The ABCs of Alumni Development

Forging an alumni development plan that works through creative customer service and high-energy events.

By Jeff Merhige

Alumni! What a difficult word in the camping industry! It is a subject with many different approaches, and many possibilities for camp support and development, but the most difficult area to really get a grasp on.


In our experience it has to be approached in a systematic way that begins with the development of your camp’s goal. Why do you want an alumni program? What will you dedicate to it? Do you realize that this is a multi-year commitment with slow early returns? We decided four years ago that we wanted to tackle this issue. Here is our story, with the approach we took and why…

First: Why do you want an alumni program? Sounds like a crazy question to ask. But really… Why? Is it to create an environment of friendliness with former campers, is it money, or both? You want money. It’s not a bad goal, but let’s be honest about why we want a program. Do we have an event coming up, a milestone for your camp like a 100-year anniversary? Are you in the planning stage of a capital campaign and need prospects? These questions need to be defined so as to create a plan of focus in alumni development and recruitment.

Here at Camp Kern we decided on three goals:

  1. 100th anniversary is June 2010. We want a huge celebration.

  2. We wanted to create a new committee structure for five areas of camp development and the board, so we needed alumni involvement and buy-in to camp operations.

  3. Money for changes and a completion of a master plan for 2010.

Second: Define alumni! So many camps get lost in this early step of creating a plan based on a good definition of alumni. How do you define alumni? Former summer staff and campers is your definition? What about year-round staff and year-round participants? What about seasonal staff for the winter and spring programs? What about weekend groups? What about outdoor education students? How do you define donors? The list can get huge right at the beginning.

For us here at Camp Kern, we defined alumni as all staff, campers and participants in YMCA Camp Kern programs. This is a huge number. For Camp Kern it means 30,000 participants a year and over 100 staff, but as we went forward we recognized that our program is year round and diverse. To limit to certain programs did not create an environment of openness and friendliness.

Define alumni based on your program and program goals.

Third: Prepare a plan to meet your goals while refining your definition of alumni. This is the step which is the most involved process. Alumni development does not happen fast. It takes time, great word of mouth and experiences.

We created a marketing plan which involved alumni events. First, the Web site was created with the ability for alumni to see what was happening at Kern and to give us their e-mail address and information. This automatic cultivating needs to be user friendly. Alumni will add their information on their own terms.

Second, we created seven events a year that accomplished many different specific goals, but shared one very important goal… To get the alumni and public involved in Camp Kern while capturing their mailing and emailing information so as to send them informational newsletters about what we are doing.

Early in our process we recognized that you are not selling camp and its worth to alumni! They already know and love their memories. What you need to do is show them that you are still doing things today to give the next generation the same valuable experience that they had.

You need to create a sense of confidence that your mission is still for the kids and guests, and that the camp magic is alive and well and others are carrying away experiences that only Camp People can understand.

Our seven events include:

  1. Strawberries and Ice Cream Dinner: Held every year (for the past 30 years) on the Wednesday of staff training. The invite list includes all Camp Kern volunteers and alumni staff. The goal is to introduce the alumni to the new summer staff and to create a “passing of the torch” to the new staff. We also use this event to dedicate buildings or showcase new programs for the summer season. The new summer staff serves the dessert to the alumni while sitting among them encouraging alumni to share stories.

  2. Camp Kern Golf Outing: The invite list includes public supporters of Camp Kern, alumni and volunteers. This event is held each year in honor of an alumni staff person and city-wide volunteers. All funds from the event are used for program enhancement to Camp Kern. This event in the past seven years has been responsible for new water slides, new basketball courts, climbing tower, cabin construction and program supplies for the kids.

  3. Beat the Hill 5K run/walk: The invite list includes the public, volunteers and all alumni. All the proceeds from this event go to scholarships for kids and families to Camp Kern. In its second year of operation the event nets over $2,000 for scholarships. The course is based on a tradition from the 1960s and ‘70s where a former camp director used to have the campers run from a neighboring museum down a road to the river and back up the other side to the camp entrance (the hill is at about a 60-degree angle and over 700 feet high).

  4. Smiles and Dreams Dinner: The invite list includes all donors and supporters of Camp Kern in the past year. The goal is a simple thank you. The entire event is put on by camp with the sole purpose of sharing the success of the year and thanking our supporters and donors formally and publicly.

    The evening is based on a Hollywood movie premier theme. A red carpet and awards are given out and the hallways and rooms are decorated in full-size posters which state, “Now Showing” under pictures of projects completed this year or “Coming Soon” under pictures of dream projects. There is no solicitation at the event but we do share future dream projects.

