The Future Is Now: A Conversation with Fred Miller

A Conversation with Fred Miller

Fred Miller has more than three decades of experience as a senior executive and consultant working in the areas of governance, strategy, and organizational effectiveness. With a long camp history that includes attending camp as a child; working at camps as a counselor, program director, and assistant camp director; and serving as chair of the American Camping Foundation and on the American Camp Association (ACA) National Board, he is a strong advocate of the camp experience and a long-time valued friend of ACA.

As president of The Chatham Group, Inc., Mr. Miller has helped scores of organizations working around the world to position for the future. He is well known for his ability to help companies and organizations see themselves and their markets in innovative ways and to bridge the challenges and conflicts of today's operating environments.

In addition to consulting and policy work, Mr. Miller is a frequent speaker, workshop presenter, and facilitator. As a Senior Fellow of the Lincoln Filene Center at Tufts University, he has addressed public policy issues and coordinated with scholars and researchers to link the practical necessities of daily operation with the challenges of emerging knowledge. As a consultant and as a Senior Associate of BoardSource, an international resource in boards and governance, he provides counsel in effective governance and board leadership for organizations, trustees, and government officials and regulators. Mr. Miller also has served on a number of boards.

There is much talk about the changing demographics in our country. To what changes should ACA be most alert?

Here's my reaction to demographics. We are at 2010 now, and we are somewhere between thirty and forty years from being a nonmajority Caucasian country. In a number of states we're almost or already there — Texas, California, New Mexico, and Hawaii all have, or soon will have non-White majority populations. And, we're also in the process of significant change in age, because of extension of life. You and I expect to live longer than our parents or grandparents. But what the real critical thing here is, we're in the last decade or two of transitions that have been going on for a very long time. So, I think the issue is not “what trend is most important,” but the reality that we're in the middle of significant changes in composition of this country. What I think people need to deal with is not what the trends are, but the reality of the forces in the society in which we are already living.

How do camps deal with a society that is so complex and diverse?

We need to pay attention to the America we are becoming and have become. A consequence of the increasing diversity of our country is that the culture then becomes shaped by its diversity. Think about the fact that we now consume more salsa than catsup in this country — it sounds funny, but it affects what people eat, what they think food is, and what they think a meal is. What we are experiencing is the consequence of this far more complex society, and our mores are broadening. So, Rap music is not just an art form only of and for one group within our society. And, if a camp tends to serve one or relatively few subgroups, the behaviors, values, and beliefs of the subgroup are shaped not only by the subgroup, but also the larger group.

Can you explain what you mean by that?

I grew up in Bloomington, Indiana in the 1950s. In Bloomington at that time, although it was a progressive, university town and very unique in Indiana, people stared at inter-racial couples. That doesn't happen anymore. Our society today is extraordinarily different — there are several states that recognize gay marriage and families everywhere are multi-faith and multi-ethnic. What those families look like and expect — what's celebrated and what's not celebrated, what food is proper, what the right norms of behavior are — are more reflective of the society as a whole, than a small group in power.

If you play these changes out for another generation and then another, we realize real transformation in who the people are in this country. “Who is an American” can no longer be defined by the factors of the past. And we end up with a mix of social norms, philosophies, and faith perspectives that reflect a country that is not becoming diverse, but is diverse.

I imagine that this transformation is being seen in camps across the country.

Individual camps may only see slices of this transformation because they may serve only a few fragments of markets, and campers don't live year-round at camp. And while people may live in neighborhoods that are more similar than dissimilar — which has long been proven — their tastes, choices, and interests are affected by the Internet, media, and broader community. I think camps need to start thinking about what this means for expectations, behaviors, and interests. Although we get our perceptions about the country based on the groups we most often see, children, adolescents, and particularly the staff, live in a world that is far more complex. The number of gay/straight alliances in middle schools are growing at a phenomenal rate. So this tells me that an increased number of camps are going to be dealing with, or are already dealing with, middle school kids who are out. This is not about what's right and wrong, it's understanding that we are in a demographic change. There's no time to left prepare for it. It's here.

While there are fundamental forces inevitably shaping the future, it isn't the trends that are going to happen, it's the trends that have already happened. The future is now, and I would encourage people to focus on and live in what it already is.

What do you feel will be the greatest challenges to the camp industry over the next twenty years?

