Inspiring People to Inspire People: When Camp Staff Turnover Affects Your Admin Staff

Inspiring People to Inspire People: When Camp Staff Turnover Affects Your Admin Staff

I have been thinking a lot about staff training because ’tis the season (T-minus 20 days until campers arrive!) and today was particularly interesting because I had all of my camp administrative staff in the same place for the first time (also why I am finishing up this post at 11:30 p.m.).

Last summer at my camp was pretty ridiculous and the admin staff I had were brilliant.  Amazing.  I could not have done it without them.  However, it did manage to burn every one of them out.  I retained some unit staff, but my turnover rate is about 60% right now; a combination of inconsistent leadership, poor organization over the course of many years, and an inadequate training scenario last year (many staff were hired the week camp started).  My goal is to flip the retention percentage on its nose and have 60% of my staff return next summer.

How do you improve staff retention?

Let’s face it, retaining staff when camps pay starvation wages for incredibly hard work that only lasts through the summer is no walk in the park.  In fact, put that way, it seems like it should be impossible.  So about 7 months ago, I began asking myself how camps do it.  Not just how do we keep our campers begging for camp as their only birthday present (literally something I did as a kid), but how do we create an environment in which counselors can’t stand the idea of not working at camp every summer until they are absolutely forced to work a year-round 9 to 5?  I was that counselor who would happily become a lifeguard so that I could be paid $50 more on my contract for the entire 5 weeks of camp.  While it sounds like we are completely taking advantage of people here (we absolutely are, and I, for one, am working on my budget crunching), I knew that there had to be something structural to the core of counselorhood that made us want to work for basically $1 an hour and feel like it’s a good deal.

Everyone whose advice I read, every veteran camp staffer I spoke to, every camp website I looked at that claimed to be the best in the country, had one thing in common.  It wasn’t the facilities, it wasn’t the trips, it wasn’t the crafts.

It was love.

Love, purely and simply, is the only way to get people to stay at camp – campers and staff alike.  But how do you help someone discover a love for camp?  We create a magic that only exists when the trees rustle in the breeze above a crackling campfire.  We teach campers to take four-minute showers by having races against the radio so that we can “MAYBE get to bed before midnight tonight, pleeeeassse?!” but for all they know, it’s the most fun they’ve ever had getting clean.  We help campers see that they always had the power to do challenging things and that they were just waiting for a chance to shine.  We show them that they can be whoever they are simply because who they are is always going to be awesome to us.  Staff need the same love for camp, even if they weren’t campers themselves.

The Struggle

I run a day camp, which is significantly different from a resident camp, in that staff are not fed meals, they go home every night (on their own gasoline budget), and they see their friends making more money than they do when they get to hang out after work.  Resident camp has a culture all its own, and is honestly more conducive to retention, simply because it’s easier to brainwash the staff.

You think I’m kidding.

Not that we, as camp directors, EVER want to turn our camps into cults (believe me, we think long and hard about how to dispel the troublesome “camp staff traditions” that do more harm than good), but it’s definitely a flash-boiled community of people who frequently don’t feel that they belong elsewhere.  In a place where you are accepted at 6 a.m. wake-up calls, at 4 p.m. freeswim, and at 11 p.m. homesick camper runs, it’s amazingly easy to fall in love with the life, the people, and the place.  But at day camp, there is time to step back from everything and to ruminate on what someone said or did, rather than working through it because you all have to live together.  6-8 hours’ free time every day sounds fine until you realize that as much can happen during that free time as happens in the 8 hour camp day, and not all of it is going to support the culture of camp that you’re so delicately working with.

People working in Camp Administration are even harder to keep because we frequently have families, lives, and needs that require us to move on.  The key is to find people with whom you work very well, who plan on working seasonally forever, and make them fall in love with camp and develop a similar passion for making camp awesome every year.  Piece of cake.

Of course, the trick is not really training the admin staff on their duties at camp and making sure that they are ready to do those jobs.  The trick is not even finding brand new people who are excited about camp and want to try their hand at helping to keep things running.  The trick is taking these people who are starting a brand new job in a place they don’t recognize or understand (my cabin names come from the names of mountains that are really hard for white Americans to say) and instilling in them the confidence to train and inspire 16 to 25 year old unit and program staff to be awesome leaders.  When it’s the entirety of my admin staff minus one, I have to step up to the challenge or bust.

