mindset.

We need to utilize more research, evaluation, and benchmarking tools that demonstrate the power of camp. In my 27 years in the field, camps have become much more focused on outcomes. Camp Judaea annually measures feedback from our camp parents against benchmarks garnered from similar results from 75 other nonprofit camps, and I was held accountable for those results. I'd like to help more camps use benchmarks and evaluation as a way to drive higher quality and greater value.

Camp teaches community building, inclusion, and leadership. I would like to reach a larger and more diverse population of youth and adults through the camp experience.

What do you have planned for your first 100 days as CEO?

I'm looking forward to digging in to our ACA Board's vision for the association. I want to spend time with our local and national volunteer leaders and with the staff to understand where we're successful and where we have opportunities for improvement.

I'm looking forward to being all ears to anyone who will talk to me about where they think we should go. I have lots of ideas about how to be a more effective organization, but I want to hear everyone else's perspective first.

To follow in Peg Smith's and Tom Holland's footsteps is an honor. I'm humbled by this opportunity. As a longtime member of the ACA family, I also feel like I have hundreds of friends looking over my shoulder and cheering me on. Together we are strong and will move mountains.