COVID Camp Crisis: How Relationships, Transparency and Bold Action Saved Ramah New England


By Rabbi Ed Gelb and Rhonda Parker

The COVID-19 pandemic caused an economic crisis for Jewish not-for-profit summer camps across North America. Several factors made this past spring especially challenging. We didn’t know whether government authorities would authorize camps to open, camps could open safely, or parents would feel comfortable sending their children to camp. As a consequence, through the spring, Ramah’s leadership pursued three tracks concurrently: we planned for our camps to open; we provided robust virtual programming to support our campers and their families; and we planned for our camps to close and for an emergency fundraising campaign to secure Ramah’s survival.

Ramah New England (Ramah) operates two camps: an overnight camp for 900 children in Palmer, MA, and a day camp for 300 children in Germantown, MD. Like many organizations that operate camps, ours is a year-round operation. Our organization spends roughly half of its $6M annual budget whether or not we open our camps in the summer; this $3M in expenses covers fixed costs (such as utilities, maintenance, insurance and debt service) and salaries and benefits for staff members who plan for the summer season and run programs for our campers and their families throughout the year. For our organization, this meant that by late spring, we had already spent about $2.8M.

Now, two months after we made the decision to close our camps, we reflect on the key decisions that resulted in a successful fundraising campaign to stabilize Ramah’s finances:

1.               Transparency about Ramahs decision-making process and the financial impact of closing our camps was essential:

Early in the crisis, we committed to providing Ramah’s 800 camp families and its other stakeholders with detailed information about how we would decide whether to open our camps. At regular intervals, we explained that we would be evaluating federal and state guidelines and guidance from our own medical committee and the medical committee of the National Ramah Commission (NRC). Early on, we also told families that we would offer to refund their tuition payments in the event that our camps didn’t open.

We realized that many Ramah stakeholders didn’t understand the full scope of our year-round work and our fixed costs. Thus, as part of our drive for complete transparency, we explained our financial model and the severe impact on our finances if our camps couldn’t open. We didn’t shy away from saying that Ramah would face an existential financial threat if our camps couldn’t open.

2.               Launching our emergency fundraising campaign early secured essential support and provided momentum for the parent campaign:

Given our deep uncertainty about whether we would be able to open our camps and when we would be able to make this decision, we struggled with when and how to launch an emergency fundraising campaign.

The Harold Grinspoon Foundation (HGF) and its JCamp180 program provided early leadership and guidance. In late March, HGF announced that it was committing up to $10M to Jewish overnight camps affiliated through its JCamp180 program. In our case, HGF committed to match up to $204,000 in donations. Harold’s early and bold leadership spurred us to action and ultimately motivated hundreds of camp families to give generously.

Through most of April, we hesitated to launch our emergency campaign, fearing that donors would not make philanthropic commitments before we had decided whether to open our camps. The JCamp180 consultants advised us to move quickly to secure gifts from our largest and most loyal donors. They reasoned that funding would dry up if we delayed too long. Rhonda Parker, our Development Director, and Phyllis Lavine, our Board’s Vice President for Development, strongly urged us to move quickly to launch a conditional campaign – that is, a campaign to seek significant philanthropic commitments in the event that our camps couldn’t open.

In late April and early May, we virtually convened our board members and the members of our Ahava Society (donors of $1,800 or more). To provide transparency and clarity about our finances, Stuart Katz, our President, provided a detailed financial report. The materials, which had been prepared by Ed Pletman, our Director of Finance and Operations, and Neil Kuttner, our Treasurer, explained our likely cash flow and budget deficit and the availability of reserve funds and possible additional loans. We announced that our year-round staff would experience layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts, even specifying the percentage of our CEO’s pay cut. We explained that Ramah needed an absolute minimum of $1.3M in philanthropy to survive the closing of our camps – and that we needed them to stretch to help us reach this goal.

Our board members and donors immediately conveyed their appreciation for our transparency and their desire to provide their support. We quickly began to contact each of them to secure conditional commitments. Within three weeks, they made generous commitments totaling almost $800,000, which exceeded our expectations. We then increased our total campaign goal to $1.75M to significantly reduce the need for loans and to put Ramah on a more secure financial footing.

