Giving Programming a Chance

By Jeff Merhige

It would be so nice if people were not generally resistant to change, no matter what it was. Even the creation of new programs is a form of change.


It is important to introduce a new program correctly and efficiently, or you run the risk of the camp community rejecting the program before it has a chance to get off the ground.

Strategic planning plays an important role. If you have done your homework properly then you have an idea of what program you plan on introducing or what program you plan on eliminating.

This gives you time and foresight to get all of your ducks lined up, especially planning how and when you plan on initiating the new idea. The process can be daunting and sometimes it can seem overwhelming, but remember, "The only bad idea is the one never tried!"

For Example…
At camp we planned on the introducing an all-new sailing program. This was placed on the strategic plan a few years earlier for two reasons -- efficient use of our water resources, and as a replacement program for our current water skiing program, which is on a five-year phase-out plan.

It was placed on the "to be re-placed" list because of cost and use issues. A few important areas were thought of in the planning of the program, eventual elimination of the old program and the introduction of the new program.

1. Resources: We have a seven-mile long and three-mile wide lake. This water mass is temperamental for the water skiing program, but perfect for sailing. Water skiing was more popular in the beginning because the existing fleet of sailboats were in ruin and unsafe. No one had a desire to sail in old broken boats.

2. Expenses: Water skiing is a very expensive program to run in staff, equipment, and fuel. Sailing, if run correctly, can be a low, long-term cost versus continual expenditure. There is the initial cost of buying a start-up fleet. It was decided early on that the existing fleet of boats had to be replaced.

3. Efficiency: The yearly maintenance on a speedboat is extreme and, most important, children have a fun few minutes if they get up, and then the experience is over. With sailing the campers can spend hours at a time and get more out of the experience.

4. Parents: There is a perceived logic to spending money on the teaching of sailing skills, and paying for an activity that gives their children hours of fun, versus a few times out on the water and hopefully getting up after three tries per turn.

5. Campers: Watch the enrollment of programs. The yearly reduction in water skiers warned us that we had to adjust the programming. Start making new variety for campers if enrollment begins to drop off. Don't allow a program to die without a new program in place to keep the kids interested. The golden rule here is that once you commit to starting a new program, make sure the program is organized. Don't let campers get the impression that the new program is not organized. Our campers were initially drawn to the new fleet of boats. The trick is to keep them coming back to the activity.

6. Planning: This step is the most important step after you identify a need to create, change or replace a program. Have the resources set up, a curriculum set up and an operational plan for the activity. Hire a staff that will make the activity fun and educational. Present it as new, organized and fun. Not to mention the months of researching the type of equipment that work best for the camp and resources, and if needed, planning on how the camp will raise the money for the equipment. A well thought-out plan allows you a selling piece to present to alumni and supervisors.

Gauging Growth
It is important to remember that programs do not grow overnight. Like all things, a good reputation adds to a program that grows stronger over time.

There is an old rule that "one bad season forces you to have two good seasons." Otherwise, the word of mouth will damage your program enrollment for usually two to three years (the average age it takes a camper to get through your program).

We introduced the sailing program and had all-new equipment, instructors and a curriculum in place. The first 20 sailors turned into 68 the next summer and 88 the following. The program shows signs of continued growth.

The plan included the introduction of additional boats each year for the next three years. Water skiing is casually phasing out, and we predict removing the program within two seasons.

The speedboats used for water skiing will then be used for the sailing program as rescue and instruction boats. Remember, when discontinuing a program plan for the use of the equipment or disposal so that it is not left lying around your camp as a ghost of past programs and creating clutter.

Sometimes, pure economics force the immediate discontinuation of a program. In that case a camp should try and introduce two new options to the camp -- two programs, because it seems to be more understandable to the camp that these two new programs took the place of the old, versus a one-for-one situation.

In a one-for-one situation you're bound to hear that the old program was better. It's a simple trick and doesn't have to be a large, expensive program like sailing. The introduction of a new theme day, if done correctly, can be as successful for you as a new and expensive program.

No director will ever truly beat the old Change is Scary Monster initially, but we will always defeat it in the long run. Camps are cycles, and the introduction of new programs and traditions take multiple seasons to take seed in our ever-changing camper population.

Remember that most campers experience your place for one week out of the year, and then return a year later an older and different child. Camp programs need multiple seasons to see if your programs are keepers or if they should be replaced.

Good luck…

Jeff Merhige is the Executive Director of YMCA Camp Widjiwagan in Nashville Tenn. Reach him at