Getting your first year round job at camp seems daunting. Where do you even start? How do you prepare? What will it be like?
Most people think looking for a job starts when you scroll through the ACA Job Listing, the process starts much earlier. The choices we make years before applying for our first job can make the biggest difference. That doesn’t mean you need to know exactly what you want to do in 10 years. It means you can set yourself up for the best possible range of outcomes in the future by making a few intentional decisions now. Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, outlines this idea best in The Startup of You. It is a great book to read or you can get the gist of it in about an hour below. In many ways this article is trying to apply the ideas outlined in The Startup of You to getting a job at summer camp specifically. To do this let’s work backwards.
When a camp board, owner, or executive director posts a job they get hundreds of responses. They are making a huge decision. Who will run or help run this place that means the world to them and their campers. In many ways camps are a direct reflections of their director team. Great camps have great leaders and hiring a new director is a huge decision. When the person doing the hiring gets flooded with all these resumes and cover letters they are looking for reasons to narrow the pile. Most of the time this starts by throwing away resumes that they think aren’t qualified for the job. Maybe they don’t think they have enough experience, there are misspellings, maybe they are looking for a college degree you don’t have, or the resume wasn't personalized for the specific job. What you are trying to do in this stage is give the person in charge of hiring a reason to move you from the stack of faceless resumes that end up in the trash to a new stack of resumes they are going to look into more thoroughly. In other words you are trying to be remarkable in someway.
Some people try to be remarkable by having some form of flashing resume that simply looks different from other resumes. Maybe you make a website or video for the hiring manager to look at and that might work. Maybe by sending a great video along you get the extra 30 seconds of attention that lets you more thoroughly tell your story and that leads the person doing the hiring to give you a call. It might work and it is worth a try, but it isn't where I would start.
My experience with most people hiring camp directors is that they are nervous and looking for help. Most camp people got into camp because they love people and I think the best way to move the trash pile to the possible hire pile is to know people. The old addage, “it’s not what you know but who you know” is especially true at camp because summer camp is all about relationships.
Now we have a new problem. The problem isn’t how can we have the flashiest resume, but rather how can we know the right people? Not only that, but how can we know the right people and have them want to go to bat for us. How can we know the right people and have the right people think we would be a great camp director? Focusing on this problem long before you are ready to start applying for camp director jobs is a lot different from focusing on having a good looking resume.
When most millennials hear anything about networking we want to throw up. Networking sounds slimy, gross, and dishonest. Building relationships sounds great. So let’s build relationships. Let’s build as many authentic relationships as we can with as many camp directors as we can. The more people you know and know you the better chance when a job is posted that you will know someone who knows the person in charge of hiring. In the next section I will talk a little about strategies and tactics toward building authentic relationships with camp directors. But first, I think you can do better than just taking a scattershot approach. You should connect with as many people as possible, and you should be intentional about setting yourself up to meet more of the right people.
What do I mean the right people? The right people are the people who will have the highest chance of being influential with camps that are hiring year round staff and who would be willing to vouch for you during the hiring process. These are people who know a lot of camp directors in the types of camps you are interested in working for. Long time Y folks, consultants, owners of prestigious camps, camp vendors, and more. The next step is identifying a few of these great people and starting to build relationships with them.
Don't Be an Asshole
A quick aside, don’t be a slimy asshole about this. Don’t ignore people because you don’t think they are influential, and don’t use people just for your own good. When I say connect with the right people, I mean push yourself out of your comfort zone to bring value to people you don’t know. This whole relationship building approach to the job search only works if you are authentic and helpful. If you are constantly stepping on people instead of building them up it will be obvious. The next section is about building connections and bringing value to influential people in the camp world. Remember that you are doing all of this because you care about the power of camp and that everyone involved is doing the same. These are people not stepping stones.
Some Ideas to Connect with People
You are betting on yourself here. If you are awesome and people spend authentic time with you they will like you. Then we just need to make sure you are awesome and you get some time. To make sure you are awesome, I suggest being ready to speak the language camp directors are used to speaking. That means spending a lot of time listening to camp directors and picking up on cues. Here are some online resources or books that I think can help. The next step is spending time with camp directors. Below are some ideas.
