Non-Profit Marketing: Camp Fire USA

April 04, 2007

Posted in Non-Profits.

I recently posted a quote about non-profit marketing that got at least a few people thinking. It was really more about fundraising, but in a non-profit that relies on development work, fundraising is marketing. But because many (too many) non-profit workers have little or no marketing experience, I want to share how I’ve been marketing and some of the lessons I’ve learned.

Two years ago, my wife Amber started as the Camp Director for Camp Tannadoonah. It’s one of several programs in our local Camp Fire USA council. Simply by marriage, I’ve become free labor for Camp. Normally, this means helping clean cabins or doing handy work around camp. But because I can’t ever seem to turn off my business mind, I’ve taken the opportunity to help Camp Fire improve their programs and turnout. I’ll focus on Camp Tannadoonah, our largest program.

I don’t want to make this a Marketing 101 kind of post. Instead, I’d rather share my ideas (because ideas, without execution, are worthless) and experiences.

Introspection: What do you have?

We start with looking at our own program and how we got to where we are. With our existing program, there was a lot of history to consider. The camp is nearly 90 years old, and there have been huge changes over the decades. Luckily, my wife was a former camper and counselor, so one of the biggest historical records lies in her memory and the memories of the people she knows.

Next, we looked at the camp’s situation. We also have to consider the programming, the facilities, the pricing, the audiences, etc. Given our location, size, and offerings, we can compare ourselves to other camps.

Market Research: What does everyone else have?

Oops… I didn’t really do much research when it came to putting together a plan. I started with tactics. Mistake number one. I’ve seen the error of my ways, however, and now have a bit of knowledge to work with. There are also thousands of similar camps in the United States, not including the myriad sports and specialty camps. So we’ve developed a series of circles – local, regional, and national camps. The strongest competitors are the local camps – we have relatively few campers that come from outside of a 50 mile range. Inside of that local circle, there are a number of camps that directly compete with us for campers.

However, this comparison also allows us to see plenty of differences. Most other camps charge considerably more than we do. Of course, this means they tend to serve an audience in a higher socio-economic state. As such, they have implemented amenities and programming that cater to wealthier clientele. This actually works to our advantage – some parents consider air conditioned cabins a “resort” instead of a camp. We receive a fair number of campers that choose our camp based on the rustic factor.

One important thing our Camp Director does is to visit other camps and communicate with their leadership. Each summer, she (and the CIT director) take the CITs (counselors-in-training) to visit another camp. This gives insights into new programs, policies, etc.

Goals: What do you want to do?

Too many people start with tactics. “We need a website.” “We need a TV commercial.” These are tactics – and their success depends on how well you can measure them against your goals. If you’ve been reading my blog, this should be a familiar tune. What I encourage any client to do is to establish goals and then create the strategy to achieve those goals. Tactics are how you execute your strategy.

So here are our goals, based on my discussions with Amber and the Camp Fire leaders. With most businesses, the main goal is to increase profits. A non-profit is no different, except that the profit is x – the mission of the organization. In our case, the camp’s goal is to serve campers. This has two main components:

  1. Increase camper turnout
  2. Increase camper retention rates

Differentiating Ourselves

Now that we’ve looked at our own camp and taken stock of our competition, we have to find ways to stand out. As if things in the camping business weren’t difficult enough, our camp was struggling with some large changes and PR issues. The former Camp Director of several years had just resigned to work elsewhere. A string of declining years had given way to money troubles. Rumors were spreading that we were closing down and couldn’t operate the camp any longer. We were in a tight spot with little budget for big changes. Our reputation was on the line, and we estimated that we had but one summer to turn things around.

Luckily, Amber and I are very frugal and that doesn’t change when it comes to business. Marketing for small businesses is all about doing great things with little or no budget. We established this strategy to accomplish our goals.

1. Increase camper turnout

Because a camp’s reputation is the biggest asset (or liability) to bringing campers, we decided we needed a strategy of communication. As a strong believer in the Cluetrain Manifesto, I feel that communication and transparency create trust and better customer relationships. Parents must trust us if they’re going to send their kids to us for a week.

This helped counter many of the rumors of our insolvency. It also established that new leadership was helping to turn things around. Though Amber brought strong loyalty to the traditions of Tannadoonah, she also brought fresh perspectives and connections. She used her connections to reach out to Birch Lake. The lake rumor mill all but ceased.

Here’s how we executed it:

  • Communication

    • Postcards Amber and Lori (the assistant director) wrote postcards to parents each week. Sent early in the week, the postcards thanked parents and let them know the kids were having fun. Each postcard was signed and invited parents to contact them if they had any concerns.
    • Counselor Letters Counselors from the cabins were asked to write brief letters about each camper, addressed to the parents, and delivered at checkout. This gave parents a view of what their child did throughout the week, what they enjoyed, and if there were any concerns. Giving this responsibility to the staff personalized the experience.
    • Staff Profiles In the local newspaper, run by a lake resident, we featured profiles about each staff. This continued throughout the summer, letting people meet the people who were taking care of the kids. We made sure to promote their qualifications – Amber was a Ph.D. candidate, and most of the staff were college students.
    • Dinner with Campers We allowed lake residents to visit for dinner once a week. The visitors sat at tables with the kids and counselors, discussing what they all enjoyed most about camp. As the lake residents regained their confidence in the camp, visitors became more interested in volunteering at camp.

2. Increase camper retention rates

As most any business person knows, it’s cheaper to keep a customer than it is to get a new one. I was particularly concerned with retention rates – the best thing a camp can have is happy campers. They become evangelists (bring your friends!), and later, potential counselors and alumni. Amber is a perfect example of this. So to combine with our strategy of communication, we also wanted to engage parents and kids so that they felt a personal connection to the place and people of camp. We want them to feel like it’s their camp.

Here’s what we did:

  • Engagement

    • Blog We set up a blog where Amber wrote about each week’s happenings. This was similar to the one-way newsletter Amber had been writing for the local paper, but with the added flexibility and RSS subscriptions. We began receiving positive feedback almost immediately from parents and campers that were keeping tabs.

    • Flickr photos Our most popular idea was the addition of a public photo gallery. Amber and I had just purchased a new camera and made excellent use of it throughout the summer. In all, we took several thousand photos and posted the best to a Flickr account at least once a week. Parents raved about the photos and campers often came back to see their photos. These showed the kids and staff having fun and being active – exactly what we want people to think about when they think of camp!

    • Survey At the end of the summer, we invited parents to participate in a survey about their (and their kids’) experiences of camp. It provided valuable feedback, as well as an opportunity to respond directly to parents with particular concerns. Customers appreciate the opportunity to make suggestions. As long as you are receptive to these, it helps create the sense of ownership we sought.

    • Birthday Cards One of my favorite ideas, Amber sends a birthday postcard to every camper. Keeping it simple, she wishes them a happy birthday and hopes that they will return the next summer. Kids and parents seem to love this – everyone loves getting mail!

Other factors

Staff Staff makes a huge impact on the reputation and quality of your camp. Counselors are often the first line of contact for kids and parents. A great camp experience can be ruined by a bad counselor. In 2006, we struggled to find quality staff and experienced some rough times (dealt with swiftly and appropriately). This year, we implemented an online job application site that increased our application rates nearly 200%. Amber has actually had to turn away qualified staff because interest is so high. We attribute this to Amber’s visits to recruiting fairs and to the easy application process.

Timing We got info out to campers and parents fairly early this year. We established programming and schedules months ahead of what had been done in the past. Not only that, but we launched an online registration tool to make it easier to register for camp. It’s still early, but the numbers are starting to look good.

Summer 2007

I am excited to see the turnout and retention numbers for this year. Given our hard work last year and the new ideas for this year, we are trying to create a foundation of trust and engagement that will pay off for future years as well. Meanwhile, our new executive director is working on the administrative side to ensure that we have a strong base within the entire organization. And this summer, we’re trying some new things that I’m really looking forward to.
This post has gotten me really psyched for Camp. I’m planning to elaborate on some of the specifics, particularly aimed at non-profits. As I read more and work on new ideas, I’ll share my insights.