Management Lessons from Camp

12 Aug Management Lessons from Camp

Every year I volunteer at a number of camps put on by a group called Special Love for Children with Cancer. On the surface, the camps are an organized chaos. Kids of all ages act silly, play games, connect and have a great time. It is easy to miss the well-oiled machine running in the background that keeps the events running smoothly. The culture that has been put in place is a model of self-organization, empowerment, continuous improvement and unified purpose. The Spring Family Weekend event in particular always leaves me thinking that businesses could learn a lot from these camps.

Teaching a boy to fish with people fishing in the backgroundBefore the event commences, volunteers are assigned to classes they will run. Volunteers can ask to be part of a specific class and have the freedom and autonomy to run the classes however they want within reason.

On Friday night, a couple of paid staff members arrive early along with a couple volunteers. By the time the families arrive, there are tables set up with crafts, coloring, cookies and drinks. Volunteers and families all arrive at the same time and begin mingling with each other. After check-in, everybody gets together in the “campfire” circle where we sings songs and we go over details for the weekend. Volunteers meet back at their lodge before bed where discuss the schedule in more detail.

One of the events on the schedule is a carnival night. All of the volunteers sign up to run a game. There is a list of games that people can pick from or they can create their own with the materials the camp has on hand. Once the administrative stuff is out of the way, the volunteers have time A family playing camp carnival gamesto socialize. The majority of the group is generally made up of veterans and they know the drill. Pull up a seat around a table or on a couch, grab some snacks and let the bonding begin. People tell stories of old camp adventures, catch up on life and get to know each other often while playing games. One of the most impressive parts of the night is watching the new volunteers as they are accepted into the group as if they had been there forever.

Saturday morning, there is a noticeable energy and comradery as people get ready for the day. The staff lodge is a bit of a hike from where the activities take place so people carpool to breakfast. I often find myself sharing a ride with a group of people I did not know until the night before.

After breakfast, there is a flag raising with a song or two and instructions for the families then
classes begin. This is where the self-organization really starts to show. There are very few announcements (partially because saying that word causes the entire camp to break into song, which is a stroke of genius but I digress…) but everybody shows up when and where they need to be. Volunteers go and get their own supplies, set up for the class, make sure everything is broken down and put back when it is done. If the class has too few people, volunteers will redistribute themselves to make sure everything is covered. Even though it is a self-organizing environment, there is always support available if needed.

A girl with no hair sticking a spoon on her nose

The culture and experience is absolutely amazing. So, why and how do these events go so
smoothly every year?

  • Common Purpose – Everybody knows that the purpose for being there is to make sure that the campers and families have a great experience.
  • Personal Value – We all value the experience because it is a fun, energizing and meaningful and we are all able to contribute to the camp in our own way which lets people utilize their strengths and makes each event a unique experience.
  • Volunteer selection – The group is selective in who they allow to volunteer. There is an application and a staff evaluation process to help ensure the right mix of volunteers.
  • Culture – The majority of people that volunteer have been in the program as campers or have been volunteering for a long time. The culture carries over as new people come in and from event to event and year to year.
  • Continuous improvement – At the end of every program there is an evaluation process that sparks changes. This process is taken seriously and feedback from previous events is often discussed at the start of an event.
  • Repeatable framework – There is a basic framework that can be scaled and adapted to fit the event. Be it a family weekend or a week long camp for kids, the same basic formula produces similar results no matter the location, people or activities. The system covers only those things that are needed and leaves the rest to the imaginations and creativity of the campers and volunteers.

Now let’s look at how these principles apply in the business world. Take some time to think about the companies you consider to be top performers. The three that come to my mind are Google, Apple and Valve. All three companies embody most if not all of these principles in some form and people love the companies and the products. When you have the right focus and a good lean system in place, the right results will follow.

On the flip side, organizations that don’t work this way such as the federal government, many large financial institutions and companies I have seen flounder or fail tend to generate dislike, mistrust and struggle with sustaining their business. Waste is abundant, work is inefficient and the culture can be toxic. Some of them do find financial success but it is not an enjoyable journey and I would argue that they are in an extremely vulnerable position especially as more and more companies are adopting principles and practices like Agile and Scrum. But it’s not all bad news. Organizations are turning themselves around by embracing the same principles as Special Love.

If your organization is struggling or even if it is not, maybe it’s time to take some management lessons from camp…

For more information on Special Love for Children with Cancer, visit or for real-time updates on camp activities visit The next event is Camp Fantastic August 16th – 22nd.

Let’s change the word together!

~ Jeremy Webb

  • Julia Wahl
    Posted at 00:25h, 19 January Reply

    I love this. I love the idea of ownership, pride, and a common goal as a way to deliver results. And in the case of Special Love….they just add in a whole bunch of fun, compassion, and yes, love.

  • Jan Bresch
    Posted at 14:37h, 23 August Reply

    Love this, and as a long-time volunteer, you are an valuable part of making this all work.

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