One of the phenomenal changes in this country is that individuals are increasingly deciding what is right for them. They don't rely on a purveyor to define what is right. There was a time when people thought the camp director ought to define what camp was supposed to be. Now, to a great extent, the market defines what camp ought to be, and this will continue and grow. And, if you don't provide it, families will go where they can get it. ACA represents approximately 25 percent of the camps i n t he c ou nt r y — the smallest portion. Seventy-five percent of what camp “is” is being defined outside of ACA. Parents and kids will choose what they need and want, and what is right for them — just because a parent, grandparent, or sibling went to a certain camp doesn't guarantee that they will choose it. This is different than a generation ago. The market is trumping tradition. People are defining their own identity.

So, the camp community must address the new consumerism?

Parents are very comfortable saying, “This is what I think, what I want, and what I need for myself or my child.” Let me use newspaper readership as an example. We have a massive decline in newspaper readership yet there is an increase in 24/7 news channels and the Internet. It's not that there is less journalism, but people are defining when and how they want to get the news they want. We have an increase in consumer and individual definition and determination about what they are going to engage in and use.

People have the ability, through social networking, to create their own news and buzz about a camp completely outside of the camp's process. Camps no longer control their own message — they can influence their message, but not control it. At best, ACA has 25 percent of what is presented to people as a camp product option. So camps are essentially trying to define themselves with a market that is defining what they are. Providers do have to define what they are, but they also have to understand the force of the market. As long as there is a market out there to consume, a market big enough to allow somebody/ anybody to create a competitive product, the market will influence what happens.

How does the market influence the future of ACA and camps?

The marketplace doesn't care about the future of organizations. Markets live on a premise of creative destruction, as coined by Joseph Schumpeter (Schumpeter 1943). For awhile, you might get the equivalent of short-term monopoly and influence. But, as innovation emerges and attracts investors and markets, they challenge the way of doing things. Camps need to think about what they are preserving. There are some things we don't, and can't, preserve anymore. You can't take a hike in the Rockies and assume the water is pure enough to drink. You better be prepared to treat the water for safety. The idea that we can drink out of the mountain stream may be gone, but it doesn't mean we can't drink the water — we just have to do something between the stream and our consumption.

The challenge for this industry then becomes the capacity to adapt, because organisms that don't adapt eventually diminish and die. There are some camps that will live in a near-death state for several generations. There will be micro markets and economic circumstances where they don't have to generate a great deal of money — and they'll make it. But, if you want to influence the public about camp and what it means, you can't stay at 25 percent of the product market, which means camps must adapt and be open to more diversity.

One of the marks of an industry at the end of its cycle is that it has more energy tied up in protecting itself then in creating itself. The challenge ACA must address is adaptability — figure out who the viable partners are, who they include, and what is a camp. The risk is to do it too narrowly. What people need are benefits. They use, consume, and support a product because its benefits are what they need. If the features of the product do not align closely enough with the benefits, the marketplace today is more likely to create a product that does.

The challenge to a camp that believes in preservation is to understand what needs to be preserved, but not at the price of being unwilling to adapt. If a camp doesn't adapt — in a marketplace that has an expanding base of product and the capacity to tailor product to meet the needs of the consumer — it risks having less influence and definition about what camp is. This doesn't mean that it dies, but it becomes a specialty product with diminished influence. If a camp believes it genuinely knows something about the development of children, that it has something to offer parents, families, governments, and society, it can't be isolated — it has to become “part of” it, the broader society that is already here.

Can our camps meet these challenges and still embrace their traditions?

If you are 25 percent of an industry in a country that is already diverse and where the consumer increasingly defines what they want, it is much tougher. Why go to a camp that doesn't offer what the consumer wants? That's not to say that some people don't want an individual camp. But, camps need to celebrate what camping is — those relationships among kids and young adults in their formative ages, when they are working on who they are as a person, exploring interests, and creating relationships that are new to them. Camp is another building block for children to grow and mature using play and fun and interesting activities.

The risk is when we try to say what camp is not. It's not traditional vs. specialty or day vs. resident camp. Camps must define the essence of the experience to the marketplace — what we know is so important and what children and parents know is so important — the opportunity to be away from home . . . for a day or overnight, to enjoy activities you like or learn new ones, to take risks, to build relationships with kids you may not know, to participate in an environment that is safe. It doesn't matter whether it's chef camp or canoeing. The goal is for kids to have nurturing and expanding experiences, particularly with young adults with whom they can create connection.

How does an association that is 100 years old help our camps meet these challenges?

By being adaptive. By not defining who's out and who's in. By figuring out how to articulate what camp really means. And by grasping that ACA camps are not defining the industry, they are only a component of it.

