Expanding the Field of Jewish Camping, One Sustainable Program At A Time

By Dan Perla

Sustainable programs have become the Holy Grail of the foundation world. As a former program officer at the AVI CHAI Foundation, nothing excited me more than the prospect of funding a program which could eventually sustain itself. Unfortunately, I often found the goal of sustainable funding an elusive one. Long term program sustainability usually requires a funder partnership and longer term funding succession plan. Funding partnerships are difficult to establish and maintain. Funding succession plans are nearly impossible to implement. The Foundation for Jewish Camp’s (FJC) One Happy Camper (OHC) program has achieved both and appears to be the rare example of a program which is truly sustainable.

When I joined FJC at the beginning of December, I thought I knew something about OHC, a program that provided a grant of up to $1,000 as an incentive for a family to send their child to a Jewish camp for the first time. I knew that this one time, need-blind incentive had helped stimulate a dramatic increase in the number of children attending Jewish camp each summer and was a factor in the transformation and expansion for the field of Jewish camping.

What I didn’t know about OHC was just as dramatic. Achieving this type of field expansion required not only a funding partnership but also a very intentional funding succession plan. In the early years of the program, the majority of grants were funded through the generosity of an anonymous donor and select community partners, typically Jewish federations or foundations. Today, the majority of the approximately 7,000 grants annually are funded by 38 community partners, 16 of whom fully self-fund the program. Funding for One Happy Camper is also provided by the camps themselves; 30 camps and 4 major camping movements who now self-fund the entire cost of the OHC program. Seth Cohen, FJC’s Director of Field Expansion, estimates that communal or camp funding will represent 78% of the total cost of the OHC program and expects growth to 100% by 2020 – program with a clear funding succession plan in place. Once the funds provided by the program’s anonymous donor run out, the program can be sustained through community partners and camps themselves. These constituencies and their respective donors are willing to invest resources in the OHC program because the program has brought new families into Jewish camps, touting an overall enrollment growth has been 18% since the program’s inception. FJC’s research suggests that the overwhelming majority of these OHC campers return to camp after their first summer, the majority as full tuition-paying campers.

For families who cannot afford full camp tuition but would not typically qualify for scholarship or are uncomfortable disclosing personal financial information, FJC launched BunkConnect™. Through BunkConnect™, Jewish overnight camps have the opportunity to fill available beds by offering first-time, income-eligible families a 40%-60% discount for one or two summers. The program hopes to make camp more affordable while demonstrating to camps the opportunities to increase their overall revenues. The theory behind BunkConnect™ is similar to the theory behind many of the middle income cap programs that Jewish day schools have begun to embrace. With little marginal cost associated with an additional student or camper, schools and camps would be shortsighted to ignore families who aren’t able to pay full tuition but are able to pay a meaningful level of tuition. These families can broadly be defined as middle income, a group that by some definitions represents the middle third of the income-earning Jewish population.

BunkConnect™, currently in a national pilot hopes to enroll at least 500 new Jewish campers in the summer of 2015. Even at that level, BunkConnect™ will only be scratching the surface on the potential for enrollment growth in Jewish camping. FJC’s recently released strategic plan calls for an increase of 25% in the Jewish camping population by 2020, giving us the opportunity to actively explore various financial programs that have the potential to significantly increase camper enrollment. We plan to take a deeper dive into the middle income waters to develop other innovative programs through BunkConnect™ or new initiatives, to drive the middle third of the Jewish community toward Jewish camp. We are currently exploring the possibility of a nationally based camper loan program and are in the early stages of exploring what a centralized scholarship program might look like. Since continued increases in camper enrollment will put pressure on camps to expand or renovate their existing facilities, we are actively engaged in discussion on how to sustain the AVI CHAI free loan program to support the camps.

While the goal of ensuring that these and other future programs are truly sustainable may largely be an aspirational one, once in while an aspirational goal becomes a realistic one. FJC will continue to search for that Holy Grail, one happy camper at a time.

Dan Perla is VP Program & Strategy at Foundation for Jewish Camp.