Q&A with Camp Fire CEO Greg Zweber

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Camp Fire has been an inclusive, innovative leader in youth development since 1910. We chatted with CEO Greg Zweber to hear more about how the organization continues to support America’s youth.

What makes Camp Fire different than other organizations working to cultivate and foster healthy habits and positive experiences/mindsets for the youth?

Inclusion. Nature. Life skills. No matter the program or age, these are the three core areas that we focus on to give kids/teens the opportunity to thrive, and where we’ve built our organizational expertise since our start in 1910.

Kids and teens are more lonely, anxious, and worried than ever before. Suicide rates are soaring. Youth are hungry for real, authentic connections to others. Cultivating an environment where everyone is welcome and can feel a sense of belonging, led by trained, caring adults… these are powerful elements to bring into a young person’s life. The power of nature is a powerful antidote to the anxiety brought on by the constant slog of technology. These are the scenarios in which new learning and self-discovery can happen, and we give kids/teens the chance to thrive that they might not have had otherwise.

You have extensive experience with Big Brother Big Sisters of America. What are some valuable things you carry with you from your time there to Camp Fire?

Everything comes down to relationships. From the perspective of serving kids, while BBBS is 1:1 mentoring, youth development and empowerment is important no matter how you deliver the program. With Camp Fire, there is power in the group setting where that one consistent, caring adult (whether a camp counselor, volunteer, or staff member) invests in them and helps them find their spark.

From a national office perspective to serving the affiliate network, it’s the valuable fact that the affiliates (Camp Fire calls them councils) are our customers. And while we can make strides and help the collective network in areas like marketing, training, etc., the real progress, problem-solving, and growth is accomplished through those personal relationships with staff at the councils.

I’ve also learned that you can’t take for granted all the people who help carry out your mission – staff, volunteers, donors, board members. It is essential to take the time to acknowledge and thank them. Recognition and stewardship help make the work possible.

How does Camp Fire work to maintain and evolve its brand? What are spaces for Camp Fire to grow from a program and corporate perspective?

Many remember us as Camp Fire Girls (the first nonsectarian, multiracial, multicultural organization in the U.S.) or Camp Fire Boys & Girls (we became co-ed in the 70s), or Camp Fire USA. Since we’ve been operating since 1910, we have an extremely rich legacy with several different rebrands and logos under our belt. But as you know, a brand is more than a logo. As we’ve evolved, we’ve tried to uphold our values and always ask ourselves, what does it mean to best serve today’s youth and families?

One key brand component is our inclusion statement, which we expanded in 1993 to include sexual orientation. We’re revisiting it again now and looking at important pieces to add in like gender, identity, ability, disabilities, to stress the importance that we’re open to all youth.

We currently have some very generous grants from the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies (MACP) Foundation and the New York Life Foundation that have allowed us to invest in program expansion for youth who identify as LGBTQ+, youth with disabilities, youth from underserved communities. These grants also help us address racial equity and support middle school youth in the transition to high school. This work ties into our values and allow us to continue to evolve and expand our services and support to all youth.

From a corporate perspective, we’ve been focusing on expanding our national corporate partnerships across different sectors and are also exploring cause marketing opportunities. We’ve had two partnerships this year with Disney/20thCentury’s The Call of the Wildand Amazon Studios’ Troop Zero, and last year with a Warner Bros. film. Our goal is to continue to find the right partners who want to invest in the next generation and the future workforce, and really make lasting societal impact.

Last time, we spoke with your predecessor about how Camp Fire plays a role in today’s sometimes divisive environment. Can you speak about that? How does Camp Fire approach hard topics that need to be addressed with kids such as mental health and embracing diversity?

It starts with us. We believe the solution to addressing a divisive environment is creating the opposite – an inclusive and welcoming environment in all our programs that embraces diversity. And then really living that out as an organizational value.

Along with the program initiatives I just mentioned from MACP and NYL, we received generous support from the SD Bechtel Jr. Foundation for our national office to work experts on where we are and need to go around diversity, equity, and inclusion.

It also comes down to training for councils and staff. Because developmental relationships are so crucial for a young person to succeed, having highly trained, caring staff is paramount.Then, we oftenaddress hard topics with kids directly through programs (or have programs that facilitate the hard conversations, like our Conflict Resolution curriculum). It’s also important for us as a national organization to normalize important topics like mental health and talk about it on a regular basis as a part of our brand strategy (see blog How to Have a Hard Conversation).

With as much turmoil as youth are feeling and facing every day, it’s a reality that is unavoidable and impacts all of us. That’s why the work we do is so important – creating safe spaces, teaching life skills, building connections, getting youth outside. Those simple things can truly change a young person’s life, trajectory, and opportunity for success.

Interbrand is very excited to be able to spread the message about Absolutely Incredible Kid Day®.  Can you tell us about the history and impact of the event, and some of the responses people have to it?

Plain and simple, the goal of #KidDay is for adults to write/tell kids (in any way) why they are incredible. Camp Fire founded the holiday in 1997 and it’s celebrated every year on the third Thursday in March.

#AIKD has seen some impressive traction over the past 24 years, with endorsements and participation from Oprah, former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Pro Football Hall of Fame Inductee Jerry Rice, U.S. Astronaut and former Senator John Glenn, Reba McEntire, Lisa Loeb, Cindy Crawford, and more. The past few years have brought on participants from the entertainment and film industry, and dozens of social media influencers and celebrities like Jonathan Bennett. We also love it because it gives us the chance to partner with other notable youth organizations and companies like you, InterbrandHealth, who make kids a priority.

There are numerous events across the country but the digital #KidDay campaign happening this week reaches millions of people. It’s exciting to see it grow every year, and most of all, to know that it’s a movement that is leading people to speak encouragement into kids’ lives: “I see you. You matter. Here’s why…” And especially knowing how lonely, isolated, sad, or anxious many of our young people are today – you never know the difference something like that can make. It’s free, easy, and powerful, and a way we can all make a difference right now.

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