Dream to Reality

By Jeff Merhige

One of the great loves of a camp director is planning for the future in programming and facility development. I have always advised camp directors to make lists and goal sheets and to grow your program with your facility.


Recently, I have had two experiences that have helped clarify for me the right way to plan the future of a facility and the camp.

Participating as a camping consultant I watched one camp go through its master planning process, and as a customer I experienced working with a professional architect firm in planning the future of our facility.

What I learned more than anything is how to organize the multiple levels of input that you need, not only for the planning, but later on the support for the plan. Too many times directors move forward with their exclusive vision and spend an eternity trying to sell it.

When we can take our vision and guide others to see and be part of it, they may even slightly alter our vision to make it better, but the point is to place the kids and facility first to gain success.

Steps in the Journey
There are important steps and questions that must be followed to assure a successful master planning process. Here are some of them: What type of plan are we doing (purely conceptual, or goal-oriented conceptual)? How have we involved volunteers, alumni, management and strong supporters? Have we addressed major concerns before the formal planning session? What preparation work has been completed? Have we supplied our hired assistance with the right information? Does the plan support the program plan? Do we have a program plan?

We decided a year ago to hire an architectural firm to take us through the conceptual master planning process. There are many such firms and they offer a variety of services, from drawings, master planning, prices, facilitation, and more.

We decided to hire a firm to do a conceptual master plan using a two-day charrette approach. The guiding goal of the charrette was to develop ideas that we wanted to accomplish within the next ten years. We decided to do all the pre-planning on our own to develop the vision, wants, needs and more.

This framing of the parameters proved to be very important. There are many master planning sessions that are held with the idea of a purely conceptual, no-limits (either to the imagination or in regard to resources) session to support the plan. Wouldn't it be nice if that were always true? In truth, it is really rare that the conceptual plans done under these parameters actually happen. Usually, one or two ideas from the entire project design are accomplished, if you're lucky.

The importance of the pre-planning responsibility so we didn't waste the precious two days with the architects was huge. We wanted to be prepared and we wanted them to have a great idea of who we were before they arrived. To accomplish this we decided on a ten-step approach.

Step One: Plan the program.
It is essential before you build anything that you know what you are building for. Trend research is great for future growth, but start with your own character and history.

A year earlier, we held multiple staff, board, and combined staff and board retreats. The design of the retreats was to discuss the future programming goals for the facility.

We met and discussed many times what we did well, what we didn't do well, what programming we should be involved with, and ideas about future programming. Program, program, program was the focus. No attention at all was given to the facility or construction needs at this time.

More importantly, the decision on programming was not decided in one meeting or retreat. We revisited the plans of three years ago, discussed the current plans and the history of programming at the facility and then discussed the future.

Too many times in camping we build to build and figure in the old adage, "If you build it they will come." Why not change it to, "Build what they need and they will for sure come!" That was our goal. Let's not build and then change the program to meet the new facility, let's plan the program growth and need and then build to give them what they want at the highest possible quality.

Poll your parents, guests, current children, and if you have access get some trend research. What is hot and what is coming up? All of this will help you with designing your future program.

Once we had a good feel for the past, current and future programming as we saw it for the facility we were ready to evaluate our own facility.

Step Two: Evaluate your current facility.
This is the step where we look at our current facility and how it is meeting the needs of the current program. Look at this question seriously.

We found out that there were some areas we didn't need to address just to address them. Our chapel is great! Initially we thought we should build a new one, but after really looking at the current program and ideas for the future we realized that it was fine the way it was. We were trying to use the space differently than it was designed to be used, but in how we used it, it was perfect. We decided to clean it up and just by cutting back some of the overgrowth and repairing the seats we gave it a new look.

Our cabin discussions were pivotal, particularly the big decision about camp bathrooms, and whether they should be in the cabins or not. Initially, you might think that of course bathrooms should be in the cabins! But wait... If a cabin has 12 people (10 campers and two counselors) and only have one shower. Do they all get showers? Luckily in our case there was an easier decision about this issue.

We looked at the camp as a whole and discussed the areas of camp. We can sleep over 430 guests a night in basically four different areas. Each of the areas represents a different type and style of living comfort: Rustic, cabins with bathrooms, bunk house with bathrooms and cabin areas with bath houses.

After much debate we decided to shape our vision based on the different areas and expanding them to meet a greater variety of accommodation needs and desires. Now our future facility will have options for our guests to meet the needs of the type of camping weekend they are looking for, from total comfort to bare bones rustic.

During the evaluation phase write down the two or three ideas that come out about each area. These are the strong ideas and visions that have to be discussed in greater detail. Do not try to solve the problem and set your mind in stone based on the walk-through or initial evaluation. You need to stay open to the idea.

Next, hold two more retreats to discuss the ideas presented for each area. We brought up the bathrooms in the cabins twice more. In addition, we sent out the basic questions and ideas through e-mail to our alumni, guests and supporters to answer in a survey.

The return on the e-mail poll was interesting. Based on the e-mail questions and two meetings of staff, volunteers and board members we decided to renovate the bath houses and expand the fronts of the cabins in the main camp area.

In addition, we decided to grow the cabins with bathrooms in the village and expand on the dormitory with bathrooms building. In all, the alumni, polled campers, volunteers, staff team and board members all agreed with a majority opinion on the direction and decision.

Remember to take multiple ideas for each area during the evaluation phase of pre-planning and discuss them thoroughly. Make a list of what programs are not be supported by the facility, and lastly keep in mind future programming that you want to expand into.

Step Three: What dreams are made of.
My favorite step is answering the questions of what facilities are needed to support current and future programming. These are the buildings from scratch!

Keep grounded by the ideas you have discussed and make sure the ideas stay true to your facility image and sense of identity. During an observation a team of planners wanted huge dormitories and lodge-like facilities, but when some alumni and a potential major donor looked at the plan they felt as though the planners were trying to build a resort and destroy the character of "their camp". Make sure the old is brought to the new and the new fits in with the old.

The question asked during this phase was, "What do we need that will support participants?" It was here that new cabin villages, pavilions around camp, VIP housing, multi-purpose courts, water front areas and so forth were imagined. This is where you can create.

Make a list and along with the list make some notes as to why certain features are needed. Who is it being built for? What is my audience? How will it support the camp and the camp's mission? Do not hinder yourself with worry about resources, but let it be guided by need and not greed. We decided we wanted a plan that had 7-12 projects that were absolutely achievable and could stand alone as individual projects and campaigns.

We also wanted renovation ideas to be part of the thinking, rather than demolition to make room for the new. It was amazing what happens to expense and idea when you try and spend some time working with what you have.

Lastly, guiding themes were decided upon to help guide ideas and discussion. Ours were relationship-building areas, historical imagination, natural beauty, and hide in the environment.

These themes help shape and ground ideas during brainstorming. We wanted the new ideas to create an extension and modernization of the facility without losing the character and identity. The finished plan looked like a plan of what the normal evolution of the camp should look like, rather then a completely new camp that was unrecognizable to alumni.

Step Four: Reevaluate.
It is important to take the ideas, lists and needs and then re-evaluate the plan as a whole. Have a presentation of ideas to date. The goal of the meeting is to critically attack your own ideas!

Challenge your ideas with a group and check the ego at the door. This was new and different approach for us, but we did it and I would not have it any other way in the future.

We learned more from attacking all of our current ideas than ever before. As the director I felt that the entire room at that moment had truly placed the facility, campers and guests before any ownership of singular ideas.

Focus on your program growth, needs and the buildings to best suit it. Then re-evaluate all of the work you have done in committee. Share with board, staff and volunteers. As we did, we asked more questions through e-mail polls.

Once you reevaluate and organize all of your materials, and make the necessary changes based on the critical approach to the current plan then you are ready for the hired firm to take those ideas and bring your dreams forward into conceptual drawings and discussion.

Step Five: The pros.
Now you are ready to work with a team of professionals to create the concepts, challenge the ideas you have brought to the table and to bring you closer to the picture.

It is extremely important that you and your team still remain open to changes and ideas. You have hired a team of experts to look at your ideas and create workable scenarios.

It baffles me to see directors work in either one or two extremes... The first is the total hands-off approach. The problem with this lack of input from the site is that the hired professionals do not know your camp. They know camps, might have worked with many, but they don't know yours. The hands-off approach will miss the mark of what your facility needs.

The other extreme I have seen is the lack of movement from tunnel-vision ideas. When you hire a team you should present your ideas and let them run with it. Don't view their ideas as challenging your authority or your planning. Bring ideas with the openness to have them challenged by the pros. You might learn there are compromises to your ideas that end up being a better fit for the camp.

During our planning we were adamant about no parking in a certain area of the facility. After the landscape architects showed us a way to provide parking and hide it from people in the surrounding area we were able to meet the need that we were not willing to meet earlier. In fact, with their ideas we were able to add parking and make that area of camp more beautiful. Be willing to learn, and willing to share and willing to debate your own ideas.

Step Six: Share the results and meet again.
Let everyone who had a part in the planning be part of sharing the results. Once the plan returns you need to discuss the results with your lead team (staff and board members).

There is still some more work to go. First, review the concepts. What was right on the money? What wasn't? What needs to be discussed more? What part of the plan is ready to move forward?

By this time in the process your lead team and many volunteers will be really excited about the progress and pictures. The pictures are the most important visual there is. Donors, volunteers and staff get motivated by seeing what might be. Color boards will be essential in the next few steps.

Step Seven: Prioritize projects to be complete and get pricing.
The planning team is now ready to prioritize and place in order how you want to complete the projects created in your master planning.

Some projects may be dependent on others being completed; some might meet a desperate need and have to be one of the first to be done.

Creating a priority list and proposed timeline will give focus to the plan rather than allowing it to fade away. Many projects have reached this point and then were shelved until someone came up with the interest to build something.

Your plan should have a priority and a timeline to keep it fresh in the minds of your staff, volunteers, board members and guests.

Getting pricing is when you take the concept art and meet with an architect and builder to get actual plans and price quotes. When going to speak with potential donors you need to have an idea of the cost for each project and each phase.

There are many wonderful stories of camp directors speaking with would-be donors who suddenly offer to take on more of the project then they were initially being asked to do. Have the information ready, and the numbers accurate when you speak to people.

Step Eight: Planning to raise the money.
If you thought planning was over, you would be mistaken. Now that the plan for the facility is complete the plan to raise the money necessary is just beginning!

From the planning of the facility select key personnel who were passionate about the process and results. Select board members, alumni and a few staff and create your development committee. This committee will be the organizing force behind raising the money for the projects created. They will create a prospect list of donors to be contacts, divide up the list and start the contacts.

In addition, they will identify new recruits to join the committee and set up key meetings to get things rolling. This committee needs to be a committee that cans open doors you can't.

A decision needs to be made between either a capital campaign or project-focused campaign. It is important because each has a different perception.

A capital campaign is used to raise the money as a whole and lists the projects to be completed within the total raised funds.

A project-designated campaign is a more intimate and involves a lot of naming opportunities for the projects. Whatever your decides organize campaigners, prospects, donor materials and a data tracking system.

Step Nine: Build!
After the program planning, conceptual planning, construction plans and fundraising it is time for the second to last step!

Build it! Work with the construction company project manager to oversee all construction on your site. Too many people sit back and watch at this step. Be involved, attend the contractor meetings with the sub contractors, and act as the owner to answer site concerns and building changes. Be involved.

Step Ten: Thank you and recognition.
Plan the biggest dedication ceremonies, and make sure to thank and recognize all the donors in the classiest ways possible. Celebrate their dedication, support and generosity to make your facility dreams come true.

It is very important that the way donors are recognized is accurate and classy. This is a legacy for them and needs to be treated with respect and true appreciation. Enjoy and have fun!

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