Michael McCann
Michael McCann

Small activity departments and/or, rural communities with low budgets and small occupancy face numerous unique issues that impact them daily. These activity professionals have a special mission in providing “Cadillac” programming on a “scooter” budget. Here we will identify some of the issues and blessings facing these departments and organizations.

Activity department and personnel within small communities help to tackle budget and resource issues, typically while operating on a shoestring budget. If we were to list some of the issues facing small communities in rural areas, they would include: declining downtowns and incompatible development in historic areas, leading to loss of community character.

Slow growth

Many people who grow up in these communities remember various businesses and recreation opportunities, such as bowling, skating and arcades. In many towns, these institutions have closed down due to small populations unable to sustain them. These communities face slow growth, which in turn impacts hiring qualified and experienced personal which then ultimately impacts budget and occupancy. These communities basically hold on to their budgets tightly causing activity departments to be undermanned and way behind in technology and resources.

Concurrently, there is opposition to change. In smaller communities, the management team is barely holding onto the budget goals they have. This prevents them in taking chances, trying new marketing strategies and they are just “stuck in their ways” — afraid of new development as they struggle to maintain the identity of what their community used to be — rather than focusing and planning on what the community could be. This causes undersized and unqualified activity departments, out of date technology and dining spaces, undersized activity space with no room to grow or even no room for future storage.

Invest for success

Why is this important? Well, to dive deep, unfortunately within the industry, a broad brush of thinking is that the activity staff are glorified ball tossers and party planners, unable to be strategic, be upper management or taken seriously as leaders. However, my experience has shown that when a community/organization of any size invests in their activity department with proper staffing ratios, up-to-date technology and budgets for training and hiring the best, these communities separate themselves from the competition and are able to sell a lifestyle with success, driving occupancy thereby providing more resources to our current and future residents.

How do you define a small community? Is an organization’s designation based upon population served? Budget? Staff size? I would suggest it is all of these. Smaller communities tend to have very limited staff, sometimes with only one to two full-time associates. This number may or may not include the executive director. These communities unfortunately depend not on professional recreation people, but on “universal workers” putting individuals with no business leading a group or leading a fitness activity.

These are facilitated by special, trained and schooled individuals, and as much as some execs and administrators want, many of these people are should not be leading a group. For example, if you are paying top dollar for your child to be on a travel baseball team, you not wanting the lawn mower to coach the team (no offense to the art of landscaping). Your expectation is paying top dollar for top, experienced coaching. So why is this mentality not happening in our activity departments? Irregardless of size?

Due to small budgets and occupancy, smaller communities along with their activity departments must be strategic in their planning. With limited resources, capital purchases must address technology advancements as well as make a community impact. Staff at these communities must wear many different hats — it is not out of the norm for the executive director to be involved in tasks such as programming to ensure new initiatives are implemented effectively. This includes assisting the building and grounds departments when they need extra help, often during larger family events such as holiday event set-up, and other community activities.

Get creative

There are several out-of-the-box ways small communities can be creative in their marketing. For many, seasonal pieces are their strongest marketing tools. Beyond that, what can you do? Work with your local non profits and clergy to see if they can pass out collateral to their families. For some, this may be old school thinking, but many families rely on referrals and suggestions from their clergy and organizations that serve them.

Does your local community college have a television studio? If so, they may be willing to partner with your agency to create short promotional videos that can be consumed quickly via social media. Facebook is great for reaching and communicating to families. Need volunteers? What is the most effective way to reach teens? You could meet with the student council at your local high school or junior high school and ask them to help promote your teen-focused, inter-generational events.

Why are we talking about marketing in an article discussing activity teams? Easy. Marketing and Activities must be married to have a full impact on sales and occupancy. Marketing sells the product. Activities is the public relations wing, making that product live and breathe.

Everyone on your team should take part in your agency’s marketing efforts and be constantly working various angles to promote your programs and services. In small communities, competition with other non profits, clubs youth sports etc can be tough. We can’t just roll over and say, “There are too many to compete with.” We need to keep pushing to drive numbers.


Most people who work in the field of senior living do so because they believe in the mission and feel that they are making a difference. A strong sense of desire to positively impact the community  and its residents needs to be in the staff’s heart. The people in a small activity department are very special as they have to be jacks-of-all-trades. They take the care of their residents to heart and are usually very passionate about their mission of the small community, wearing the issues on their sleeve in a noble way. The idea of impacting someone’s life is what drives them.

However, the staff at a small organization are in danger of easily getting frustrated from wearing too many hats, seeing program ideas disintegrate, and by working with limited technology and resources to start or maintain programming and occupancy. And, due to budget limits, staff typically are not paid what they feel they should be. Staff training and development is critical, yet difficult to do with limited budgets. One solution is to find affordable training through your local chamber, library or other online resources. Every activity department should have a NAAP (National Association of Activity Professionals )membership for resources, free webinars and trainings.

Working at a small senior living community has its challenges, but it can be very rewarding. Staff work closely with each other and become a strong team. They become “the guys and gals,” and are recognized by the community for their efforts. The families of small communities are typically very appreciative of the efforts of their personnel, which in turn makes the organization’s staff feel that they are making a difference as they get to know the families and participants they serve. Navigating the challenges of a small community is well worth it when staff is able to experience the impact they make on their communities.

Michael McCann, MS, is a former executive director, former life enrichment director and former president of Chicago-based activity association. He currently provides education workshops for older adults as well as key note and help teaches leadership. He can be contacted at www.mccannspeaing.com or at [email protected].