A Simple Framework for Prioritizing Projects at Camp

Running Camp as a Business Without Selling Your Soul

Talking about the business of running camp is often times an icky subject. I can tell from the reception of our blog posts here (and how many views they get) that generally, camp folks like to think about and read about the actual work of running camp. This makes sense - there are a zillion possible businesses one could run, but you've chosen to run camp. Because camp is awesome, and most other lines of work are not.

When I first got back into year-round camping, I'll tell you very plainly that I was not especially excited about the business aspect of running camp. I had a ton of programming ideas, some cool staff training things I wanted to try, and spent no shortage of time daydreaming about all the lives I was going to change for the better.

There was just one problem - the camp where I was working needed more kids. Fast. It also needed the kids that DID come to have a better experience. Fast. In fact, the board that hired me told me that we had about a 2 year runway before the camp was completely broke, and that was only if we maintained the amount of camper weeks that the camp had before I got there. If you've experienced transition in leadership at camp before, you know this to be a pretty difficult thing to do.

I was overwhelmed, nervous, and sort of out of my depth. I figured I could plan for summer camp - but how was I supposed to run this huge business? Plan for the future? Prioritize projects? I was pretty lost.

Thankfully I have a younger brother who is a pretty smart guy who also happens to be a business consultant. He reached out and offered to sit down and try to unravel the mess I found myself in. It was such a helpful conversation that I figured I'd dig through my memory and share with y'all what he shared with me then.

Planning for the Future and the Process of Ruthless Prioritization

Chris walked me through a fairly simple (but super helpful) 2 part process.

The first step was relatively straightforward. He asked the following questions:

1) What benefits do we hope our customers realize as a result of buying our services (either a session of camp, or a user-group stay)?

2) How did camp create those benefits?

3) What were our primary strengths in creating those benefits?

4) What were our primary struggles?

5) What is the most common positive feedback we receive?

6) What is the most common negative feedback we receive?

7) What are all of the things we would do for camp if we had infinite resources?

Once we have our answers to these questions, it's time to start figuring out what to do about it. Given that most camps have a finite pool of resources from which to draw, the real art here is trying to figure out what to do next. This is where Chris came in especially handy.

For each answer we came up with for number 7, he asked me two questions:

"How much would this cost?"

"How big an impact would it have?"

As he listened to my answers, he drew me a chart that looked something like the following:

"It's simple," he said. "You've got your 4 quadrants. On the X axis we have how much things cost. On the Y axis we have how big an impact you think these improvements will have at camp. Start in the upper left (least cost, highest impact), and proceed from there. Remember, given a finite pool of resources, choosing to invest in some projects necessarily means NOT investing in others."

Light bulb time! Yes, our dining room floor could certainly have been better. We were talking very seriously about having it redone at a pretty considerable expense. And our camp didn't have a high ropes course! What camp doesn't have a high ropes course? Answering all of these questions in a vacuum is impossible.

But through this lens, it was a whole lot easier for my board and I to plot a course of action that had the highest impact at the lowest possible cost.

Instead of investing, say, $50,000 on a new high ropes course, we decided to invest in new roofs (medium cost, high long term impact), a ton of new programming areas (medium cost, high immediate impact, and it scratched the same itch that the ropes course would have), continuing education for our staff (low cost, high impact), and so on.

What we found was that when we constantly assessed our next projects according to our 4 quadrant chart, we almost never had to stray out of the "green" territory. Yes, the dining room floor still had stains on it 4 years later (let's be real - it had even more stains). But we had more than doubled our camper weeks, and increased user group sales by 70%.

All of this is to say - the business side of camp (while easily the least fun to most of us) doesn't have to be horrifying. It just takes intentional thinking and some planning. Once our institution got in the habit of thinking according to Chris' "ruthless prioritization" framework, it became second nature. We stopped having extremely long discussions about whether to go forward on this or that project (sound familiar?) because we had already agreed on the way we would come to such decisions. We avoided hurt feelings when someone's idea didn't come to fruition because, generally speaking, assigning an idea to a spot on the priority list was a fairly objective process.

Is it a silver bullet for prioritization? Probably not. Surely you'll have people in your organization who will disagree on impact, for instance. But if you've ever felt lost as to where to prioritize next, or struggled to convince your board of your next big idea, hopefully this will be as helpful to you as it was for me!