Cathy Tisdale Camp Fire National Headquarters CEO and President

The past, nearly nine years as President and CEO of Camp Fire have been the best—and the hardest—work of my professional life.

I began with an unwavering belief that if Camp Fire rose again to its former prominence and glory, it would have the same profound effect on today’s youth and families as it had for decades past. I embraced the chance to work across the Movement to enact a bold 21st-century vision for an organization rightfully proud of its most deeply held values, an organization with a 100-year commitment to welcoming all kids, from all families, and all walks of life.

No other organization could claim those values in quite the same way. For me, it was a “now more than ever” moment in our society and in every community across America. Though these values were more relevant than ever, families were experiencing radical shifts in their make-up and daily challenges. I recognized it would require contemporary interpretation and execution of our originating ideals if Camp Fire was to regain its place among youth-serving organizations.

By the time I joined Camp Fire, I had served in the social sector for more than 30 years—all of it spent in large, well-known legacy organizations. I understood the challenges inherent in the federated structure. I recognized the complex nature of systemic culture change. I also understood the longstanding financial challenges facing Camp Fire at every level had shaped crucial decisions for good and for ill. Finding the right solutions would be daunting and would not come quickly or easily. Financials are always the last thing to “turn” when an organization is engaged in systemic transformation. They turn only after steadfast resolve has built something enough people want to “buy” repeatedly: something of inherent value. And they turn only after that same resolution has built the capacity to deliver that value over and over and over again.

That said, I was unprepared for how deep the capacity gap really was in every part of the organization, starting with headquarters. The degree to which governance and management inattention—or attention to the wrong things over too many years—had exacerbated the challenge of “making a comeback”. And yet, despite all that, I was blessed from Day One with a deeply committed and dedicated HQ team, a supportive board, and council leaders and alums who never gave up or gave in. And so together, we began this long, hard, often painful, sometimes elusive journey, arriving at a destination today that we can all be proud of. I am sorry to see my part in it come to an end as I retire on April 1. 

As I reflect on my tenure, I am proudest of those achievements that required collective effort, tenacity and mutual trust, even when we couldn’t see to the end of the road with any assurance of success. We so often had to blaze a trail rather than having one to follow.

We experienced two profound game-changers early on, without which I’m not sure we would have made it. First, was the brand repositioning in 2011-2012. We learned how to think of and talk about Camp Fire in new ways. For the first time in a long time, the Movement unified around who and what Camp Fire is today. Most importantly, what makes Camp Fire, Camp Fire now. NOT based on old stories from the past but built upon the needs and dreams of today’s youth and their families. A 21st century interpretation of a 1910 idea. I will forever be indebted to Catherine Lufkin for leading us through nearly two years of brand research and design to arrive at our Promise, brand creative and an energetic new look and feel. Hers is a timeless legacy.

Second, was our work with the Thrive Foundation for Youth beginning in early 2012, resulting in a deep and wide organizational commitment to “the science of thriving” —Thrive{ology}. It became our program framework years before anyone was even talking about Social Emotional Learning (SEL)! There are many at HQ and among our ten Early Innovator councils to thank for that early work. But none more so than Geri Elsen—it was her vision and her drive that brought “the science of thriving” from concept to reality. She too left a timeless legacy.

And here we are today. We can proudly report that we increased youth served by 35% over the past four years. We increased the number of program sites by 17%. Aggregated council income has increased by nearly $3 million. Over $8 million in grant funding from The Thrive Foundation for Youth, New York Life Foundation, the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, and many others provided not only vital funding but validation that we were (and are) leading Camp Fire in the right direction.

As I reflect on the past nine years, I’m confident that our new CEO, Greg Zweber, will find the same inspiration I found daily as I worked with all of you and the youth we are here to serve. Youth will continue to shape the world. We must, and we will continue to give them the voice and the platform to do so and to discover their best, full selves right now.

Always Light the Fire Within,

Cathy Tisdale

Outgoing President and CEO