Our foundation is a public nonprofit organization that focuses on
history, education, and entertainment to create world-class visitor
experiences. We operate lodging, entertainment, and recreation
services in Medora, the gateway community to Theodore Roosevelt
National Park in North Dakota. The primary season is Memorial Day to
Labor Day, plus a week or so on each side. We do 80-plus percent of
our business in three months. You don’t have a whole lot of margin for
being wrong for 40% of the year and catching up. You’ve got a short
period of time.
Twenty-seven years ago, I came to work in Medora at the conclusion of the operating season. That might seem like a strange time, but it was the perfect time because what I did was the most in-depth audit that I could internally. I did it as if I was an outside CPA, but I did it in a way that I wanted to go really deep because I needed to learn a lot. Having done auditing for a few years, I knew how to approach a balance sheet so I could learn about the organization.
I value the ability to understand financials and work with forecasts and projections, especially when you’re in a seasonal environment. You don’t get it right all the time. You’ve got to spend a lot of time because you only have 90 to 94 days for your year.
The primary advantage of having a seasonal workforce is that it’s
like having a new job every year. We have 45 full-time staffers
and each year are served by more than 300 seasonal employees and 500
seasonal volunteers. You get to reinvent yourself every year and see
what worked and what can be done differently and better. There’s a
college campus atmosphere where there’s the energy of young people and
a lot of diversity. The energy of young people and the things they
want to do benefit us. The challenge is to get as many returning
employees as you can—quality, returning employees. We don’t have the
luxury of lots of training time, so there’s a lot of on-the-job
learning that goes on. And then we have the values and the benefits
that the volunteer program has brought us. They’re working right
alongside the young folks.
We’ve never advertised, and we get nearly 1,000 people a year applying to volunteer. The volunteers are there for seven days at a time, and then 24 to 32 new ones will come in. They are busing tables and pouring coffee and taking tickets and being ushers. What happens is, they love being there. They always show up on time. They always are enthusiastic and excited, and they have great work experience.
My wife ran [the volunteer program] for seven or eight years. What she did was survey them every week: What do you like? What would you like to see changed? The first two seasons, she modified the program from week to week. It was just a genuine, “Hey, we’re listening. We’re trying to make the program serve you as well as us” atmosphere. That’s probably the most important thing, and then it’s just a lot of fun for them. Our current volunteer coordinator continues the same process today. It’s like, somebody said, summer camp for seniors.
We’ve built a lodge we call the Spirit of Work Lodge, for
volunteers, by volunteers. As the volunteer program became more
essential to how we do things in Medora, it became clear that there
needed to be a defined space for where they live and do things. They
got involved with the layout and design; and that’s where they stay—a
16-room pad, almost independent living facility, just for
I would say North Dakota’s oil boom had very much a positive impact on our little town. We have a national park in our backyard, and we see a lot of growth of visitation because North Dakota’s population is growing because the economy is healthy. That has brought us new visitors and new customers. Certainly there’s more wealth in the state of North Dakota, and there are people who are generous. They’re helping lots of causes, not just Medora.
—As told to Sheon Ladson Wilson, email@example.com, a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C.