By Jeff Merhige
At YMCA Camp Kern, I believe, the success of our camp is directly tied to how aggressively and effectively we network. I think of networking in two ways:
Local networking – your community and camp families
National networking – your peers and colleagues across the country/world
Both are important. Both are learned behaviors.
Why Network Locally?
One of the most common questions camp directors ask is, “How do I network locally?” But, a better question is, “Why is it so important?”
Local networking is important because it allows you to:
Let others know who you are and what you are all about
Develop resources you need to run your business
Attract volunteers to your organization
Grow and expand your organization
But, most important, local networking entrenches you in your community and allows you to continue to connect with your local camper families throughout the year.
Getting to Know the Players
To begin building your local network, get to know your camper families. Look at your roster and see who are four-, five- and six-year camper families. Call them and introduce yourself. They will be happy to tell you how they view the camp and who you should get to know in town.
Get involved with community organizations. Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club, Council of Tourism, and City Council meetings are great opportunities to meet the “go to” people in your community.
Or, hang out at the local breakfast spot(s) -- the place(s) where business people go to hang out, talk “shop” and network. One of my good friends says whenever he starts a new job he always seeks out the local breakfast spot and makes it a priority to eat there every day.
Local Goal – Develop an Advisory Board
Once you know the players, you need to introduce yourself and share your story. Ask for guidance. People love to help and people love to know they have made a difference.
Your goal should be to create a board of advisors for the camp with a committee system of volunteers behind it.
How do you fill these seats? Use the local resources you have created through the techniques listed above and through the committed camp families who are already a part of your organization -- people who are already sold on your benefits. These people will love the opportunity to support your camp and your mission.
Advisory boards (and networking) empower your new supporters to sell you and your organization to others by giving your supporters (the ones who are already bursting with the desire to share with others why they love your organization and camp) a voice.
National Network – A Two-Way Street
Here’s the thing about networking -- it is a two way street and it has to be honest. I have held a very strong belief for a long time that there are really no secrets in camping. And, why should there be? All of us are trying to provide the greatest experience possible for our children and staff. If someone is really doing something great, why not share it and allow others to modify it to meet their needs. The person who took your idea may or may not give you or your camp credit. That’s an integrity and personal security issue for that person to deal with, not you.
I make no qualms about the fact that I love visiting other camps and getting ideas. Then I love to modify the ideas to work best for my camp and its personality. I also believe very strongly in sharing everything we do. Why? Because, for me, it has worked and resulted in a pretty great place to work and to visit so if what we have done can help more people beyond whom we can serve that’s great. I’m really in this business to serve others. There is no greater compliment than to see ideas from my team implemented at other camps.
Learning to Listen
We all love to talk about ourselves, but listening is the most powerful learning tool we have. When you talk to other camp directors, don’t get territorial or competitive. Listen to them ramble on about how great they might be and listen for those golden nuggets that just might work for you. You need not counter with your own idea to outdo their idea.
Now we’re not networking, we’re back in kindergarten having the “My Dad can beat up your Dad” conversation.
Instead ask them what is new at their facility? What is the program they consider to be the most successful? What was the biggest surprise program for them? Don’t stop there.
Imitate the youngest camper at your camp and continue to ask their favorite question – the one that drives you crazy during the summer – Why? Why? Why?
You will learn more about another’s program and why they feel it was successful. Then you can modify the idea to meet your needs.
It is very possible you will listen to some of the craziest ideas you’ve ever heard of -- so what! Keep it to yourself. You are not there to make someone else feel bad about their ideas, but to share and learn some new ones for yourself.
I once listened for ten minutes as a camp director explained how they were getting rid of all their paper marketing materials and going purely to on-line and DVD’s by request only. In my mind I thought, “Wow! No way am I going to get rid of all my traditional pieces.” But, aside from the extremes of this guy, I decided I needed to look at how to get more out of my website and determine if I could use DVD’s.
Learn to “Play Nice”
My point is -- don’t be afraid to share your success and ask others about theirs. If we don’t, then we create an industry of not sharing and we lose the opportunity to improve each other. It’s like back in kindergarten when you were trying to make friends. You started playing with each other and, at some point, you shared your name and before you knew it you were friends. As I remember it, it always started by playing together. If you played nice before long you had a friend, if you played bad you started avoiding each other -- never talking.
Networking in camping is about playing nice together. Camping by its very nature is very isolationistic. We are alone for most of the year and then we have an isolated 8-12 week sprint in which no one can communicate with us. My family and friends consider me completely unreachable from May until September each year! (It is getting better!).
If we do not pass on the great ideas and the experience learned then we do not allow for a future of leaders to replace us and strengthen our industry.
Maximizing Conference Attendance
How many times have we rationalized going to conferences by saying it was a great networking opportunity? And, how many times have we gone to a conference, sat in sessions taking notes only to go out that night and talk about anything but camping?
When traveling to conferences with staff (or peers) I suggest you hold mini-brainstorming sessions with your staff (or whomever you’re attending with) though out the conference.
Make a point of summarizing the subjects and what idea you’re thinking of implementing back at camp. See what others think.
At the last conference I attended I had four key staff with me. We met after each break to brainstorm about ideas presented at the conference, and discussed how we might implement them at camp. Upon returning, we started seven new initiatives -- the most of any conference I have attended in 12 years. I’m amazed how just this little change -- adding 30 minute brainstorming sessions through out the week -- resulted in workable ideas/initiatives.
If you are alone at a conference, make a point to get up the nerve to sit at meals with people you don’t know. Walk up, ask, “May I sit here?” and immediately introduce yourself and ask a question of response such as, “And where are you from?” Sound funny or obvious? I bet it does but how many times have you sat down with strangers and said nothing. Soon you’re buried in your food, randomly nodding your head to the conversation and before long the meal is over and you are relieved to move on.
Maximizing Camper Fair Attendance
How many of us travel the camp counselor and camper fair circuits and, while recruiting staff and campers, take the opportunity to network with others?
At camper fairs, bring staff to do the recruiting and move around to look at everyone’s latest brochures. Ask them about their new programs. At Camp Kern, we love the recruitment season because we collect every brochure from every camp! But wait there’s more…
What if, when you returned from the recruitment trips you held a meeting with a team of volunteers or staff and you went through all the brochures -- cutting out the interesting ideas, pinning them up and seeing what could be modified for your camp?
If you collected enough, you could create a complete new camp program. Then, call the camps that have the ideas you have identified and question them specifically about the program or idea that has caught your interest. By the end of the conversation you have flattered the camp you called because you loved their idea and you have made a new contact for you and your team.
Networking and idea collecting is flattering and easy if you allow yourself to share and listen. We cannot pass on the skills of program development and camp successes if we do not do a better job in sharing and talking to one another. I want to see the next generation of camp leaders be far superior then we are. Why? Because then millions more children will benefit because we collectively as an industry did the right thing. Go out, meet, share and most importantly play nice.
Jeff Merhige is the Executive Director of YMCA Camp Widjiwagan in Nashville Tenn. Reach him at email@example.com.