“And that is how change happens. One gesture. One person. One moment at a time.”
Change can be hard, especially at summer camp where so much is rooted in tradition. Unfortunately, not all traditions are good, or healthy, or worth keeping. But people hold on to them because that’s what they did as campers, or in their first summer as a staff member (which in some cases was LAST YEAR!)
And some “traditions” aren’t even traditions! They’re habits, bad habits.
So as a new Camp Director, how do you break those habits, shift the camp culture, and create new, healthy habits (that will hopefully become traditions).
One step at a time, friend.
You’ll be entering into the position of new Camp Director in one of two ways, you’re at a new (to you) camp where you’ll have to immerse yourself into their culture and embrace their priorities as your own OR you’re a new director at your old camp where you’ve worked, lived, and played for years. You already understand and embrace the culture, but you have to prove yourself to those people who’ve known you for years… and maybe remember when you used to pee the bunk as a camper. (It’s ok, your secret is safe with us!) Both scenarios are challenging, just in different ways.
(Okay, technically there’s a third scenario – you’re a new director at a new camp so you get to create all kinds of traditions… but that’s pretty uncommon and you don’t need my advice for that, except “make good choices”. So we’re leaving that out.)
So, here are some ways to make change happen without turning everyone against you.
Sometimes you have to stop something abruptly, without having time to win people over and create a trusting relationship first. When would that be, you ask?
A. If it is an activity that is harmful to campers (physically or emotionally)
B. If it is an activity that could damage your camp’s reputation, or potentially open you up to a lawsuit
C. If it is an activity that is illegal
If a “traditional” activity that meets any of those criteria takes place at your camp, stop it immediately – it’s not worth it.
For any other scenario’s you can take it a little slower – so set your ray gun to phase and let’s make a plan.
Step 1. Embrace the current camp culture.
Seriously. Your new camp community has to know that you’re all in, and that you care about their history and traditions. You can’t fake that, you need to buy in and get excited about your new home.
Step 2. Ask questions.
Find out why their beliefs and traditions are so important to them. Ask campers, staff, and alumni to share their favourite camp memories with you. Keep track of which things are mentioned most often. (Keep track mentally, jot it down later if you need to, but don’t interview people while making notes on a clipboard – that will make them uncomfortable! Just have conversations with them. The bonus is that you’ll likely learn a lot about your new camp, AND people love talking about things they love – and themselves – you’ll make friends and win people over)
Step 3. Celebrate the really awesome traditions and activities.
Do they have a really cool opening/ closing campfire? Get on board! Let people know that this is your favourite program, and that you’re so excited by the way they do it, you’ve never seen anything so wonderful and amazing. Let them know all the super awesome, fantastic things they’re doing. Support their identity and encourage the great things.
Step 4. Evaluate
I wouldn’t recommend changing a whole lot at first, but notice everything. Who’s excited about the annual mud run, is it the campers? Of mostly the staff? Ask for feedback about everything. Again, not in a clipboard survey sort of way (not yet anyway) but in a conversational, “how was your day ?” kind of way.
Then do a formal evaluation of the program, send campers and staff a survey when their session is over, and ask them all kinds of questions about what they love about camp, ask them to rank the programs, ask them what changes they would like to see in the future. Thank them for their feedback.
Step 5. Tweak
Make small changes. You don’t have to eliminate an entire program, or even completely overhaul it, all you may need to do is make a few small changes to make it phenomenal (or to eliminate any risks that might be associated with it).
Step 6. Listen & Explain
Even small changes can freak people out, be prepared for people to voice their concerns. Listen without judgement (or annoyance… which can, at times, be challenging). If they ask you for explanations about the changes you made be prepared to explain them fully.
(Here’s a tip, the following phrases are not an acceptable answer: “Because I said so”, “It was stupid”, “I just didn’t like it”, “That’s not how we did it at my old camp”, and anything that resembles any of those phrases)
Then rinse and repeat. You many have to listen to concerns for a while, and you may have to explain your decision more than once. That’s ok. Just stay calm and power through and be nice!
Step 7. Choose your words
There are multiple ways you can let people know that you’re changing things up (Pro tip: try to avoid the word “change” – it scares people, also unless you’re talking about a building don’t use the word “improvement” it makes people feel like what they were doing before wasn’t good enough)
Keep your message positive and be enthusiastic about it. (If you’re not excited, why on earth would they be?)
Highlight the benefits to the group you’re talking to (know your audience – board members will care about saving money, counsellors won’t. But they WILL care about saving time, or even better creating more time. (More time for them to spend on the part of their job they like the best, or more downtime, whatever.)
Step 8. Be trustworthy
Your goal in this process is to make your new camp family see that you’re not a monster who’s coming in to shake everything up and ruin camp. You’re the good guy, the knight in shining armour who’s going to make their camp even better than it was before.
So make sure that you are making changes for the right reason, make sure that you really are enhancing their program… and not just carbon copying the version of the program that existed when you were a camper.
Make good choices and let people see that you really are helping the camp.
And if something doesn’t work out? Change it back!
Don’t be afraid of mistakes. They’re not the end of the world, and it shows a lot of class and maturity to be able to say “I was wrong” (or some variation of that) just make sure that you take something away from your mistake. LEARNING MOMENT! It’s especially important in the camp world to be able to admit mistakes because we want our campers to learn that mistakes are a part of the learning process. Yay role modelling.
IN FACT I’m such a huge proponent of learning from your mistakes that I have a whole category dedicated to it, check out “If I Could Do It Over…” to see what I mean.
Step 9. Be patient
Remember the quote we started with? Change can be slow. I’m someone who likes to make a decision and do it. I don’t like waiting for stuff to happen, I want it done yesterday. So this step is a challenge for me. But it’s worth it to be patient, the most successful shifts happen slowly over time, those are the ones with staying power. As we all know, small changes add up to a big shift and a great big win.
Step 10. I don’t have one.
I just didn’t want to end the list at 9. Who does that?
OK, step 10. congratulate yourself on your awesomeness cause we like to celebrate small victories here at the camp nerd and you’re making changes and increasing the awesomeness of your program for your campers. Go you. You rock star.