Teaching Philanthropy at Camp

“I would say that participating in the teen philanthropy program has really made me want to give back to the community and help others in the world.”
Camp Philanthropy Program 2012 participant

by Naomi Skop Richter and Stefanie Zelkind

It’s been almost 15 years since the first Jewish teen philanthropy program was created. In the years since, more than 100 synagogues, schools, federations and other Jewish agencies throughout North America have launched programs to educate and engage young people in giving through a Jewish lens. And last summer, Jewish camps joined the mix through the Jewish Teen Funders Network’s “Think Outside the Tzedakah Box” pilot program. Up to 36 camps will join the Camp Philanthropy Program this summer, reaching 1000 more philanthropists-in-training.

In the safe space and immersive context of camp, teens came together to learn about giving as a Jewish value, identify their group’s own funding priorities, visit local nonprofit organizations and review grant proposals. Operating as a “teen foundation board,” made real grants – over $25,000 nationally – to deserving nonprofits, all while engaged in the learning process, challenging each other’s assumptions and working to build consensus. In total, more than 600 teens at 19 camps participated in the program, making grants to 35 organizations they researched, vetted and visited.

Our first impressions? The program seemed like a great success. But there’s always room to improve, so we hired Rosov Consulting to conduct a thorough third-party evaluation of the pilot (see the infographic below for some of their key findings). They solicited input from campers, staff and camp administrators to examine the program from all angles; as a result of their work, we’ll launch the program for Summer 2013 program clear on a few new things:

  1. Campers welcome the opportunity to think about (and visit!) the world outside of camp. Summer camps may seem an unusual place to run this kind of program, with their focus so often on the internal camp experience –  group bonding and safe space – and less about the outside world. But both campers and staff reported that their site visits to local nonprofit organizations were a highlight of the program. Ana Bonnheim, associate camp director of URJ Greene Family Camp, said, “The program encourages campers to think beyond their “bubble” – to remember that Jews do not live in isolation, nor should we. We need to live as responsible members of our communities, living by our values, and we are never too young to step up and do our part.”
  2. To know one summer camp is to know … one summer camp. In launching last year’s pilot program, we set out to create a program that would be easily adaptable to different camp cultures and schedules. For this year, camp staff and administrators requested even more flexibility in the program, and we are revising the program materials accordingly. To help the programs fit even better fit into the unique culture of each camp, this year JTFN will provide one-on-one consultation and coaching throughout the summer.
  3. Philanthropy is serious business … but it can also be fun! “Young people have a strong radar for what is contrived and what is real – and the JTFN program is as real as it gets!” said Vivian Stadlin, co-director of Eden Village Camp. At some camps, participation in the teen foundation was optional, attracting a self-selecting group, while others ran it as a mandatory program. Across both models, the program received high marks from most campers (even those who didn’t choose to participate), with 69% reporting that the content was “interesting” and 79% saying that the content was presented in an “understandable way.” Still, nearly one-quarter of camp staff suggested that, in order to attract and keep campers’ attention, the program should be more “fun,” “creative,” and “engaging.” As we plan this summer’s programs, we’re meeting with top camp educators to brainstorm how to make the most of the unique experiential learning environment camp provides.
  4. How much they give away doesn’t matter. Most camps awarded a total of $1000 in grants  – some gave more – and the amount of money awarded did not seem to affect the teens’ experience. We’re glad to see that teen philanthropy programs can be successfully run on a modest scale, keeping the focus on the content of the program, rather than the grants themselves, because….
  5. At its core, Jewish teen philanthropy is about Jewish education. Through the program, more than 70% of teens felt they learned about philanthropy and the link between giving and their Jewish values. For the most part, campers did not seem to view philanthropy as expressly ‘Jewish’ in nature. As part of our curriculum review, we intend to add more materials on the ‘Jewish’ connection and framework for giving, as well as discussion guides to delve into the question of “What makes your giving Jewish?”.

Last year’s program was good, and with so much feedback from around the field, we’re excited to make this year’s even better. “FJC sees this JTFN program as a wonderful opportunity for campers to experience the act and the impact of Tzedakah on their world,” said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “We are proud of the time and research that these teen philanthropists have dedicated to their decisions. Besides benefiting the recipients, the campers are learning valuable life lessons of responsibility and teamwork and gaining insight into the diversity of the non-profit world. We expect more Jewish camps will add this effective, innovative program to their summer schedules.”

We agree, and we’re grateful to the Maimonides Fund for their support and – most importantly – to the hundreds of teen philanthropists-in-training and their staff facilitators for sharing their thoughts and helping us improve.

Naomi Skop Richter and Stefanie Zelkind staff the Jewish Teen Funders Network (JTFN), which supports a network of over 120 teen philanthropy programs. Applications for the 2013 Camp Philanthropy Program are due on February 11; more information about the program can be found at campphilanthropy.org.