Mitigating Risk of a Risky Grant

By Aaron Saxe

“It’s an incubator. All of it is a risk.”
Michele Friedman, Foundation for Jewish Camp, Director of New Camp Initiatives

When the Jim Joseph Foundation made a $10 million grant to the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) in 2007 to launch the Specialty Camp Incubator, the field of Jewish camping was in a vastly different place than it is today. Jewish specialty camping was in its infancy, with only a smattering of specialty programs embedded in traditional Jewish overnight camps. While incubators were becoming a popular method to kick-start new ventures both in and out of the Jewish world, incubating a cohort of new camps was new to the field of camping writ large, let alone to FJC.

As a new foundation just beginning its relationship with FJC, the Jim Joseph Foundation challenged FJC for a “bold idea.” With a goal of increasing the number of children attending Jewish overnight camp, especially from new markets, and seeing the growing popularity of both incubators and secular specialty camps, FJC had its idea – the Specialty Camp Incubator. Launching five new Jewish specialty camps just two years later – through the still unfamiliar incubator process – was bold. It was big. It was risky. Nine years later, this grant remains one of the riskiest grants the Foundation has made.

Yet, by all accounts, Incubator I and Incubator II were, and continue to be, an overwhelming success. Nine camps were launched. Over 5,000 campers, and counting, have been reached. Enrollment increases summer after summer. Camps attract new campers instead of cannibalizing existing Jewish camps, and retain campers in Jewish camping for longer periods of times. Much of this success can be attributed to a few key decisions made during Incubators I and II, which effectively mitigated the risk of an inherently risky grant, including:

Prioritization of Data:

As with nearly all Foundation grants, evaluation and data collection were integral parts of the early work of the Incubator. They remain a valuable tool to understand where camps are succeeding and where additional work is needed. In 2008, FJC retained Informing Change to conduct a formative and summative evaluation of the Incubator. Informing Change also evaluated Incubator II and will evaluate Incubator III (the importance of continuity is discussed later). Prioritizing data collection benefited the Incubator in a few meaningful ways:

  • Strengthened the Incubator: the early evaluation work focused on the Incubator model itself, allowing the Incubator team to continually strengthen and refine its approach.
  • Helped camps focus their work: the evaluation explored the operational specifics of each camp, providing customized data to inform individual decisions.
  • Confirmed that the goals and outcomes were being met: Among many positive findings, data showed that enrollment grew 138% from the first to fourth summer, camper retention was over 50%, more than 90% of campers and parents recommended camp to a friend, and camps generated positive changes in camper’s attitudes, knowledge, and behaviors about Jewish life.
  • Assisted fundraising: having a proven model that effectively met its goals and outcomes helped fundraise both at the national level – The AVI CHAI Foundation provided funding for Incubators II and III – and at the local level for each individual camp.

Continuity of Staff:

Almost unheard of today, the Incubator team has remained completely intact since the program began in 2007. Michele Friedman is the Program Director, Jay Frankel is the Field Operations Director, Adam Weiss is the Financial Consultant, and Michelle Shapiro Abraham is the Jewish Education Consultant. Informing Change is the evaluator. In fact, the only turnover has been here at the Jim Joseph Foundation! Nine years of continuity has afforded the Incubator a great opportunity to mitigate risk along the way. Staff continuity results in deep knowledge about how each individual operates in the workplace. Trust is built. Strengths and personalities are known with responsibilities tailored accordingly. Learning curves reduce. Institutional knowledge remains. Past experience informs future decisions. Mistakes are not repeated. And challenges and changes that occur throughout the grant period are more easily overcome.

Sure, organizations can manage staff turnover. The Incubator would have too. However, over time, the Incubator became a less risky proposition because of the continuous, dedicated, and expert staff.

Staying Flexible:

Despite the proven record of success, the Incubator team did not rest on its laurels. This was not only because of its never-satisfied mentality, but also because it recognized that in an ever-changing field, it needed to change its approach over time too. For example, initially the Incubator team created the program design and drafted curriculum; each camp then proceeded through the process in roughly the same way. However, the Incubator team quickly realized that each camp and its director is unique, bringing different strengths and requiring different support. It adjusted its approach accordingly to assist directors through the process in a way that made sense to them and their needs. This played out in numerous ways over the course of the Incubator. A few examples include:

  • At the cohort level, Incubator I directors brought more of a Jewish education background and required more support in launching and operating a business. Incubator II directors had the opposite background and need.
  • Some camps had challenges with site identification and lease negotiations. Some struggled with board development and fundraising. Others still with Jewish programming. The Incubator team offered fully customized support based on each unique need.
  • Incubator II initially employed two seasoned camp directors to serve as mentors for the Incubator camps. The Incubator team quickly added two more, recognizing the need for a one on one match to best serve the director and the camp’s specialty.

What works one day might not work the next. What works for one camp director might not be what another one needs. It would have been easy to recognize the early success and put the Incubator into autopilot. Yet this would have made the Incubator model a riskier proposition as the field evolved and new challenges emerged.

Big risks can lead to significant outcomes – either negative or positive. The Specialty Camp Incubator undoubtedly is the latter. Critically, acknowledging these risks at the beginning of a grant helps funders and grantees mitigate them and increases the likelihood of a positive outcome.

Aaron Saxe is a Program Officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation.