Capital Improvements

By Jeff Merhige


Everyone has a vision of what will make their camp perfect. Unfortunately, that vision may not jibe with reality (or users’ ideas of a perfect camp), which is why it’s critical to develop a team of disparate people to help you craft a strategic facility improvement plan--a vision, unclouded by emotion, of what your camp needs to indeed become “perfect.”


After all, buildings last for decades and leave not only a legacy of accomplishment, but, in some cases, a legacy of poor planning.

The Planning Process
To avoid poor planning and eliminate, or at least mitigate, post-construction conversations like, “I wish we had thought of this,” or “It would have been perfect if we had added that,” you need to develop and follow a detailed planning process. Here’s one we have used with some success at YMCA Camp Kern:

Step One--Dream Planning
This is my favorite part of the planning process because the only rule is to dream big --as big and creative as possible. Daydream about all the things that would make your camp perfect, no matter how outrageous or expensive, and ask many other people to do the same thing. Good planning candidates include: board members, campers, camper parents, staff, weekend guests, alumni and volunteers.

Collect as many dream lists as possible along with the reasons for the choices. If possible, run through this exercise together as one large group, using a storyboard format. If that’s not possible, have them send their lists in from afar.

Step Two--Prioritizing
Now, take the lists and separate them into three categories: revenue-generating ideas, improvement ideas and amenity ideas. Return these lists to the dream team and ask the members to rank the ideas in order of preference for each list. If the lists are huge, ask them to just give you the top 25 in each category.

Now, take the three lists and combine them into one list by ranking the 25 most-requested items (e.g., if everybody had fixing leaky bathroom faucets on their list, that would be item number one, and so on).

Return that list of 25 most commonly mentioned/voted for ideas back to the team and have them rank the Top 15 and return suggestions once again. Count the results, and you have the Top 15 things you need to work on at your camp.


Don’t worry if your list has more repairs or amenities. You are just starting! Eventually, you will get to brand-new construction that makes sense. This approach is much better than focusing on the newest thing year after year, while your tried-and-true buildings/infrastructures age and rot.

Step Three--Visit Other Camps
So, now that you have your list of the Top 15 improvements sure to rocket your camp to the top, research each and every item. One great way is to visit other camps that have completed a similar project.

I cannot stress how valuable this is. To really maximize your visit, make sure to check your ego at the door and find a camp that has something like your dream already built and in operation. Make sure to ask the camp’s director and/or staff what they learned from the project and, most important, what they would do differently if they were to do it again.

This give-and-take is what I like best about the camping industry. It is a compliment when other camp directors take our ideas, modify them for their own use and roll them out as part of their camping experience. Likewise, I have changed more projects than I can accurately remember after seeing how directors at other camps completed projects similar to the ones I was planning.

Now, take the results of your visits and place the notes with each project you’re considering. Make sure to address and correct any problems of which other directors have made you aware. Then, discuss how to modify each project so that it reflects the feel and expectations of your camp identity.

Step Four--Plan It
Conceptual drawings are fantastic for getting the vision across to board members. There are some amazing firms that understand camps that can take your vision and bring it to life in a four-color rendering. Of course, not all projects need conceptual drawings. Improvements and repairs of existing buildings (unless an expansion or wing addition) are a good example. But, for new construction, people like to see what it is you are after. Also, when it comes time to estimate the cost, an architect needs the concept to create the real drawings that will then be used by construction companies to eventually bid on the project.

Step Five--Hire an Architect
This is where reality sets in. This is the time the dream project begins to take shape, and you have to start matching components with budget. It hurts to cut ideas from the concept, but in order to actually fund and develop the project, you will have to cut a few of your ideas.

That’s the bad news. The good news is the architect will make your building real--real dimensions, real materials, real money.

To determine the cost of your dream, the construction company will make estimates based on the plan the architect submits. Then, you will sit with the architect to make any adjustments necessary within the boundaries of your funding plan. For this reason, if you are working with an affordable architect, it is a good idea to get a few, if not all, of the projects estimated out. Now you know how much it will take to complete all the projects you want.

Step Six--Fund It
This brings us to what many view as the hardest step--funding your dreams.

This step can take days, weeks, months and even years based on your approach. Money comes from many sources, and I will not spend time in this article discussing the “how to,” but some sources are: donations, designated project gifts, capital money, operating funds, etc.

Whatever your fund-raising plan, take this bit of advice: make sure you fund the entire project before you start construction. It is really hard on donors and financial supporters to see a project stopped or stalled due to lack of financial planning, and it hurts even more to borrow funds to complete a project and make payments for a long time. Put a plan, campaign and donor request together in a way that does not hurt you financially in the end.

And then, take the final step and build your dreams--bigger and better than you ever have before--ensuring a legacy of excellence and a testament to the power of proper planning.

Jeff Merhige is Executive Director of YMCA Camp Kern, Dayton YMCA, in Dayton, Ohio. He can be reached via e-mail at