Risk, Leadership & Resilience: Melanie Herman’s Camp Fire Story

Melanie Lockwood Herman is a risk-taker.

Even as a young Bluebird at Camp Fire North Shore in Massachusetts, she was up for adventure. At first glance, her career as a risk-management leader might not seem to fit with her willingness to take a chance. But Melanie’s love of risk is exactly what makes her perfect for the job. 

“Most imagine that risk professionals are people who promote excessive caution and risk avoidance,” Melanie explains. “Unfortunately, many people who run nonprofits are risk-averse. But what our sector really needs is leaders who are willing to embrace bold risks.” 

Melanie is a Camp Fire alumni, serves on the Camp Fire National Board of Trustees, and is a 12-time (!) honoree on The NonProfit Times’s annual “Power & Influence Top 50” list. As the executive director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center in Leesburg, Virginia, Melanie has spent more than two decades helping leaders of nonprofits “become more comfortable with risk.” 

In order to make progress, Melanie says leaders need to be willing to fail, to stumble, and to make investments that might not immediately pay off. She believes that leaders who are comfortable with risk can guide organizations to achieve their missions. So the organization she leads teaches other leaders how to become risk-aware, confident risk-takers.  

Melanie can trace her own willingness to embrace risk back to her Camp Fire days. 

“Being part of Camp Fire was one of those experiences that gave me a lot of confidence,” Melanie says. “Organizations like Camp Fire are a way for young people to experience adventure, to take risks and explore beyond their boundaries. It certainly was that for me.”

She says her Camp Fire lessons readied her to apply to a college she’d never visited and—when she got in—move to Washington, D.C. site unseen at 18. She studied urban affairs at American University, which led her to jobs in associations of public-service leaders, law school, and finally to her career in nonprofit risk management.

That adventure-filled career path began when Melanie and her younger sister Teresa were Blue Birds and Camp Fire Girls. Her mother was a Camp Fire volunteer, and her father and older sister often joined in family activities, like a kite building and flying contest that is fondly remembered by the members of Melanie’s family. 

“My dad and I built an enormous box kite; my sisters each built quadrilateral kites,” Melanie remembers. “All of our kites were decorated with Camp Fire colors and emblems.”  

Camp Fire’s communal spirit and family involvement were important to Melanie.

“I really appreciated that this wasn’t just an organization where you were dropped off, ” Melanie says. “There was so much emphasis on making it comfortable for families and being inclusive. That quality of Camp Fire is still so strong today—that inclusive focus and emphasis.”

Melanie says leadership was another strong emphasis of her Camp Fire program. 

“I’m not sure the word leadership came up in conversation, but each girl in our club program was expected to identify opportunities to learn and grow,” Melanie remembers. “That really stays with me today: You have to seize the day. You have to look for opportunities to learn, to find your spark, and grow your confidence.”

One of Melanie’s Camp Fire leadership moments has become family legend: In 1976, she and her sister Teresa wrote a letter requesting a Camp Fire group tour of the Parker Brothers factory—addressed to her father, who worked there. The request was approved. 

“My dad saved it,” Melanie laughs, “because it was such a formal letter coming from his two daughters…when I see this letter, it shows a lot of confidence and excitement about being part of this organization.” 

Melanie’s proactive, forward-thinking nature was nurtured by Camp Fire experiences like these. Today, she helps nonprofit leaders learn similar skills. She’s currently coaching leaders as they work through pressing coronavirus concerns, from their teams’ well-being to their organizations’ financial health.

“For years, my team has been preaching and writing about the importance of planning for interruptions and anticipating how things might disrupt your mission or programs,” Melanie says. “But this pandemic has really caught everybody’s attention, and there’s greater recognition now that we might not be able to avoid an event, but we can take steps to survive it more capably and cope with it more effectively.” 

As a board member, she’s been proud of Camp Fire’s organizational ability to thrive under big changes, including quickly adapting to this pandemic’s many challenges. 

“One of the foundations of Camp Fire is to teach young people to be resilient,” Melanie says. “Under Greg Zweber’s leadership, Camp Fire itself has been incredibly resilient. I think he’s been able to make sure the focus stays on helping the councils around the country do great work, serve kids, and be strong and effective.”

That resilience is a key quality she tries to impart to her own clients, and she comes by it honestly. 

“My daughter said to me recently that I’m the most optimistic person she’s ever met,” Melanie laughs. “She teases me a bit about that optimism, but it’s in my DNA—optimism, and excitement about what’s next.”

September 17, 2020