20/20 Toolbox: A For Profit Goes Green with a 501(c)(3)

Howard “H” Rothenberg

“I have a new idea for a program!” This is a statement my wife hears from me on a regular basis. We have owned our own private day camp, Triple C Camp, since 1999. We serve children and youth in Charlottesville, Virginia, and surrounding areas. After the process of searching for a camp (we toured over 100 camps), finding “the one,” agreeing to a purchase price with the sellers, getting bank financing, moving our family, and closing on the property/business, we thought we were home free.

As the years went on, though, we were always looking to find more ways to generate revenue. In 2001, we built a ropes course to host year-round groups and use for team building and high climbing during the summer. This was fantastic! We were bringing in much more money than we were spending for the ropes program, as my wife and I were facilitating groups with very few part-time staff, and we were making use of the facility in the spring and the fall.

We also did in-school team-building programs at twenty local elementary, middle, and high schools in our area. A decade later, we were continuing to look for other revenue streams. We’ve always loved the “green movement” — we believe in “no child left inside.” So we started opening our facilities and programs to teachers and schools to make an impact and some money along the way.

The Green Adventure Project

In the beginning stages of the Green Adventure Project (GAP), we knew we had to get buy-in from teachers, who could then potentially encourage their schools to book trips to camp. We recognized that teachers liked the idea of environmental science field trips and that the field trips helped them with standardized testing. However, we also knew that the money for science programs could be a bit harder to come by.

In order to encourage schools to participate, we started approaching teachers to attend one of our field investigations. These are offered three to five times a year as a “teach the teacher” opportunity. If a teacher is interested, we outline the costs, identify a date, and work with the teacher to find sources of funding to help offset the costs.

Partnering with Schools

We started speaking to schools in the area to find out if they were interested in partnering for outdoor nature and science programs that would help them prepare their students for standardized testing. We found several teachers and a few advocates from our local superintendent’s office who were very excited about this possibility.

Curriculum for GAP is aligned with state standards. We created a program menu for teachers based on topics taught to specific ages. We invested in an executive director and program director who are experienced in developing curriculum. GAP works with six counties and more than thirty schools at this time, and we offer year-round programming.

Creating a Nonprofit

The biggest obstacle for GAP was cost. We wanted to tap into nonprofit opportunities for grants and fundraising (although, it’s important to note that building the reputation of a nonprofit and obtaining these financial benefits can take years). So we approached a local attorney whose specialty was nonprofits, and he advised us to form a nonprofit. This was a bit intimidating since most camp directors don’t have a legal background. We were concerned about fees, but were able to negotiate a set fee for incorporating GAP as a nonprofit.

Our attorney explained that there was no problem forming a nonprofit; however, it was imperative to keep all financial matters from our private business / summer camp (S corporation) completely separate from anything we were doing with the nonprofit. We set up a separate ledger in QuickBooks for my wife, who is our CFO, and kept all income and expenses for GAP completely separate.

We were committed to doing everything the right way, so we followed the attorney’s advice. These were the things we needed to do:

  • File articles of incorporation. The attorney was very helpful with this. The right attorney is the key to making this happen. You need one who understands how to start a new nonprofit.
  • File for nonprofit status. This was also done by the attorney, who presented documents for us to sign.
  • Make any adjustments requested by IRS, such as:
    • Separate the Web site for Green Adventure Project.
    • Establish a phone line for Green Adventure Project.
  • Establish a board of directors and manuals.
    • We interviewed camp parents and community folks who have an interest in the green movement to be on the board of directors.
    • It is very helpful that we have a banker and a local science teacher on our board of directors.
  • Hire an independent real estate appraisal company to do a fair market analysis of what rent would be appropriate for a program like this in our area.
    • This was a big deal and very expensive; however, we needed this to justify our S corporation charging rent to GAP.
    • We are three years into this nonprofit entity and have not received rent yet, but the system is in place, and the bottom line of GAP improves.
  • Organize, interview, and hire the proper staff to organize the programs and operate fundraising.
    • It has been a challenge to find qualified staff who can teach the green programs, write grants, and handle all the fundraising simultaneously. We made use of the American Camp Association job board and biweekly professional jobs available. We received about thirty applications, which took time to sift through. We interviewed ten. All of this is very time consuming, but it is worth it when you find someone who can run programs and handle administrative work.
    • It’s critical to have staff who will put in extra hours. For example, you need to count on them not to miss any deadlines, even if a grant application is due the day after a three-day canoe trip.
  • Cultivate and develop relationships with granting organizations and public donors.
    • This can also be difficult. When an organization is young, it does not have enough weight under its belt to be credible to some donor organizations. However, to serve more participants, funds are necessary. It is a bit of a catch-22. We believe that if we are committed to the program service, the funding will come.
    • We also attend meetings and trainings offered by organizations that are connected to funding bodies. These are great opportunities to network and build relationships.