3.               Our decision to ask families to donate their tuition payments was central to the success of the parent campaign:

By May, we had received $3.1M in tuition payments, roughly half of what families would owe for camp. Our COVID-19 crisis task force, under the leadership of Stuart Katz, examined all aspects of our operations and finances, including the cash flow that would be needed to provide our families with tuition refunds while maintaining enough cash to operate our organization for the next 12-15 months. This analysis indicated that it would not be sufficient for our families to apply their 2020 tuition payments to the 2021 camp season, which would essentially be borrowing 2021 tuition payments to cover 2020’s expenses; we would need for our camp families to donate a significant portion of their tuition payments.  

Our decision to provide parents with a single option to donate tuition payments rather than to provide two options – to donate tuition and/or apply tuition to 2021 – proved to be the most important we made. Most camps were providing donation and “roll over” options. Rolling over tuitions is helpful for short term cash flow but does not reduce the underlying deficit. We knew that parents would want to help, but we were worried that we would come up short on fundraising if we were not clear on our need for donations. Despite our concern that this strategy might reduce the total amount that families were willing to leave with Ramah, we felt this was the best strategy to address our financial challenges.

In the weeks leading up to the announcement on May 20 that we wouldn’t be able to open our camps, it was difficult to predict how much families would be willing to donate, given the unprecedented nature of the crisis. Our best guess was that they would donate about $350,000, or about 11% of what had been paid, which would not be nearly enough to meet our financial needs.

To encourage our families to donate generously, we took several important steps in the weeks leading up to this announcement:

·       We put together a $500,000 matching pool. In addition to the lead commitment from HGF, our board members and two lead donors made generous commitments that enlarged the pool. 

·       The NRC, led by Rabbi Mitch Cohen and Amy Skopp Cooper, helped us to develop an online form that would make it easy for families to see their tuition payments, choose their donation and refund amounts, and register for 2021 – and would make it easy to track the results.

·       We organized a team of board members, volunteers and staff members to call all of our 800 camp families within a few days of the cancellation announcement.

4.      The Decision to Close  and Its Implementation:

In May, as we awaited guidance from the states in which we operate, our partners at NRC and in the broader Ramah movement were instrumental to our decision-making. The CDC’s draft guidelines and the deep concerns of our local and national medical committees caused us to conclude that our camps, if allowed to open, would be unrecognizable and would pose unacceptable safety risks. The timing of our May 20 decision to close balanced a desire to exhaust all options to open with the timelines of our fellow Ramah and other New England camps. It turns out that in early July, the Massachusetts governor announced that there would be no residential camping this summer.  

Our senior professional team met frequently to develop the plan to announce our decision, support our community, and raise the necessary donations. We carefully crafted our announcement and planned two virtual town hall meetings to transparently explain how we had come to our decision, why the financial support of our families was necessary, and how families could choose their donation and refund amounts.

We then began calling our families. Our families expressed tremendous love for camp and gratitude for what camp had provided for their children. We heard over and over again how critical Ramah was to our families and how our recent virtual programs made a huge difference in a time of deep disruption. Our camp families donated approximately $850,000 of their tuition payments. These donations, plus other donations from our 2020 families, yielded over $1M, far exceeding our initial estimate. An astonishing 82% of camp families gave to the emergency campaign. Additionally, 600 overnight campers and 180 day campers indicated that they want to return in summer 2021. We were able to wrap up our parent campaign on schedule and have already provided refunds.

5.      We learned important lessons through our emergency campaign:

Our emergency fundraising campaign has now raised close to $2M. We at Ramah are grateful for the tremendous love and affection of our families, alumni and other stakeholders, who stood with Ramah at this time of great urgency. Through their extraordinary generosity, our initial projected budget deficit of well over $1M has been lowered to approximately $200,000 to $300,000 and we now have a solid financial base for the future.

There are important lessons that we learned – and learned again – through this process:

·       Provide consistent, frequent and detailed communications about your financial situation, which will generate confidence and lead to support. Don’t assume that your stakeholders understand your financial situation; provide clear explanations of your finances and your case for support, including the need for families to convert their tuition payments to donations.

·       Be bold! Your mission is important and deserves your stakeholders’ investment. And nothing will substitute for asking your donors, camp families and other stakeholders individually for their support.

·       Always remember to build and nurture long-term relationships with your key stakeholders, and especially camp families that value the camp experience.

·       It takes the whole team of professionals and lay leaders to work together to make key decisions and implement them.

·       The support of allies and partners, like HGF/JCamp180 and the NRC, is essential to the success of urgent fundraising efforts.

Rabbi Ed Gelb is CEO, Ramah New England.
Rhonda Parker is Development Director, Ramah New England.