  5. Pre-Thanksgiving dinner: Held every year the Sunday before Thanksgiving. The invite list includes everyone. The goal is community and friendship. At this event the camp supplies the turkeys and activities, and guests bring side dishes. There is a time for updates on what is happening, but its major goal is a relaxed open day for friends and supporters. Last year over 300 people attended the event in its fourth year of

  6. Holiday Fest: It’s an open house for the public; a collaborative event that showcases Camp Kern. The invite list includes everyone with a $3 charge per person. All proceeds go to scholarships for campers and families. The camp provides activities, over 10,000 lights decorating our towers, and over 800 luminaries lining the trails and roads. Community leaders bring choirs for caroling, and the ability to showcase their own programs. Camp gets a huge public exposure.

  7. Annual Strong Kids campaign: Annual campaign where all proceeds go to scholarships for campers and families. 100 percent of all donations are used. There is no administration fee. Last year we raised $69,000. The campaign is a staff and board led initiative which we attempt to start and complete in a three-month period.

These seven events were created and board approved for our operation. Each event has guest books, and staff takes down information on attendees.

Except for the annual campaign there is no formal “ask” or solicitation of our attendees. But each of the seven events have a very strong goal of informing alumni (as we define it) of what we are doing and how the spirit of camp helps children and guests.

They are designed to create a buzz and word of mouth about camp and our operation. Lastly, they are designed to make people feel involved and appreciated! We have found that it is not new to appreciate your donors. But how many of us really get it across to our donors? We attempt to accomplish that through these events, thank you letters and holiday cards.

Commit to a structure which allows your plan to thrive. Initially, each of our designed events was led by a designated staff person—usually a program director adding one more thing to their already busy life and program challenges.

After three years of doing it this way the events have become too large for our program directors to lead them as side projects. This year, we committed to hiring a new staff person, the Alumni Development/Community Relations Director. This new director is now the point person for each of the events, Web site management, community relations and news briefs, leader of our alumni committee and special events committee, and finally this position is focused all year on alumni development (name and information harvesting).

I am not suggesting that all camps hire this position or even attempt to launch a year’s worth of events. Before going to Camp Kern I used to be the only year-round person for my camp. I remember nine months of being by myself until the part-time camp registrar started in February and then our summer camp staff arrived. But in these situations I do suggest the creation of a strong alumni committee and give them one or two events to put on for you. I would suggest an annual campaign for scholarships and one fun event, like a camp family 5-10K run/walk.

Keep in mind that a different event each year will not create a sense of tradition or regulars. For example, if you and your board decide on a golf outing, then you must commit to running it at least for four years. There is nothing quick about creating confidence and tradition with people.

It is not the size of the event or the number of events that counts. What counts is getting the word out about what you are doing and what the camp is accomplishing for the next generation that matters.

Information about who you are and what your camp is doing will serve you more then a series of events. People will get involved if you are credible, and they know that they are going to be part of something that means something.

As camp directors our stories have never been the hard sell. What we do counts for character development and child confidence and truly helps to make great future adults.

We bring hope to those who feel that the world is against them and we bring beautiful pure experiences to children in a world filled with dangers and problems. No one will turn away from your stories and mission; they will turn away if they have not ever heard of your camp, or if they find you not to be sincere.

Never be in the position of asking for help only when you need something. Be in the position of asking for participation in a great business and organization first. Then, when the need comes up you already have a pool of supporters and friends.

Alumni development happens by making friends first and then having friends to call on when the need arises.

Fun Time
The final step is to have fun and create a fun, welcoming environment. What is your plan when an alumnus wanders onto camp? All of our staff is trained in customer service first of all, and then also instructed that when they greet someone at camp and find out that they are a former camper, staff or participant then they direct them to our office and we make sure a tour and guest book is created on the spot.

Making your guests feel welcome should be part of your standard operating procedures, but making them feel welcome and helping them to become connected to a place they love is also everyone’s responsibility. No one here just says, “You should go talk to our alumni person!” No way!

Every staff person is reminded that this is their home and also home to thousands of others who might come back for a visit. Make sure they feel welcomed. Word of mouth of this sort will serve you and your initiatives more than any newsletter.

When alumni leave and say they had a great time visiting their old camp, others will listen and do the same. Four years ago we had maybe three alumni drop in unannounced. Last year we had a hundred drop in. You and your staff’s actions day to day have a major impact.

Just remember, they loved your camp the way you love it now. There is no reason for being threatened by that. Things change, but what hasn’t is that it is still kids and guests having the times of their lives and alumni want to relive some of that through the eyes of you and your current staff.

Good luck!

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