Work for them
Spend next summer working at a camp run by a well connected director that runs a camp where you can learn a ton. In my opinion this is the best way to build trust and prove to the right people that you are worth sticking their neck out for. Plus it is super fun. You get to spend a summer learning a different way of doing things and doing the thing you love. Plus it doubles as the best networking. Be smart about it. Some camps I would suggest because they are awesome and the directors care about their staff and know a lot of people.
Come work with me!
I am super biased here because this is the camp I founded with Laura, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Laura and I spend two years visiting camps all across the country and know tons of camp directors. We get emails all the time from directors looking to fill year round positions. Plus we do weird stuff and you will learn a lot. We are a small camp, 100 or so campers and 50 staff at a time, and a new camp, started in 2015.
Camp Tall Tree
Scott Arizala and Sylvia van Meerten
Scott and Syl love their staff and Scott is one of the most connected people working in camp. Plus because this is just a one week camp for kids with autism you can work for them after spending a summer working some where else. This one is a no brainer to add on to the end of working some where else all summer. Not to mention you will learn some incredible new skills for working with challenging campers.
Frost Valley YMCA
Dan is passionate, committed, and one of the most respected directors in the Y. Where Stomping Ground is a small camp Frost Valley is a HUGE camp. They have around a 1000 campers on site and have been around for over 100 years. Dan is a master of working with in large organizations and Frost Valley has a great reputation around the Y. Dan is also the chair of the Tristate Conference.
Augusta is a little different. They aren’t as well connected in the camp world, but lots of people know of them. They run 3 full weeks of staff orientation, have over 90% retention, and do the weirdest coolest activities. We have adopted a ton of their ideas. Working here would be less about the networking and more about the learning experience of a very different camp. That being said having Augusta on your resume, similar to Frost Valley, does hold some gravitas with some people.
Camp Granite Lake
Tommy started Granite Lake 15 or so years ago and is super well connected in the for profit camp world out west. He is a great person to learn more of the business of camp from and a different type of thinker.
There are a million great camp directors and camps to work for. These are just a few that I wish I could work with. I would be happy to chat with you if you are looking for just the right camp to fit what you are looking for. I promise I will only try to get you to come work at Stomping Ground a little! Send me an email with what you are hoping to do and I will wrack my brain for some camps that might make sense.
Volunteer your skills
Are you a web developer, photographer, author, graphic designer, painter? Find a camp near you and volunteer some of your services. A small camp would probably love a free Wordpress web design. Camp directors are always looking for more social media content. Make a few memes with their photos, their logo, and their core values. Offer to come take headshots of their year round staff for them. Paint a mural at camp for them. Think about what you are good at and then think about how it could help their camp. With this technique, I would start with small camps that are strapped for resources. They often would love some free expertise. I would send an email like this…
I was looking at the website for Camp So Much Fun and it looks incredible. My name is Jack and I am a photographer and wanna be camp director. I am trying to meet as many people as possible working at camp and learn what it is like to be a camp director.
I will be in your area next week and would love a tour of camp and a chance to pick your brain. Also, I would be super happy to take some headshots of you and the year round staff or maybe just some great photos around camp that you can use. Really I just want to learn about camp and be has helpful as possible, maybe just do some cleaning or any volunteering that might be helpful.
Thanks! I can’t wait to meet you,
Volunteer your time
This is similar to what I said above except you don’t have to have a special skill. Just volunteer to help pick up trash, clean toilets, move bunks, or whatever needs to be done. There are almost certainly more than 10 camps with in three hours of where you are right now. If you just made it a habit to find a camp to help with every Saturday during the school year you could get to know a dozen or so camps really well this year.
My name is Jack I go to the University of Pittsburgh and I really want to be a camp director after I graduate. I am wondering if there is any volunteer work I can do on a Saturday in the next few weeks so I can get a better understanding of what working at camp year round is like. The best case scenario would be if I could rake leaves, clean toilets, or whatever in the morning and maybe get a tour and a chance to pick your brain in the afternoon.
Thanks for your time and I can’t wait to meet you!
The key with all of these techniques is to be authentic and genuinely helpful then follow up with nice thank you emails. The more you get to know folks the more helpful you will be able to be and the better you will start to understand the camp industry outside of just your small bubble. If you are ever near Rochester NY send me a quick email and I will happily buy you a beer, give you a place to crash, and talk camp.
All of these ideas can be overwhelming. Check out exactly what I would do if I were in college right now.