On playing by the campground rules

Santa Fe Springs, CA—2001

I sat at the front desk and covered the phones while I waited for the rest of the office staff to come in. I answered the incoming calls, but on this day instead of clients I heard from my coworkers one by one calling to let us know why they would be out for the day. Shipping, HR, accounting, reception— everybody was going to be out. Everybody. Like a bad sitcom with a low casting budget, I was all alone in the office.

A big credit report was due to the bank by 11:00 a.m., so there wasn’t much time to get everything done. I put the phones on night service and ran back to the accounting office to get the report, deposit, and credit memos ready to go. Today I had to wear all the hats, and I was mildly terrified.

One of my first “real jobs” had been as a temp receptionist at a small family business in California. I worked there all through my undergraduate years. During my time there I filled the shoes of many people in the office as they took family leave or maternity leave, or went on to do other things. It was an important learning experience, and I soaked it up, bit by bit, grateful to have a flexible job that incorporated training. By the time I left the company I had learned how to work practically every position, and we had seen so much turnover that I wound up crafting training manuals for each job. I think it was my time here that piqued my interest in organizational systems and how they work.

For me, young and inexperienced, days like that were like baptism by fire. While I still had a lot to learn about the nuances of being a good colleague, I gradually learned to play by the campground rules. Credit to Dan Savage for educating me about that: typically used referentially to dating, playing by the “campground rules” implies that you will leave the person (or campsite) in the same or better condition than you found them in.

Since then I’ve tried, at least as much as possible, to follow this guideline when it comes to work. It’s a relatively simple mantra but requires a little objectivity when it comes to the job itself. In principle it sounds like a no-brainer. But in practice, it means at times I’ve worked my way out of positions. For example: I’ve helped nonprofits close their doors because their mission was successfully served and the purpose of that organization had ended.


I think that following this mantra results in employees working more mindfully. It reduces the liability if something happens to that employee and helps whoever has to step in. Call it a workplace equivalent to having an advance directive, or living will. This type of working mentality is standard practice in some industries— food servers often have to complete “side work” before leaving restaurant jobs so that the next shift is fully stocked. It is far less common in small businesses that already struggle with capacity and resources. I think, however, putting this into practice not only reduces the risk of turnover but fosters a sense of care among staff.

In addition to “the campground rules,” I think there are a few more rules that apply to both work and dating:

  • On dating friends and hiring friends: proceed with caution!

  • People want to be appreciated. Don’t take your partners or your colleagues for granted—but do ask them how they would like to appreciated.

  • Deciding on where to go for lunch or dinner is, apparently, very challenging. If you find somebody that can make decisions without waffling, they’re a keeper.

  • Googling a person before hiring or dating them can be an eye-opening experience.

  • Job sharing is . . . complicated.

This post is adapted from It’s Never Going To Work: A Tale of Art and Nonprofits in the Minneapolis Community with illustrations by Athena Currier. Post graphics by Jamie Schumacher. ©2018.

It’s Never Going To Work is a light-hearted, illustrated book that offers real-life insights on founding a community space and nonprofit. It provides tools, tips, resources, and camaraderie to community organizers and anybody attempting something new.