I always love hearing how folks pivoted to community. People's stories are always full of all sorts of twists and turns — and this Twitter thread started by our Founder, Mac, was no different. There are some wonderful, winding paths to community, from gift wrappers to neuroscience researchers.
But in this particular thread, one job kept popping up again and again: summer camp counselor. As a former counselor, it piqued my interest — and it really got me thinking about how I had my summers at Camp Walden to thank for honing some of my most valuable community skills.
There's a reason — several, in fact — why so many sleep-away camp alum like me make great Community Managers. Here are some of my musings.
Counselors are able to recognize the strengths and talents of each person, and they encourage participation in order to create an environment that's inclusive of everyone. Every day, a counselor will guide their campers through a plethora of different activities. Inevitably, some campers will shine, and others won't. Navigating those differences requires a level of constant evaluation, iteration, and enthusiasm that everyone will get their turn and be celebrated when the time comes.
Creating intentional spaces for online communities requires similar values. The members of your community have different wants and needs, and it's the job of the CM to provide opportunities for members to show off their particular strengths — to create a safe space where everyone gets what they need.
When working at camp, change is truly the only constant — the same can be said for growing and engaging an online community. Good camp counselors are able to not only navigate the change but also embrace it and thrive in it.
Being able to go with the flow is crucial to managing your community and successfully navigating all the changes that emerge as the community grows and evolves.
Need to quickly throw together a lip-sync for an evening activity? Make up a story to get campers to fall asleep? You're going to need some creativity to pull that off, and camp counselors know how to build hype. Not only is the ability to create and innovate important to keep those daily routines throughout the summer fresh, but building excitement around traditions is just as critical.
In everything from platforms to content, keeping things interesting and exciting is a Community Manager's bread and butter. Building (and building on) traditions can feed into that too — how can you create and respect the rituals your members come to love without allowing things to become stale? CMs must perform this dance every day.
If you can be the peacemaker between two middle school girls who are arguing over who gets to lead the group to dinner, you can handle just about anything.
But seriously, anyone who has successfully worked at a summer camp has had to master the craft of resolving conflict in a way that's fair, timely, and empathetic to all parties involved. When you're working and living with the same people for several weeks in a row in a camp setting, there isn't time to let conflict sit and simmer — it either needs to be addressed relatively quickly, or those involved need to be able to move on.
In any community, resolving conflict is key. Having a plan (or five) in place for how you approach and resolve conflict ensures that you're creating a healthy environment for your members to engage — even when they disagree.
You don't have to be a third-grader to know that spending weeks with the same group, day in and day out, can be overwhelming. Like clockwork, one camper would get frustrated with her campmates around dinner time. When I asked her about it, she said, "I just need time by myself, but I don't know how to do that here." And so, rock time was born.
Every day as the group got ready for dinner, I would nod in approval as this camper took some books out to the giant rock just outside our bunk for rock time. The needs of the group as a whole were still being met, but this particular camper was able to find the time and space she needed to be alone while still being in my view.
Great counselors — like great CMs — understand the balance of individual vs. group needs, and great counselors are able to support both at the same time. The ability to listen to an individual community member, empathize and make an informed decision on how that person's feelings, feedback, etc., impacts the group as a whole is critical to any CM's success. I've found no better place to build this muscle than in a camp setting.
Building relationships with your campers early on and going above and beyond to see that all their needs are met is a counselor's top priority. At Camp Walden, we called this putting 'money in the bank.'
For example, for the first few nights, I'd make a point of checking in with every camper in my bunk to see how their day went and if they needed anything. Usually, this meant hunting for extra flashlight batteries or a favorite sleeping shirt that had gone AWOL. Acts like these, especially in the beginning, add money to your bank. In turn, you can use that 'money' when you ask a camper to pick up a towel or put their shoes away — the exchange is built on trust and a learned understanding that you're there for each other.
Something similar happens in the world of community management. At the outset, you'll need to go the extra mile to get to know your members, whether that means meeting with folks individually on a regular basis or just starting conversations. But once that trust is built, you'll start to notice that it's easier to get folks involved and participating, and often engagement will happen without your involvement. That's money in the bank.
I have never worked harder in my entire life than in those five summers — but I've also never learned as much about other people and myself.
And who'd have guessed that all that time spent in the heart of the Adirondack mountains would set me up to be a really great Community Manager?