Collaborative Programming

By Jeff Merhige

Every year we sit down as directors and hope to think up the new idea or program; that one program that will knock the kids off their feet with amazement and fun. The problem, though we do not like to admit it, is that one mind can not think of all the great ideas that can lead to a magical summer for others.


Here at Camp Kern, we have learned that collaborative programming can be a great asset, especially in bringing in new program.

Collaboration in Action
In our riding program we wanted to expand into offering therapeutic riding for adults and children. No one on staff had the experience or expertise so we decided to consult with organizations that specialize in that area.

One conversation leads to another, and in the end we became a host site for the organization. They were able to expand into another market and we were able to broaden our program offerings.

Another example happened this summer. We wanted to offer Disc Golf to the children. Our idea was to color some posts and place them around the camp and use store bought Frisbees to play the game.


Making a few calls to talk to the experts in Disc golf led to a new collaboration with one of the Disc golf associations. We will be putting in an 18-hole course designed by their people, curriculum modified by our two organizations, including certificates for the children and official Disc golf discs for the children to use, stamped with the camp logo.

Collaborative programming can enhance the delivery of a new program or activity. In the camp business we find a market that encourages the idea of "stealing ideas" and using them.

Networking and collaborating with other camps, organizations and vendors can lead to great program enhancements. At a past camp we used to coordinate Camp vs. Camp Olympics with a neighboring camp. This healthy rivalry gave each camp and event to help bolster camp spirit and support. The collaboration is still going on and has become a camp tradition for both organizations.

How do you do it? The best suggestion I have heard in regards to collaboration is to "check your ego at the door." True collaboration is not created based on an attitude of, "I'm better than you so let's work together."

It is important to approach the idea of a collaborative with a very clear goal in mind. The kids! What is it you are trying to achieve for the kids?

Second, how long are you viewing this collaboration to be in existence? The idea of length plays a part in the meetings. Is this a one-season deal, a year, multi-year, and so on?

Third, what can you do without overextending your staff and resources? Too much overextension of either can result in campers and guests receiving a less than quality experience.

Put together a basic budget for the program. What is going to be your break-even for the program and what are you willing to spend or commit based on that budget?

Fourth, what is fair when looking at the whole picture of the collaborative? Each party knows what is considered fair. Not to achieve this in the beginning can lead to resentment and endanger the future longevity of the collaboration.

It is truly important to walk away from the table feeling as though you are both in this together. No matter how you end the collaborative meetings, be sure to truly understand and accept each other's roles and responsibilities.

Lastly, be clear in what you are asking for. You can always leave the door open for more, but it is much more professional to approach a would be partner by laying out for them what you are basically expecting from them. There can be no more important point to be communicated. "This is what I was hoping you would do..."

It's okay if they need time to think on your offer; give it to them. They have to see who they will be getting involved with. Make sure to also clarify at this point who is in charge of what in this collaboration.

No matter if it is staff, businesses, donors, program planning, vendors or parents, there is always a form of collaboration going on.

In the camping world, there is always a need to search out the new and different and to make it happen for our guests and campers.

Collaborations allow you to create resources you didn't have, get assistance, bring in the new (the things you didn't think about) and make it fun for all those involved.

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