one person holding an umbrella over another person

How Summer Camps Can Manage a Crisis with Accountability and Kindness

As we move closer to summer, we know that every camp is in decision-making mode. Some have had to make the incredibly difficult call to cancel their in-person programs for this summer. Others are still weighing their options, from a shortened season to entirely virtual programming. The best way to handle this situation – no matter the end result – is to have a clear and executable crisis management plan. When you know who you can lean on, how you will communicate, and what your financial and programmatic options are, you put your team in the best position to succeed now, and in future challenging times.

For guidance on how to put together a crisis management plan during the pandemic, we spoke with Rob Goldstein, a management consultant and CPA who specializes in strategic planning for small businesses and not-for-profits. Rob is also a long-time camp parent as well as an active board member of the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Greater Baltimore where he has served on the camping, finance, strategic planning and governance committees. 

When faced with any sort of crisis, Goldstein says camps need to consider their business needs, but should never lose sight of their employees, their camp families, the community they serve, and ultimately their core values and mission. Here are his suggestions for ways that camps can build what he calls a ‘culture of accountability and kindness’ as they navigate through COVID-19 and any other crisis with intentionality and empathy.

Step #1: Build a Crisis Management Task Force

a crisis management task force at a meeting

One important step leaders take right now so summer camps can mange a crisis is preparing multiple contingency plans, both for the operational and financial side of the business. This crisis is changing daily, so the best approach is to be as prepared as possible to pivot at a moment’s notice. To that end, Goldstein suggests that camps assemble a task force or working group of key stakeholders to strategically and proactively plan for the ever-changing situation. This team can include the camp owner, executive director, camp director, CFO, key board members or other trusted advisors, and as needed, legal and accounting advisors. 

The task force should be charged with first building various “what-if” scenarios – three examples right now are based on the camp season being cancelled, shortened, or possibly operating in a partial or wholly virtual manner. The team should next embark on a budgeting process to determine the feasibility and impact of these scenarios to the overall financial health of the camp. Consideration should be given to what each of these models looks and “feels” like, evaluating factors such as timing of opening, staffing, new operational protocols, and additional capital and operational spend needed for cleaning and Personal Protective Equipment. During this process, staffing models should be discussed and thought given to how the hiring, onboarding, and training processes might look. (Check out this post about online staff training). Finally, thought should be given as to what the camper experience will be under each scenario and how new safety protocols will be addressed and communicated to parents.

Instead of heaping all of the responsibility and stress on a single person, make sure that responsibilities for completing these tasks are delegated amongst the work group. Another key element of a successful work group is frequent meetings to ensure that the team stays on top of rapidly changing federal, state, and local regulations, along with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and other health organizations. Goldstein says to prepare team members ahead of time that they may be asked to participate in meetings on short notice. Provide as much information in advance of the meeting, as they may be asked to make critical decisions regarding budget revisions, re-hiring or furloughing staff, and determining whether regulatory developments make any of the scenarios more or less viable than the others.

Step #2: Communicate with Consistency, Clarity, and Care

concerned woman on a cell phone

Besides regular contact amongst the work group, a process for keeping employees (whether furloughed or retained) and camper families informed needs to be established. Goldstein explains that if a camp doesn’t provide a clear message, timely information, nor address critical questions (even those unasked), people will fill in the blanks on their own – something you want to avoid.

Camps can manage a crisis by managing the messaging; not just now but also during and after the camp season. Ensure that your camp values and culture are inherent in your messaging. As you build your communication plan, Goldstein encourages camps to think about the concerns of their stakeholders. Staff are worried about when and whether they can return to work; parents are concerned about health and safety; and campers are thinking about whether they will be able to even attend camp and are maybe even a bit scared themselves. 

You’re not making these choices easily, or just because you feel like it on a particular day. You don’t need to know it all, you just need to be honest about what you know up to that moment, when you communicate with them. (Check out our recent blog post for more specific tips on communicating with your camp during COVID-19).

No matter the final decision made by the task force about operating camp in 2020, Goldstein emphasizes that how effectively and compassionately you connect with your employees, families, and the community now will help set a positive tone for the 2021 season and beyond.

No matter the final decision made by the work group about operating camp in 2020, Goldstein emphasizes that how effectively and compassionately you connect with your employees, families, and the community now will help set a positive tone for the 2021 season and beyond.

Step #3: Handle Finances with Transparency and Kindness

financial crisis management

Another challenge camps are facing is how to handle registration fee deposits already received. What we’ve seen so far is that camps are typically offering a variety of refund and other options. These most often include a full refund, a refund minus certain fees, a refund spread out over future years, a rollover for next year’s camp (usually without the expected annual increase), or a donation of their 2020 registration fee to support year-round operating expenses. 

Goldstein also suggests that camps eligible to accept charitable donations inform their families and their community about the increased availability of charitable contribution deductions as part of the CARES Act. Under this new regulation, if an individual donates up to $300 in cash to an eligible organization, their adjusted gross income will be reduced by up to $300 and they can still claim the standard deduction. This would provide an incentive for families to allow camps to keep deposits and convert them to a donation, as well as provide a source of additional funding to the camp for stabilizing their finances.

Even as your camp is encouraging families to maintain their financial commitments, you also need to be flexible for those who can’t meet them, due to one or more family members that may be unemployed. Goldstein says that when a family tells you they need a refund, it should be a simple and automatic ‘yes.’ While camps may struggle financially due to the lack of cash flow in the present season, the manner and extent of empathy that camps express in support of their families in need can have lasting positive effects. 

As they weigh and publicize these options, and their impact to the budget, the work group should also explore financial relief options for small businesses recently made available by the Small Business Administration (SBA) to help them maintain their organization’s overall financial stability.  Speak to your banker and CPA for further guidance on the most viable options to pursue. 

Step #4: Get Creative for Summer 2020

person with paint brushes and paint on hands

Part of your crisis management plan should include asking what camp would look like if it was shortened or done entirely in a virtual setting. Even if camp is entirely virtual, rely on your staff and camp volunteers to create opportunities to connect counselors to campers for activities such as: reading, cooking classes, games, sing-alongs, artistic performances, and more. As well as staying connected with your campers, you are also providing needed respite for family members, who may be working from home. Regardless of the eventual form camp takes in 2020, Goldstein says that it will be successful if the organization’s culture, mission and core values come shining through in how camp “looks” and “feels.” 

What shouldn’t be lost in this effort is how these activities can keep your camp’s name out in front of your families as well as the community. When you maintain those connections between campers and camp staff, you help sustain it for 2021 and beyond, regardless of whether the 2020 camp season is cancelled or shortened. You don’t want your families to lose sight of the fact that camp is not just the buildings and the land – it’s the experience and the community you build together, virtual or not.

Prepare Now for Continued Success

person writing out a plan

Goldstein says that this combination of accountability and kindness will help ensure that an organization comes out of this crisis stronger financially, operationally, and culturally. It also helps camps become better prepared to proactively address and meet the challenges presented by future crises. 

While we hope that some distancing requirements will be lifted this summer, and that we will adjust to a new normal, we know that summer camp won’t be the same as before COVID-19. This remains a complete unknown, but the best camp leaders can do is create a solid plan now for how to adapt moving forward. The four steps outlined here will help you get your summer camp on track, and to do so with empathy for everyone who is involved or impacted by your decisions.