Written by Jane Kramer
It’s raining. Again. Complete with thunder and lightning this time, which means we’re staying inside. The noise generated by hundreds of people crammed into one space is tremendous, made more frantic by the restlessness setting in. All I’m thinking as I watch the buckets pour from the sky is, “I sure wish I hadn’t forgotten my rain boots.” It was a rookie move and I am definitely not a rookie.
I’m embarrassed to admit that this wasn’t the first time I left my boots behind. However, it was the first time I did so while volunteering at Camp Sunshine. Camp Sunshine, where I serve as a camp counselor, provides summer camp and year-round programming for children with cancer and their families. I sailed past rookie status with Camp Sunshine years ago: 2015 marked my tenth year as a volunteer.
2015 also marks my tenth year working with nonprofit events. I’ve worked in myriad roles, with Event 360 and elsewhere. As I began to consider both anniversaries earlier this year, I thought about the many things I’ve learned from being a camp counselor and nonprofit volunteer. Many of the camp experiences offer lessons I apply in my professional life. Here are five key ones.
1. “It’s not your journey.”
This might be the very first thing I learned at Camp Sunshine. An oft-repeated phrase by the Camp Director during my first few summers, it was her way of simply and directly reminding us that as counselors, we were there to help the kids, not ourselves. Translation? It’s not my job to queue up for the zip line and take a free ride. It’s my job to make sure all my campers get the ride (and that I help make it a great one).
Furthermore, this message also reminds me to follow the kids’ lead. Paddle boating on a sticky Georgia summer afternoon, no breeze or cloud in sight, may not be the activity I’d choose. But it’s not my journey, and if the camper needs a paddling partner, I’m in.
It’s not my journey when I’m working on an event, either. Whether I’m working in operations or with participants, it’s my responsibility to enable the people who are on the journey to have a great one, even if it wouldn’t be what I’d pick or how I’d do it. My journey is to give our participants a great experience.
2. Good people don’t always do it like I do it, but they’re still good people.
With 250+ camp volunteers, there are lots of people involved in creating the best week ever for our campers. Not surprisingly, we don’t all run our activities or cabins the same way. In my early and less mature years, I sometimes equated differences in style with differences in character.
But then I realized three things: there’s so much I don’t know, there’s more than one way to make a camper’s day, and just because someone does it differently doesn’t make them a bad person. The stories that I heard and continue to hear resolutely prove that most of us are out there with only the best of intentions. When I struggle after hearing how a colleague handled something, I remind myself that we’re mostly all good people trying to do what’s best. This lesson learned makes me a better, nicer, kinder, less judgy, and more understanding colleague and employee.
3. Treating your volunteers well makes a big difference.
When I need inspiration for volunteer engagement and recognition, my thoughts always turn to camp. Volunteers at Camp Sunshine are thanked profusely, recognized regularly and publically, and shown appreciation in tangible ways.
As I write this, I’m drinking out of my Camp Sunshine Tervis Tumbler, my counselor gift from years ago. My camp chair, golf umbrella, portable drink cooler – all of these are useful, thoughtful ways I’ve been thanked over the years. There are also 10-year, 20-year, and 30-year recognition traditions that carry deep meaning among volunteer staff. Additionally, Camp Sunshine publically recognizes volunteers with profiles in their quarterly supporter newsletters.
As a volunteer, these efforts help me feel appreciated. This means I’m more likely to step up when there’s a need, even if it’s not in my usual way. As a professional, seeing these best practices focused around volunteer engagement helps me when working with my own volunteers on an event. My experiences also inspire me to ensure the volunteers with whom I work feel acknowledged, respected and valued.
4. Fundraising is not easy (even when you are very, very invested in your cause and you see the impact of your efforts).
Most years, I fundraise for Camp Sunshine through a 5K that takes place at camp. Even with my background in peer-to-peer fundraising, this is harder than I’d like to admit. As peer-to-peer fundraising grows in popularity, it gets harder to ask friends, family and whoever else to support my organization. I worry they’re being bombarded by other people like me representing other organizations.
At some point, I overcome my anxiety by calling up good memories and remembering how directly I see the funds I raise put to use. Regardless, even after I send out my first requests, I still question my goals and abilities. My wobbling reminds me that fundraising is a process. It takes encouragement and dedication, even when we believe deeply in the things we do.
Not surprisingly, the fundraising experience I gain with Camp Sunshine enables me to better support the participants with whom I work in a professional capacity. Not only can I respond to their concerns with genuine empathy, but I am also more equipped to provide tangible ideas and resources to assist them. Furthermore, being mindful of the fundraising journey motivates me to consistently communicate with my participants and to acknowledge their milestones and accomplishments.
5. People will go to great lengths for something they truly care about.
Volunteering with Camp Sunshine has been one of the best things I’ve ever done. In the same breath, it has also taxed my body, my emotions, and occasionally my wallet.
The lesson here is twofold for me. First, there’s no better way to gain a sense of how invested volunteers may be than by being one. It happened inadvertently for me, but now that I see how far I’m willing to go, I better understand the perspective of some of the most dedicated volunteers. Having that perspective helps me honor and respect the tremendous commitment of time, energy, and financial support volunteers make for an organization.
The second lesson is one of my most favorite lessons learned so far. It’s fueled not only through experiences with Camp Sunshine but also with Event 360 colleagues, event volunteers, and nonprofit staffers: When I am feeling overwhelmed by all the big problems yet to be solved in the world, I think of the amazing people I know who go to great lengths to make a difference. For ten years and counting, I’ve worked and played with some of the most dedicated, energetic, caring, empathetic, undaunted, and hard-working go-getters. And I am better for it. They inspire me to keep giving and teach me better ways to do it. Hopefully for another ten years and beyond.
Special Note: Camp Sunshine is based in Decatur, GA and serves children with cancer treated in the state of Georgia and their families. September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and Camp Sunshine is a member of the Stop Childhood Cancer Alliance. We encourage you to take an extra moment to learn more about this camp and this partnership.
For Jane, making magic happen as part of the Event 360 IT team is just the latest in a growing list of roles that have included participant support, volunteer management, event production, fundraising and donation operations. In her fun time, Jane would most prefer to be traveling or in the woods with her husband Dave and their old dog Tupelo. When those aren’t options, she can be spotted enjoying good food and good friends in her current hometown of Atlanta, GA. And, of course, every summer you’ll find her at Camp Sunshine.