The best feeling in the world, besides knowing you have made a difference in a child's life, is bulldozers clearing a site for the construction of your new building, which will also affect children's lives for the better! Camp directors love to build!
It is a permanent reminder of our time at the helm of the camp and a feeling of accomplishment when you see something you have worked for be created.
But what a long process! The entire journey from the conception of the idea through the planning, fundraising, permits and construction to the completion of the building is exhausting and exciting.
Before the Beginning
Deciding to build on your camp, if done correctly, is a well thought out process. Proper planning is normally associated with strategic planning. Strategic planning needs to be accomplished well ahead of any construction. This allows for construction to follow the road map of vision which strategic planning accomplishes.
As with everything there are a few questions that have to be answered and everything needs to be guided by vision. What is your vision for camp usage? What buildings and activities are needed to assist with your vision? Sometimes you may even decide not to build!
Involve your staff, board, committee members, and anyone who has a vested interest in the future of the camp to a strategic planning master planning session, which will take months.
During strategic planning you will calculate the program needs, growth targets, marketing plans, facility plan of the site and wrap it all into the dream of what would be needed to meet all the needs discussed in all the areas discussed during planning.
Involve the experts whenever possible. Other camp directors, consultants, alumni and architects are wonderful resources.
There are some wonderful architectural firms that will work through the process with you creating drawings and concepts for the vision to take place. Just remember that is important that you master plan is based on the character of your camp! In any move forward you need to carry the past with you! It gives your camp its uniqueness.
Build based on a union of program expansion, camp tradition and facility use and you can't go wrong. Never build just to build.
With a vision and master plan in hand it is necessary to create a time line and stages for completing the plan. This is where many different decisions need to be made: What is the order in which we want to accomplish the goals? How to fund the project? Who to ask? What method of fundraising is needed? Most plans start out thinking big with no budgetary limit. These are great, but soon must be tailored to realistic goals with planned results.
The planned results will always be part of the presentation to would-be donors. Sometimes the fundraising can be taken care of faster then you can imagine. This year a donor stepped forward and gave the camp enough money to build a new assembly hall!
An Assembly hall was the largest target for our six-year plan and this donor decided to have it removed from the list in one gift... Not something that happens every day.
During our presentation we shared what we were trying to do with the camp, the direction we were moving, and how these changes would benefit the kids and community. The donor decided that they agreed, loved the plan and wanted to remove our largest obstacle.
A prepared plan will always bring great results, if not the money, then at least the direction to go get it.
It is essential to re-visit the design of the building before finalizing for construction. We re-visited the design with staff, volunteers, board members and experts in the field based on our planned usage. Re-visit with your experts and advisors. Whomever you brought together to master plan needs to come back and get involved as the plan evolves.
In our case, the camp's number one complaint by groups was lack of meeting space and bad-weather program areas. The first requirement for the building would be multiple breakout spaces and a large auditorium for camp gatherings in bad weather (remember, the number one goal in summer camp is to stay outside!).
The second requirement based on our camp needs was winter programming space and expansion to conference and retreats. This parameter allowed us to explore a warming kitchen and multi-use rooms.
In the end, a more than 10,000 square-foot assembly hall with a prep kitchen, four break-out rooms, two rooms with a folding wall, and a large auditorium with a stage was created. This current building will meet our current demand and future expansion goals.
A valuable bit of advice given during the process is that no building will be perfect to all who see it or use it. But if it meets your goals and vision with the future in mind you do the best you can. It helps a camp director to know that you did the best you could for your camp during your time.
It's not every day a donor will walk in and say "Here… build a building!" How do you do it? Relationship development! That's how.
As camp directors we know that we do great things for guests and children. But the rest of the world needs to know by seeing the passion you proudly show in your work. People talking about their experiences at camp will serve you well.
Camp directors need to cultivate alumni. Who knows your story better than the campers who came to camp and grew up there? All camps should have a way for alumni to see what's happening at their camp, and should be cultivating addresses and emails.
An alumni e-mail newsletter should be sent every month keeping alumni informed about what camp is doing. When you need ideas you should send out questions in the newsletter. It may not be an alumnus who can help you fix the problem, but it may be an alumnus who introduces you to someone who can.
All directors should apply for grants and gifts from foundations. Some of the greatest relationships we have now are based on foundation relationships who give repeatedly to us for projects. Just like we did as counselors, we need to remember names! The old saying, "It's who you know" is true.
In addition, contact your camper parents for ideas and advice. Camper parents are your biggest advocate if the children had a great time, which they should. Camper parents can be a huge resource for pledges, contacts, support and ideas.
Go to trainings and seminars; invite fundraisers in to talk to you and your staff. Understand how professional fundraisers approach the process.
Lastly, whenever possible, go see someone with a volunteer or someone who has a relationship with the possible donor and future camp friend.
In any endeavor to raise money or build a master plan, keep your notes. It is important to remember the process in fundraising and master planning.
"Why did I do that?" Is that a question everyone asks time and again as they are working through the process? It takes months and a many stages to get to the end, so record the process.
In the early stages of my career in the YMCA I hated fundraising. It was the worst thing I had to do and the one I dreaded the most. Get over the fear, because fundraising helps the kids! Proper planning takes time and patience, but in the end it is worth it for your camp and the present and future campers.
With that in mind I have learned to love the process and enjoy the results. As in all things camping remember… It's for the kids.
Jeff Merhige is the executive director of YMCA Camp Kern, Dayton YMCA, Dayton, Ohio.