Boiling down the “why” of your summer camp

Boiling down the “why” of your summer camp

The ever elusive “Why?”

Now, something like a thousand books have been written on the subject of finding the “Why” of an organization, and whenever I’ve brought it up with people, I’ve gotten glassy-eyed agreement that, of course, starting with “why?” is what any organization should do, and of course, that’s what their organization does, and so on.

I remember feeling exactly this way when a consultant came to a camp where I was serving as a member of the board of trustees. You see, we had been struggling for several years. Camper numbers were declining, revenues were slipping, and we just couldn’t seem to steer the camp back toward growth.

Oh, we had plenty of reasons why our camp was shrinking, they had just happened to have nothing to do with us. Kids are so busy during the summer time. Parents don’t understand the value of camp. Kids play too many video games. Publicly subsidized camp options were so cheap. Kids were too coddled and didn’t enjoy being away from home. You get the idea.

So when this consultant came in and told us to “start with why,” we politely tolerated his line of questioning, and then literally laughed when he left the room.

We wanted tactics. Marketing plans. Budgeting advice. Cheaper places to buy paper.

We didn’t want to sit and do a bunch of hoity-toity hippy-sounding “why”ing, man. WE knew why our camp was there. Wasn’t it obvious? Everyone in the room absolutely loved camp. Camp was great. “What’s the why of your camp?” Give us a break! The why is obvious!

The why was…

We just moved on from the discussion without ever biting into the meat of the consultant’s question. We got back to trying to figure out the “How” of righting the ship of our camp, not this time-wasting “why.”

And, once again, we were unsuccessful.

Like probably everyone at camp, we had an internal concept of what the “why” of our camp was. Of why a kid should go there, or a parent should trust their kid with us. We had a mission statement and everything. Most of us had attended the camp as kids. We had a deep sense that camp was really, really important.

But we had no concrete list of why our camp was important, or why a parent should choose our camp, instead of one of the 10 camps in a 5 mile radius.

And here’s the real kicker:

If you can’t communicate why a kid should come to your camp instead of choosing any of the other infinite possibilities she has during the summer, chances are pretty good that she’ll choose one of those other possibilities instead.

So let’s take a step back and figure out the real why of what a camp is, and what doors are opened up when one finally distills the why of a camp.

I recently met with two of the most incredible camp people I know, Jack and Laura from Camping Coast to Coast. I have the amazing opportunity to work with them this summer (2014), and the very first discussion we had before diving into any detail about this summer (including what their jobs will be) was figuring out the “why” of Vanderkamp, where I work. Why are we here? Why would a kid come here, and not do something else? Here’s what we came up with as to why a kid should come here:

He can make friends he won’t make anywhere else.
He can development important skills, like self-confidence, more happiness, and being more inclusive and kind.
She’ll be able to be her true and best self.
She’ll be able to learn to use freedom wisely.
He can be in an environment where people aren’t constantly implying an “or else” to his behaviors, perhaps for the first time ever.
He can be expose to what the world could be like if everyone were working to accept others.
She can be a part of something important.
He can have his sense of wonder and awe reignited.
She can be in the ‘flow’ of life for a longer period of time than anywhere else in her life.
He can feel seen and loved, perhaps for the first time.
She can see a great example of the role young adults and authority figures in general can play in the lives of children.

At the end of this discussion, we were feeling awfully certain that kids should, in fact, come to Vanderkamp instead of going somewhere else this summer. This is benefit #1 of really hammering out why your camp exists, and why a kid should come there:

It reminds you how important the work you are doing really is.

Because I’ve sold camp as activities before. It felt hollow – like I was selling steak knives that could cut through a shoe, or something. But when you really remember what is you’re offering kids?


We were motivated and energized in a way that’s just impossible if you start the discussion with, “So let’s plan some activities for the summer.”

But more importantly, we now had a foundation for planning every single thing about this summer.

Creating marketing materials? We can easily cross-reference them against our list of “why”s and make sure that our materials are communicating why kids should come to camp. This is a really great way to make sure you’re not trying to sell your camp on the basis that you have jet skis.

Coming up with a new activity? If that program doesn’t directly support the “why” of our camp better than the program its replacing, it doesn’t happen. We only have so much time to run programming this summer, and that time is precious. But there’s no way to quantify which program is better than which if you don’t have your list of “why”s. Without the “why,” you’re just guessing.

Getting your “why” together unlocks a mode of brainstorming that isn’t possible when you only have a vague sense of it.

So here’s a tool for your summer camp’s revolution:

Tomorrow, when you’re in the office, distill the essence of your camp into a few crystal clear “why”s. First – why does your camp exist? And next, why should a kid come to your camp instead of choosing his other summer options?

If you’re really brave, you can comment below with your “why” and inspire others. If you want help with the process, I’d be thrilled to hear from you, or even chat with you on the phone about it.

You know your camp is the best one out there – now all you have to do is remember why.

Are you ready to grow your camp and change more lives?

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Go, and promote your camp!

Go, unleash your camp!

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  1. Hello James,

    I want to share my “Whys” with you, please give me some feedback.

    Why children should come to my summer camp;
    -They will have a connection with nature that will enrich their lives and views.
    – They will see prehistoric paintings which will make them aware of their own humanity.
    -They will share with other cultures broadening their horizons
    -They will learn independence through responsibility
    -They will discover talents that perhaps they didnĀ“t know they had
    -They will learn tolerance a key tool in this ever changing world
    -They will be active in a world that may change their perception of themselves forever
    -They will be in constant learning/achieving mode

    • Prehistoric paintings!! Whoa.

      I love a lot of these “why’s”, but I would love to know more about how you put them in to place. How do campers change their perceptions of themselves? What are they responsible for, that will teach them this independence? How, in your mind, does responsibility lead to independence? Thanks for joining the conversation! Feel free to email me at if you want to discuss more!


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