Rogue Camp Volunteer Management: When Old Campers Love Camp Too Much

​Robin Galloway and Michael T. Jensen
July 2017

At the ACA National Conference in Atlanta in 2016, 4-H camp directors from across the country spent a day exploring relevant topics. Nationally, 4-H is one branch of the Extension Services, which includes Master Gardeners and other program areas that rely on volunteers. One common and highly charged topic was how to handle volunteer camp staff  who act like they are tenured for life. While almost every camp relies on experienced volunteers, sometimes they need to be reminded that Camp 2017 is not the same as when they were in fourth grade.

The 4-H program mission is to teach subject matter and life skills through an intentional process that helps young people meet key developmental needs. 4-H produces five functionally valued outcomes of competence, confidence, connection, character and caring, and compassion. The vision is for all youth to experience economic and social success in adulthood while making positive contributions to their communities. Camps that are largely run by volunteers have many components of these outcomes.

Volunteer staff  need to understand why youth attend 4-H Camp and what makes it unique. 4-H Camp is through cooperative Extension and is crucial to the land-grant university mission, in addition to providing life skills and positive youth development. The 4-H concepts, curriculum, and pledge should be an important part of the camp experience. The intentional methods of 4-H positive youth development need to be explained and incorporated into all staff  training, especially for nonprofessionals.

In an article called “Extension Agents as Administrators of Volunteers: Competencies Needed for the Future,” author Barry Boyd noted that Extension faculty, in their role as administrators of volunteers, often lack the competencies to fully manage and utilize this tremendous resource. Boyd’s research identified 33 competencies required by persons leading volunteers. These competencies included skills in the broad constructs of organizational and systems leadership, developing a positive organizational culture, personal skills that will help them in developing effective teams and managing change, and skills in daily management of volunteers (Boyd, 2004).

The 4-H vision is philosophically in line with many youth camps around the world. One challenge is that many adult volunteers are former campers. Their long-term expectations may conflict with your current ideas as the professional camp director. They may derail the train to success.
In an article called “Generating Potential Solutions for Dealing with Problem Volunteers,” authors Fry and Langellotto state that Extension agents are often required to work with challenging volunteers or to problem-solve difficult volunteer scenarios (2013). Sometimes camp directors will have more issues with volunteer staff  than they have with campers or parents.

When the 4-H camp directors met at the ACA National Conference, they used their collective experience to examine several real scenarios. With each situation they considered what the individual volunteer’s personal motivation may have been — and whether it aligned with the current mission and vision of the camp.

Challenging Scenario #1: Volunteer Staff Overstep Boundaries

Volunteers may disdain and disagree with the camp director over a policy from ACA or other administrative sources. One example discussed occurred when a 4-H camp received a decree from its university that all participants must have their temperatures taken upon arrival at camp. Valid complaints included the amount of time required to do this task, invasion of privacy, and having to make decisions on who to send home.

Solutions offered by the 4-H camp directors included the following:

  • Educate staff about the medical reasons validating the practice.
  • Authorize the on-site nurse to confer with the camp director to make decisions based on the evidence.

This issue may be further complicated when the volunteer staff does not accept the camp director’s decisions. One way to deal with this is to explain that many things are in place for safety reasons and the camp director will take necessary actions to ensure the safety of all participants. Written policies can be reviewed verbally with the staff at pre-camp training.

Solutions offered by the 4-H camp directors included the following:

  • Have position descriptions for each staff person, showing that they report to the camp director.
  • Maintain a distance with professional relationships so that it is possible to discipline individuals without jeopardizing personal dynamics.
  • Educate everyone on policy changes that have happened and give the positive out-comes of the changes.
  • Work toward establishing an accepted culture of change with gradual intentions.
  • Teach volunteers how to accept change. Try to pinpoint why they are resisting a change and encourage forward movement once they’ve been informed about why the change needs to occur.
  • Remind volunteers that they can be fi red and they must acknowledge the camp director's final authority to make decisions.

Challenging Scenario #2: Resisting Changes

An older volunteer clings to tradition, thinking the camp has been pretty much the same way for many decades with a set schedule, traditions, expectations, and staff. Volunteers like this one may resist changes because they want to perpetuate their youthful experiences. While traditions are an integral aspect of all camps, the question is whether they are valued and make wonderful memories, or whether they are harmful like “chubby bunny,” or cross-gender dressing for a theme meal.

Solutions offered by the 4-H camp directors included the following:

  • Explain the safety hazards of “chubby bunny.” (This formerly popular activity involved filling your cheeks with as many marshmallows as possible, which is a dangerous game indeed.)
  • Encourage staff to create new positive traditions like secret buddies.
  • Do not include cross-dressing as an activity.
  • Provide current research on best practices.
  • Share what other camps are doing that you want to incorporate.

Challenging Scenario #3: Different Purposes or Philosophies about Camp

Some camps have an advertised focus, such as sports or religion. More generic camps may feature natural resource education utilizing the natural environment. But what happens when there is a philosophical disagreement between volunteer staff and the camp director about whether the week should be structured like an outdoor school or just a week filled with random fun activities?

Camps may also have different ways of dealing with beliefs, as compared to religion. The tradition of saying grace before meals is embedded in many camps. Yet some 4-H operated facilities are not allowed to say grace to God. Not saying grace may be perceived as disrespectful by some volunteers as well as some families, and parents may want the children to acknowledge a higher power before eating.

Solutions offered by the 4-H camp directors included the following:

  • Be aware of the cultural expectation in your geographical area/camp and if this is the belief of all of your campers.
  • Consider having a Sunday morning op-tional quiet time in a meadow.
  • Adapt the tradition of praying to have everyone observe a moment of silence before eating. How campers and staff  fill that silence in their heads is up to individual interpretation.
  • Acknowledge that we can’t please everyone, nor do we want to make any-one uncomfortable.

Challenging Scenario #4: Accommodating New and Confusing Gender Identity Issues

Today’s campers have personal identity issues that were not demonstrated at camps from years ago. Camp staff, including volunteers, must be aware of potential situations to welcome all participants.

Solutions offered by the 4-H camp directors included the following:

  • Camper health forms could have a box to mark for reasonable accommodation requests prior to camp arrival.
  • Provide nongender-specific bathrooms.
  • Educate staff about new gender-neutral terminology.
  • Create a new policy stating all swim-suits for both sexes must have tops and bottoms.

Challenging Scenario #5: Sense of Entitlement or Ownership of Camp

At campfire, veteran staff  want to do the same skit every year saying the campers love it and expect it. The camp director thinks this dampers the creativity of other staff  and campers. It also could leave new staff feeling excluded. And, when staff are being showcased campers are not, because there isn’t time for everyone to be on stage.

A special thank-you to the “co-authors” of this article, the 4-H staff  who participated at the ACA National Conference. Their collective wisdom provided the contents.

Katherine Feldhues, Hannah Epley, and Erin Dailey, Ohio

Larry Hancock and David Herpy, North Carolina

Alan David Jaros, Michigan

Kevin Pettigrew, Shane Browning, and Darrell Stillwell, Kentucky

Emily Schoenfelder and Marianne Bird, California

Jenny Wilder, Texas