Staying on Track with Thomas & Friends™

By Eric Phelps, Former Director

My three-year-old son Elijah is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine.  (For those of you who don't know - or don't remember - Thomas the Tank Engine is a cheeky stream train engine that gets into a lot of trouble while working with a team of fellow engines and other cars with characteristically British names).  As a result, I've been reading a lot of Thomas books.  And, of course, I've been playing with the Thomas the Tank Engine toys.  These consist of wooden model trains (engines, coal cars, passenger cars, etc.), train tracks of every sort, various towers, bridges, switching stations and carousels, etc.

Recently, Elijah held up the green coal car and said, "Daddy, Daddy - where is Henry?"  I said, "Well, I don't know - but you have his coal tender in your hand.  Why don't you play with that?"  My son then replied, "Noooooo…. Daddy, a coal car's no good without an engine."  I thought for a second and said, "You're right.  And an engine is no good without a coal car."

That night, we read a Thomas book called "A Crack in the Track."  In this story, Thomas offers to help a fellow engine who is "feeling under the weather" by taking his passengers to their destination.  As Thomas sets out on his errand, a storm brings heavy rain and hail, breaking the track and preventing him from getting to the station.  Soon, other trains become backed up behind Thomas.  As they stubbornly refused to turn around and go to a switching station, all of the trains ended up stuck at the crack in the track.  The book ends with the line: "Thomas realized that as strong as he is, an engine is only as good as its track."

As I reflected on these two bits of Thomas the Tank Engine lore, I realized that they could easily describe many nonprofit organizations.  A train (organization) is useless without fuel - in this case, coal in the coupled tender car (financial resources and human capital).  But neither train nor coal car is any good if the track (strategic plan) is broken or leads you in the wrong direction.  In other words, you can raise all the money you want, but without a good engineer (strong leadership), forward momentum and a clear purpose, the resources are burned up without moving the organization forward.

Early in JCamp 180's work with camps, we recognized that it was important to not only provide "fuel," but also a clear destination and the organizational infrastructure to effectively light the fires and keep them burning.  Some camps were able to easily fill their coffers with their fundraising efforts.  But a few of these same camps didn't always have strong engineers, a well-oiled engine or a clear destination.  So we worked to strengthen the organizations' lay leadership with governance training and counsel, and helped them create a strong strategic plan to define a well-mapped path.  We also added technology tools to increase efficiency, improve traction and speed and keep clear the communication among the entire crew.  We needed to - and continue to - help our affiliate organizations manage the "cracks in their tracks" and the detours that they inevitably encounter along the way.

When camp directors and board members question why we spend so much time working on areas that do not seem to directly drive fundraising, I have a common response.  I say, "If money can fix it, it's not the problem."  Their puzzled look is often followed by a request for additional clarification (as everyone knows that you can do a LOT more with money than without it).  I remind them that numerous systemic problems remain unresolved despite massive amounts of money and resources.  There are many examples of this throughout public service, the Jewish community, and even among Jewish overnight camps.  The reason  is that a coal car is no good without an engine and an engine is no good without a coal car.  Neither the train nor the cars are any use without a sure track which takes them to their desired destination.  But if all of those things are working effectively in tandem and the organization is on track, it has the momentum of a freight train.  If you don't believe me, just ask a three year old.