Managing Risk

By Rick Braschler
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / OG_vision

Managing risk—these are perhaps two of the most dreaded words in a camp director’s dictionary, rivaled only by the nickname, “Fun-Sucker.” From the onset, the very phrase seems to challenge creativity, combat ingenuity, and completely destroy hilarity—all essential ingredients in the recipe for memorable camp experiences. This article will explore some practical applications for applying sound risk-management concepts, while keeping creativity and fun intact.

Similar to life in general, camps are not—nor will ever be—risk-free or completely “safe.” In fact, well-managed risk-taking is an essential ingredient to providing a healthy and positive camp experience where kids have fun, are challenged, and build life skills and self-confidence. Unfortunately, healthy risk-taking is on the endangered list, succumbing to a premature death at the hands of an overzealous, finger-pointing society.

Consider a landscape of empty canoes, dormant basketball courts, bikes with no riders, dangling belay lines, and vacant diving boards. This is life absent risk-taking, where a certain probability of harm exists, and therefore, is completely avoided. This avoidance in some cases is healthy where the threat is too great, such as the use of “Lawn Jarts” back in the 1970s. (I owned a set, as I’m sure many of you did.) Yet, the camp experience is threatened as camp leaders react out of fear rather than sound planning.

Sound planning demands that camp leaders develop a cultural mindset to balance opportunities with risks. Opportunities consist of fun activities, new buildings, off-site trips, new gadgets, or skits. Each has its own set of unique risks, and the challenge is to discern the value of each opportunity against the risks involved. In doing so, one of the most important concepts a leader must understand is the risk appetite.

Risk appetite designates the level of risk the camp is willing to accept before action is deemed necessary to reduce it.  For example, does a playground need a fence around it? If so, how high should it be, and how far away from the playground unit should the fence be built? Should it be up close or next to the road? A camp leader’s ultimate decision will be based on the tolerance of risk, and an inaccurate interpretation may expose the camp to unnecessary loss.

The appropriate level will depend on the nature of the work undertaken and the desired objectives. For example, where public safety is critical (e.g., camp transportation), appetite will tend to be low, while for an innovative project (e.g., built-in Slip ‘N Slide), it may be very high, with the acceptance of short-term failure that may pave the way for longer-term success. Here are five levels of risk appetite to consider with any program decision:

Averse Risk Appetite: Avoidance of risk and uncertainty is a key organizational objective, and thus offers little if any reward. A camp program based “solely” on a risk-averse model may find it difficult to fill the day with fun and challenging activities.

Minimal Risk Appetite: A preference for ultra-safe options only has a small potential for reward.  Camp activities may include Ping Pong, putt-putt golf, crafts, mild court and field sports, and traditional swing sets.

Cautious Risk Appetite: A preference for relatively safe options has a low degree of risk with a limited potential for reward. Camp activities may include a shallow pool with no elements, low-element challenge or ropes course, Gaga pit, double-belay climbing, and traditional court and fields sports.

Open Risk Appetite: This program is willing to consider all potential options and choose the one most likely to result in successful delivery, while also providing an acceptable level of reward and value for the money. Camp activities may include high-ropes and challenge courses, skiing and wakeboarding, single-belay climbing, caving, scuba diving, and ziplining.

Hungry Risk Appetite: This program is innovative and chooses options offering potentially higher rewards, despite greater inherent risk. Camp activities may include advanced climbing, mountaineering, river crossing, kayaking, aviation, advanced scuba diving, and wilderness adventures.

Be Flexible
So, does one size fit all? Certainly not. In fact, camp leaders will benefit from adopting the appropriate appetite that reflects the value of a specific activity, with an overarching risk-appetite framework to ensure consistency. For example, a camp may elect to operate under the general premise of a “cautious risk appetite,” but with opportunities to develop new programs outside this appetite under certain conditions. In doing so, it enables leaders to make informed decisions on accepting or declining new ideas based on the camp’s risk appetite. Here’s how this works:

Scenario A : At the end of a canoe trip while waiting for the bus, the trip leader needs to take up some time with a group of tired and bored kids. So, quick thinking results in 30 feet of rope with which to make a swing. However, a quick survey of the site reveals only one tree to tie the rope to, and only 6 to 8 feet of water in the middle of the river to drop in. The trip leader is reminded of the camp’s “cautious risk appetite” and chooses another activity rather than push the boundaries of acceptability.

Scenario B : The camp has a corporate “minimal risk appetite” philosophy. However, a generous volunteer group wants to build a zipline for the campers. The camp requests a study on the best zipline to use within its operating risk appetite. Even though this activity exceeds the risk threshold, the camp decides to move forward with the event. However, to satisfy the ultra-safe risk appetite, the camp opts for an inspection and training from a certified zipline inspector, installing the least-complicated and least-risky braking system, and adding extra safety equipment, such as a double-lanyard system with added hand straps.

Plainly stated—risk is fun and exciting! And, when managed well, can add so much more value to the camp experience by creating memories that will last a lifetime. Therefore, it is imperative that camp leaders have a firm grasp on their risk appetite with the added ability to clearly communicate to their camp staff. In doing so, the camp experience will be worth coming back for, time and time again.

Rick Braschler is the full-time director of risk management for Kanakuk Kamps, and the senior risk consultant for CircuiTree Solutions Camp Risk Consulting. He has been a licensed insurance broker for more than 20 years and assists camps around the country with selecting brokers, identifying coverage gaps, and saving premiums. Contact him at 417-266-3337, or .