The Solution (for now)

1. The staff need to get to know each other before camp.

Because my budget only includes staff time to cover 3 days of training, I have to be very strategic in the way I plan my training topics, and I don’t have tons of time for teambuilding.  I have scheduled staff bonding activities like game night, craft night, and a trip to the movies before camp starts.  Part of the reason for this is that staff have asked to be able to get to know each other ahead of time.  Part of it is so that I can see who is really engaged and wants to be there, and part of it is also to see how staff behave around each other.  Who is loud and boisterous, and who holds back?  Who shares ideas about camp and who stares at me blankly when I ask them to come up with an activity?  Which returning staff understand camp expectations?  These experiences will help me support my staff in training and then later on in the summer, and helps us all get to know each other before camp begins.  If staff get to understand and appreciate each other, they are more likely to be able to support each other (and want to) when the summer gets tricky.

2. The staff need to feel like camp is their place, too.

Love of camp comes from owning your place in it and gaining a sense of responsibility and care for it.  So, staff need to have opportunities for their strengths to show and support for times when their weaknesses cause them trouble.  They need to experience a sense of accomplishment and pride in the work that they do.  They need a chance to share their knowledge and stories with others so that camp stays real in their lives.  They need to be given the chance to affect change at camp, and sometimes that change will be out of the camp director’s control, which HAS to be okay.  If the changes don’t work for the camp, the culture will change things back.  But as long as the counselors have a positive impact on camp, it shouldn’t matter what it is they are doing.  Yes, we are running a business, and efforts need to prioritize our goals as an organization.  I get that.  But we are nothing without our campers and our staff, so those people need to be calling some of the shots.  We’ll see if my board reads this and agrees with me.

3. The administrative staff need to be a team.

Someone on my admin team last year said to me “you can’t just say we’re a team and have it happen.”  While brutal and not totally constructive, it was a good thing for me to hear. I am a very positive person, and so I always do my best to embody what I want to see around me.  In this instance, it didn’t work because I hadn’t been able to set us up for success beforehand.  We barely had time to tell each other a few things about our lives before we were rushing through the first week of camp, trying to keep up with all of the fires that kept popping up under our noses.

So now, here we are a few weeks from camp, and my new crew has met.  I am thrilled that we are all focused and determined with lots of ideas on how to make camp amazing.  I am doing my best not to overwhelm everyone with the tasks ahead, but I know from experience that the scariest task is the one you aren’t told you have to deal with or trained to do until it’s right on top of you.  We worked together to plan our staff training, and in the process I checked in about the things that everyone still needed to learn before we teach our staff.  I told them that though they are inexperienced at camp, they each have strong qualities that will serve them well.  In front of our whole team, I told them each one reason why I had hired them and why I thought they were a good fit for their jobs.  I wanted them to know that I already believe in them and that I already accept them.  I am hoping that some of it makes an impact and that they start to feel strong in who they are at our camp.

4. The administrative staff need to feel like their work is sometimes actually fun.

One of my requirements this summer for administrative staff is that we get out of the office and get to know the campers.  We will have shifts on the checkout table throughout the day to get our paperwork done, and shifts on the phones to deal with issues from outside of camp, but the rest of the day we should be out observing the kids, observing the staff, getting to know names, taking pictures, and being part of the chaos and beauty in each day.  Without the campers, our work is meaningless and unduly stressful.  With the campers, it’s the best job out there.

5. The campers need to be encouraged to become counselors one day.

While all this work I’m doing is fantastic and I believe in it completely, the truth is that one day I will die and my legacy needs to not be that I left a camp in ruins because I was the only one who could fill my shoes.  Ditto for my other admin staff.  I need us all to be able to pass along the torch when it’s time.  If the unit staff advance into administration, we need new staff to take their place.  Campers join us starting at 5 years old–we have 10 whole years to cultivate their potential before we ask them to be counselors.  It’s in the hands of the staff, though–if a camper never hears that they might make a good counselor one day, they might never try it.  If we don’t tell them that the CIT program will start the process early, they might stop coming (I mean, what 14 year old wants to be a camper when they can stay at home reading or playing video games or going to the pool with friends all summer?).

Really, it will all come down to how much everyone enjoys the summer.  Hopefully, I have managed to coordinate enough of our spring so that our summer is successful and amazing.  Only time will tell!

I heartily welcome comments, ideas, suggestions, and experiences.  As always, Watering the Beanstalk is about building community, so constructive feedback only.



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