Success

During 2010, GAP served 500 participants; in 2011 we grew to 1,500. Through 2012 we will serve over 5,000. The program numbers are very exciting, but financially, GAP barely breaks even. It will continue to rely on grants and fundraising to stay in the black and pay the staff and the property/ rent appropriately. As I mentioned earlier, it is difficult for a new 501(c)(3) to get grant money; however, we are diligently working toward growing our program base to be more attractive to donors.

Our for-profit entity benefits from the public relations in the community, which brings more people to the camp property. When it can, GAP will pay rent. For now, GAP benefits from renting space at the camp, as the camp already had vehicles for travel programs, supplies, buildings, infrastructure, etc. A nonprofit program takes a while to get established. We are serving many more participants than we were previously, and we are very proud of the quality of the program. Areas of challenge that continue are finding the right part-time staff, fundraising, and receiving grants.

Any for-profit entity that wants to establish a nonprofit must think long and hard about all the upfront expenses, staffing, and infrastructure of a new organization. This includes strategic planning and organizing with banks, accountants, attorneys, and the staff for the private entity.

If there is quality programming that serves participants well, there is no better feeling in the world than helping them grow through an experience they would never have had otherwise.

Making Changes

We didn’t just start GAP. We made dramatic changes to our property and program regarding going green, making our camp more marketable and cutting edge to our community and the region.

  • We removed all Styrofoam from the camp. We provide lunch for our campers and do not have a commercial dishwasher. All our campers do their own dishes. This was a lot easier than we thought it would be . . . the parents love it, and the campers are okay with it. It teaches responsibility and a great life skill.
    • We replaced throwaway dishes and cups with reusable plastic. This was very easy to do and reasonably priced. Plate dividers and sturdy plates from various stores can cost as little as $1.00 for four. And they came in great, diverse colors. Our campers love them.
    • Campers now wash, rinse, and sanitize their own plates, cups, and cutlery at washing stations behind our dining hall. The process is easy to set up, however kitchen staff must oversee it. After the meal, the staff checks every item and very often will need to wipe the plates clean. We place the dishes in special bags and hang them to dry for a few hours; however, we usually wind up hand drying . . . no biggie.
  • We removed water coolers with cone cups.
    • We request that all campers bring a water bottle to camp and carry it with them around camp.
    • We installed more drinking fountains for accessibility to water. This is pretty fantastic. We even have water bottle filling stations outside our well house that say, “Dasani,” “Aquafina,” and “Deer Park.” The water tastes so fresh and clean that people ask us all the time if it’s “really” those brands of bottled water, and we leave it to them to decide!
  • We added rain barrels all around our camp for education and nonpotable water use.
    • Especially when the weather is dry, we use the water in rain barrels for plants, animals, washing animals such as horses, and other activities where the water can be used safely.
    • This provides an amazing teaching opportunity. Children learn how they can do this at home or at school and how much water can be harvested and reused from rain.
  • We developed a composting and a waste reduction program at our meals. Campers eat what they take, and we weigh any uneaten food. The least wasteful cabin gets a prize at the end of the week. We actually have groups that have zero waste. It’s important that the staff buy in to the real meaning of the competition. It’s nice to win a contest; however, the counselors must understand that they are not the “garbage disposal” for food the campers don’t eat.
  • We added many recycling bins around camp for all aspects of recycling, and some of our oldest campers take the recycling to the local collection site in town once week. The community loves this because when the campers are there, they help people unload all the recyclables from their cars.
  • We built garden boxes to grow edibles for our campers, while also teaching about growth and sustainability. The campers work in the gardens and get to see the reward on the dining hall buffet.
  • We replaced a rustic 1950s building (that was damaged from snow weight) with a state-of-the-art EarthCraft Certified Green Educational Center. There are so many amazing aspects of this building. Teaching opportunities are everywhere. A large-scale bowling ball version of a “Newton’s cradle,” loads of local reptiles that the children can handle (turtles, tortoises, leopard geckos, bearded dragons, etc.), trebuchets, a 28-by-40-foot animal teaching mural of indigenous animals, and so much more. If you want to invest in a science center, we’d love to show you ours.

 

Green Adventure Project

Started in 2009, the Green Adventure Project’s (GAP) mission is to introduce students of all ages to the science of the natural world while providing them with sound experiential and adventure education opportunities. GAP also seeks to educate students about the importance of stewardship and sustainability. GAP uses hands-on, inquiry-based programs to enhance and extend classroom studies, giving students the knowledge to make environmentally conscious decisions. Programming occurs throughout the year for schools and groups, from half-day sessions to five-day “Expeditions.” Many of the programs start from Triple C Camp but extend to many sites around the central Virginia area, including public parks, state and national forests, and other camp facilities. For more information, visit www.tripleccamp.com/Green-Adventure-Project/Home.aspx.

 

Howard “H” Rothenberg is co-owner and director of Triple C Camp in Charlottesville, Virginia. If you are interested in more information about the Green Adventure Project or starting a nonprofit, please contact “H” at fun@tripleccamp.com.

Your rating: None Average: 4 (4 votes)
Tags: