Camp Fire Stokes New Image And Council Revamping

December 31, 2012       Mark Hrywna      

A mission statement doesn’t mean much to a teenager. That’s why Camp Fire USA ditched it. Well, not entirely. They call it a promise instead of a mission statement.

The Kansas City, Mo.-based charity also dropped USA from its name, tweaked its logo and added a tagline, all part of a rebranding of the century-old nonprofit.

“We’re a 102-year-old organization, but as with many in our sector, if you don’t stay current and relevant by continually talking to your marketplace, you can find yourself either relevant with a small group of people or irrelevant,” said Cathy Tisdale, who was brought in as president and chief executive officer in July 2010 with the intention of leading the transformation.

For anyone in their 40s or older, Camp Fire might bring back memories of a group of girls going home after school to a mom who leads them through activities. It was a girls-only organization until it went co-ed in 1975. Today’s kids face a different world, one that might be changing even more rapidly by the day. Social media wasn’t a common phrase a decade ago, but things such as Twitter and Facebook have changed that in recent years.

Tisdale noted three areas of focus:

  • Revitalize the brand. “Not just telling the story in a different way but making sure the story is as relevant to today’s kids and families as to previous children and families;”
  • Develop a new business economic model; and,
  • Ensure the capacity of councils to deliver value to children and parents in a sustainable way. “Ensure there’s organizational capacity,” she said.

Camp Fire also had to differentiate itself from Girl Scouts as well as other youth development charities, such as Boy Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Big Brothers Big Sisters, YMCA or YWCA. When Girl Scouts revamped its strategy in 2006, it made a decision to be about leadership development for girls and teens, said Tisdale. The parent in the role of volunteer in most organizations can be part of the program framework at Camp Fire, engaging their families, schools and other parts of the community.

Camp Fire had became too reliant on funding from foundations, philanthropy and United Way, said Tisdale, and didn’t do enough to build its revenue model to include marketing programs to parents who can afford to pay for their children’s attendance. “The economic model had really not been changed or evaluated in a very long time,” she said, and councils did not have enough of the things that create a more robust, sustainable model for organizations. In recent years, the headquarters saw total revenue decline from $4 million to just over $2 million in 2009, with a dip in contributions and grants, but has since seen a turnaround — mainly in program revenue — to return to about $4 million overall.

Before joining Camp Fire, Tisdale was at Girl Scouts of the USA for three years as vice president responsible for leading the Girl Scouts’ reorganization from 312 councils to 112. “I learned so much, I never thought I’d have mergers and acquisitions on my resume as a nonprofit leader but I learned all about what it takes,” she said. “At a senior level, you learn a lot about what it takes to move a legacy organization forward when the marketplace is saying one thing and parts of the internal organization are saying something else,” said Tisdale.

While Tisdale said she wasn’t brought in to Camp Fire specifically to change jurisdictional councils, “the time is going to come in the next year or two, when we need to do a very thoughtful evaluation of those boundaries, to make sure that they make sense.”

Gathering info

Camp Fire conducted 31 focus groups across five geographic regions, talking to groups of participants and non-participants, ranging from 10- to 13-year-olds, 14- to 18-year-olds, and parents. “It’s that data that really guided how we moved forward with the brand revitalization work,” said Catherine Lufkin, chief external relations officer.

The package of new logo, tagline and mission promise was presented to the national board in June 2012, after more than a year of research, analysis, testing and retesting. The board gave its approval, giving its 70 councils a year to align, and headquarters rolled out a new website in December.

“We tested our name, our logo, tag­line, mission statement. The only thing we didn’t test was our core values. If you have to start testing core values, what you’re really saying is, do we need to exist at all,” said Tisdale.

“Once you decide in our sector who your impact audience is, it makes lots of other decisions much easier or much more difficult,” Tisdale said. “To be very clear, our audience is youth and their families, framing a new mission statement — that’s 1970s, 1980s language — doesn’t mean much to kids. If you say to them, this is a promise to you and your family, they know exactly what a promise is,” she said.

The tagline “Light the fire within” is a nod to the legacy of the organization’s name, which is based in the idea that from the earliest times, society was created around a campfire, with people sitting around it. “It’s a very contemporary way of bringing the legacy of Camp Fire into a contemporary visualization,” Luf­kin said. The change has been “extraordinarily well received inside and outside the organization. It’s energetic, contemporary,” she said.

“That logo was just a visualization of that, how kids are different from today than they were 20 or 40 years ago. Many grew up in two-parent households where mom was home when the kids came home,” said Tisdale, who was at the American Red Cross for almost 30 years before her tenure at the Girl Scouts.

Internally, where Camp Fire is delivered mattered to a lot of people, Lufkin said, while what they heard from youth was that it doesn’t matter where it’s delivered – a camp, afterschool or a club – because the benefits and experience were the same regardless. “Clearly, one of our best assets is that we have that consistent experience,” she said. “It was more of culture change in some parts of the organization internally, than what we heard from parents and youth,” said Tisdale.

Going to the people you serve and having these conversations is vitally important and not just as part of brand revitalization, said Lufkin, but something the organization wants to incorporate into a “continual feedback loop. We want to make sure we instill this as a culture piece as a learning organization.”

Tisdale said it was critical to outsource the market research and focus groups, letting the brand firm do some of that research because no organization can assess itself internally. Camp Fire provided oversight but “we didn’t get in the way of what the experts were bringing back to us. You can like it or not, but it is what it is. Ultimately, we end up in a better place as an organization,” said Tisdale.

A local branding firm contributed about 60 percent of the work pro bono, which helped keep the cost of the effort to approximately $250,000. Local councils also worked closely, helping to mitigate some of the cost with market re­search firms and hosting focus groups.

The biggest cost to affiliates will be to change things such as decals on vans and buses, signage at administrative headquarters and/or day camps or resident camp properties. Some signage might cost as much as $20,000, if affiliates can’t find a company to donate it, Tisdale said.

Headquarters provided local councils with some basic resources at no expense, such as letterhead and CEO business cards, to get them started, Tisdale said. Local councils will have about a year to get up to speed, knowing they’d need more time to change websites and signage and such, but most expected to change over by August 2013. “Different councils are moving at different speeds, it’s mostly a matter of resources,” Tisdale said. NPT

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