Specialty camps work
In the early to mid-2000s, research estimated that only 10 percent of the Jewish youth population were being served by existing Jewish camps. There was concern that many Jewish youth were instead attending non-Jewish camps that offered more unique opportunities. Developing competitive Jewish “specialty” camps that combined traditional Jewish camp values with activities such as sports, outdoor adventure and fashion became a way to bring more youth into the Jewish camping world.
In 2008, with a $10 million investment from the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) launched the Specialty Camps Incubator (Incubator) to support the creation and development of five new Jewish specialty camps. A key purpose of establishing the new camps was to attract Jewish teens who were not attending other Jewish camps.
In 2009, the Jim Joseph Foundation engaged Informing Change to design and implement a multi-year evaluation of the Incubator, assessing whether and how the program was achieving its intended outcomes. Based on the success of the first Incubator, FJC and JJF partnered with the Avi Chai Foundation to establish the second Specialty Camps Incubator, introducing four new camps to the field in summer 2014.
The Incubator initiative started with a competitive application process for new specialty camps followed by provision of start-up capital and a range of supports to the five selected camps. Similar to for-profit business incubators, the Incubator used a cohort approach in which the camps learned together while building innovative, high-quality programs and attracting new customers. The Incubator provided six core program components to support the camps’ development: workshops, mentors, customized technical assistance, networking opportunities, peer/cohort learning and evaluation.
Informing Change’s evaluation of the Incubator and its camps from 2009 to 2013 addressed five questions that examined whether and how:
- The new camps had expanded available opportunities for Jewish youth to attend camp.
- The new camps had positively influenced camper attitudes and behaviors about living a Jewish life and broadened their networks of Jewish peers.
- The new camps had developed into sustainable and effective nonprofit camp organizations.
- The Incubator method was an effective strategy for developing and supporting new nonprofit Jewish camps.
- The different specialty camp models met JJF’s goals for the Incubator.
The evaluation focused on the cohort of camps as a whole and their aggregate results, rather than evaluating each camp individually. Informing Change provided annual results on camp growth and development to the individual camps as well as support to the camps when interpreting their results and comparing against the aggregate. Each year, the evaluation applied a mixed-methods approach to data collection, which included interviews, surveys, secondary data, observations and organizational capacity assessments. Evaluators surveyed campers both before and after camp; parent surveys were administered after campers had been home from camp for nine to 11 months.
The new specialty camps successfully developed their unique brands and reputations, which helped grow their enrolment. Data suggests that, during their short time of operation, the Incubator camps also successfully created a sense of community for their campers.
Enrolment: Incubator camps served a total of 2,713 unique campers in their first four summers of operation, with enrolment growing 138 percent from the first summer. Incubator camps helped increase the overall number of youth served by residential Jewish camps.
Retention: While the rate of camper retention varies in the five camps, Incubator camps as a group are retaining more than 50 percent on average of their campers from year to year. This is considered a high retention rate for specialty camps. Responses from non-returning campers and their parents suggest that many campers do not return to camp because they and their families are juggling large numbers of interests and commitments, not because they had a negative experience or were dissatisfied with the camp.
Recommending camp to others: Parents are highly satisfied immediately after camp and, a year later, 92 percent of parents and 81 percent of campers had recommended an Incubator camp to a friend. Almost one-third of campers had a friend actually attend an Incubator camp after their recommendation.
Satisfaction and belonging: 91 percent of campers felt like they belonged when they were at camp and 92 percent were very happy with their experiences at camp.
In the camps’ first three summers, 38 percent of all campers were attending a Jewish camp for the very first time, a markedly higher proportion than the national averages of 26-29 percent in other Jewish camps over these same three years. The Incubator camps also attracted teens who were not likely to attend any camp, Jewish or non-Jewish, and attracted youth who could be considered in the low to moderate range of Jewish affiliation. Of the campers who attended a session in 2012, 76 percent said the specialty was the reason why they first chose to attend the Incubator camp and it was also among the top reasons why they chose to return for another summer.
Overall, reports from campers and their parents suggest that the camps are helping shape youth in many ways: to be more positive and enthusiastic about being Jewish, to learn more about Judaism and being Jewish, to feel closer to other kids their age who are Jewish, to become more active in Jewish community activities and organizations, to improve their skills in the specialty offered, and to be more confident in themselves overall.