Camper To Campaigner

I recently had the opportunity to present a workshop at a national philanthropy conference, not because I am an expert in raising money, but because I truly enjoy interacting with people and sharing stories of the impact of camp (and I don’t mind asking for money).

In my time working in the non-profit/summer camp world, fund-raising and volunteer cultivation has become a larger part of the work that I do. So I have been thinking strategically about how I can increase my effectiveness and, at the same time, share these tips with staff and other summer camp professionals.

If you weren’t able to hear me speak last week in Pittsburgh but are still interested in how you can effectively connect and engage with your staff and customers (parents and campers) this summer to increase your effectiveness in gaining donors and volunteers, here are the few tips I shared:

Figure Out The Connection

I ask a lot of questions when I meet people. I want to know what they do, where they are from, what are their hobbies, do they have a summer camp story?

When I am talking to people about camp, I usually ask them about their fondest memory from camp. I then follow up with what skills are you using today that you can trace back to camp?

Camp is a place of connection. It can be a person, place, event, experience, skill or time of self-awareness. Knowing what it is that connects someone to your camp is the first step in connecting them deeper through volunteerism or philanthropy.

Don’t Forget The Parents

If you are like most camps, you might only see the parents of your campers twice a year: once at check in and the second time at check out.

If you are going to connect with the parents of your campers, you better have a plan in place.

Here is the plan I have used for a few years:

a. Know who is coming that week – I would go through the campers that week and look for individuals I should connect with.

b. Have a goal – I would intentionally have a goal of “connecting” with 10 parents and then plan to follow up with them during the week (hand-written note).

c. Enlist the help of my staff – If a counselor met a great parent during check in I would ask them to introduce them to me.

d. Be accessible – On check in day, every parent had to meet me as they came into the dining hall to sign in for the week.

e. Follow up – I would spend the week going through my connections looking them up on Linkedin, Googling them and then on check out day I would make a point to find them and continue the conversation.

Create The Habit Now

What opportunities are available for your campers and staff now to give back to your camp or organization?

Volunteer opportunities, service projects, helping with your annual campaign, writing thank you notes to donors, call nights are great ways to get your younger staff and campers hooked early on the work that you are doing. Share stories of impact with your campers.

What Is An Alumnus?

I believe that most people think of themselves as alumni of a camp if they have been on staff there, but if what makes someone an alumnus is a shared experience, then anyone who has spent time at your camp is an alumnus.

The 5th grade school group from the local elementary school, the father-son weekend overnight, the parents of your campers, your seasonal staff and full-time staff all share in the experience of your camp culture.

Remind them that they all are alumni and don’t let them get away.

Easy Entry Points

We say we want our campers, staff, parents and volunteers to be engaged with our work, but we make it so difficult.

Don’t put up barriers to their engagement and don’t forget to share the work you are doing with them. Many times we keep people at arm’s distance because we are afraid they will be “too involved,” but when we do this we miss many more opportunities for support.

We in the summer camp world need the involvement of key supporters, volunteers and donors. Without this support, we would not be able to effectively fulfill our mission and deliver the transformative work of summer camp.

Don’t be a barrier to the individuals that can help further your cause.

Dave Bell has directed day and resident camp programs for more than 15 years. Currently, he is the Executive Director of Camping Services for the YMCA of Greater Seattle. He is a former American Camp Association Southeast Section board member, a certified Y-USA Day Camp Director Trainer and a Y-USA partner YMCA camp consultant. Reach him via e-mail at