Adaptability requires capacity building. ACA's value is as a resource for camps — helping them understand the adaptations an industry must navigate to succeed — as a forum for ideas to be thought about, massaged, experimented, and tested; a vehicle that aggregates the diversity of camps for cross learning, advocacy, and as a resource for families and children. ACA needs a set of capacities that are aligned with this century — from social networking to understanding how a very diverse society gets its resources for children and families . . . and how those are funded and supported.

How are other associations facing these challenges?

We are in a fascinating transition in our society, and a number of associations are struggling with these issues. As industries navigate transitions, their associations do, as well — trying to figure out what that future is and how to respond. Associations don't want to be caught in a bifurcation with an industry as it was and industry as it's forming with friction between the two groups.

Are you saying that within our association, we have camps as they were and camps as they are forming and there is friction between the two groups?

Yes! There is inevitable friction. Associations in periods of significant transition are caught with pressure groups that resist change, where the real requirement is to go experiment with change. Now, not all the changes will work, many don't go anywhere. In the associations that are attempting to move to experimentation, or where market forces are requiring transitions , you see more adaptation or a tendency to adapt.

The challenge for the nonprofit associations is that they have to celebrate the future they can anticipate but not predict, as opposed to celebrating a past that is no longer with us. We have to celebrate the possibility of what might be, knowing that we will make many mistakes and will screw a lot of stuff up. But we live today going forward; we don't live today going backward.

There are camps, businesses, children agencies, or museums that while alive, are functionally dead . We've been there, and they feel dead. So what we have to do is move forward being alive. The challenge ACA faces is how to work with an industry that is the smallest segment of the product line — in a much larger market and society that is very diverse — with a marketplace that is defining camp based on its needs. How do you go forward adapting? By being clear about what camp is — not what the trappings of camp are.

In terms of business in the U.S., the lines between the private and public sector are becoming increasingly blurred. How do you see these impacting camps?

Good is not solely owned by nonprofit, and bad is not solely owned by businesses. You can find good and bad in both. I see for-profits, including camps, with extraordinary virtue, and there are nonprofits, including camps, where I question if they have virtue. And as others have said, when you are critically ill in an ambulance in route to a hospital you don't ask if it is a nonprofit or forprofit, you ask if it is the right place for you to get well. It's very clear to me that the blurring is there, although we don't know how to fully define it. And, I'm less worried about defining it than letting it evolve. What I think will be most critical for any business, for-profit or nonprofit, is if it cares more about itself than its customers, then it eventually is in trouble. When Jim Collin's wrote his book Built to Last, one of the things he found is that companies that were built to last never had a mission to maximize shareholder value, the mission was always about a much bigger idea of greater importance. When we go through this transition, whether for profit or nonprofit, the critical thing to navigate is to assure you ultimately care about your customer or beneficiary. That's what creates the value that generates your support.

I think on the whole camps do this very well — they are caring for people.

What final message would you like to share with Camping Magazine readers?

The real message is that the camp experience is individual to the child, family, and the staff person — it is meaningful, definitional, truly worthwhile, and highly personal. Camps have this remarkable core capacity to create year after year a quality product that is unique to individual children. It's the ultimate performance art — never precisely the same — but always consistent in quality year after year.

I urge camps and ACA to avoid being trapped by the definition of camp or by its activities, location, facilities, or number of days. If you do that, you run the risk of not effectively communicating to the public that camp is an extraordinary resource for kids. It is a place to find deep meaning and joy as your world expands before you. It is a place to learn who you are and find out what it means to make friends you didn't have before and develop mentoring relationships with young adults. It's a time in your life for independence from your family. It is an opportunity to experience and explore the diverse tapestry of society. It's a place to find yourself, experience joy, have disagreements, work through conflicts, and solve problems. This is what camp is, and it happens while you swim, sail, hike, play soccer, ride a horse, make art, or act in a play. These activities are just the vehicles for children to engage with one another and with young adults that help them learn and grow and become successful adults.

Camps need to be aligned as a movement, not as solely focused on being an industry, and I worry that we are not embracing this crucial concept. When we advocate for a movement, we are part of the Big Idea and the value for campers and families is maximized. When we expand our focus from the business of camp and market share, we can concentrate on the importance of a movement that encourages the camp experience for all children. With a consumer base of devoted advocates, marketing and sales won't be approached in the same way. ACA's 20/20 Vision is about creating greater impact for camp — more kids and their families experience the value of the camp experience, and then in their own social network they become camp advocates. It's this advocacy that will become the compelling force to grow camp participation and engagement in the diverse world in which we are living.

Reference
Schumpeter, J.A. (1976). Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. George Allen & Unwin Publishers Ltd.

Originally published in the 2010 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.

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