Information Is Power: A Look at the Latest Data and Emerging Trends in Youth Development and the Camp Industry

by Karla Henderson, Ph.D., and Marge Scanlin, Ed.D.

Information is power in the world where we live. People involved in the organized camp industry know in their hearts that camp can be good for kids and that most camps operate successfully. In today’s world, however, the camp profession must be able to show and communicate information about its value and capacity to many audiences. The American Camping Association (ACA) is committed to compiling the information needed to show the efficacy of camp endeavors. Two recent studies, 2003 Camp Benchmarks and Youth Development Outcomes of the Camp Experience, provide a world of information helpful to camp staff as well as to external publics. These two studies, along with additional youth development data to be collected in 2004 by Youth Development Strategies, Inc. (YDSI), demonstrate both the efficiency and effectiveness of camp programs. Here is a preview of “the latest” information now available from ACA.

2003 Camp Benchmarks

The real value of the data contained in 2003 Camp Benchmarks is in helping individual camp directors find baseline information. Suppose you are a director for an agency resident camp in Iowa, and you want to find out what the “going rate” was in 2003 for a seasonal waterfront director. The Benchmarks Study tells you the average salary across the country in 2003 and further details the average salary at agency/government sponsored camps and the average for all resident camps in the Mid-American region. You find that the median salary increase for returning staff is 5 percent a year, and you also discover this information could be helpful in determining market rates and setting salaries for the coming year.

Now, suppose you are a resident camp director in an independent, for-profit camp in New Mexico, and you want to know what discount practices existed among camps in 2003. The Benchmarks Study reveals that 69 percent of the camps surveyed gave discounts. Interestingly, 90 percent of the independent, for-profit camps gave discounts, and 60 percent of all the camps in the Western region gave discounts. Further, you find that early registration, early payment, and sibling discounts are the most common practices. Figure 1 shows average discounts as they varied for sponsors and regions.

A Snapshot of Study Results
2003 Camp Benchmarks provides data presented by the type of sponsor of the camp: agency/government, religious, independent not-for-profit, and independent for profit. For example, one survey question asked where the camp was operated. Figure 2 shows the percentage of respondents’ camps that are operated on an owned site.

An additional data analysis portrays all the day and resident camp information by five regions: New England, Mid-Atlantic, Southern, Mid-America, and Western. For example, the survey asked the salary per week of seasonal camp directors. Figures 3 and Figure 4 on page 39 compare average salaries for seasonal camp directors in both day and resident camp by region.

Summarizing the data in 2003 Camp Benchmarks is a complex task because so much information exists. Figures 5 and 6 on page 39 compare day and resident camp responses on a small number of variables about directors and budget sizes.

A Study Comparison
Although the ACA 1999 Camp Staff Salary publication and 2003 Camp Benchmarks do not directly compare data within the five-year period, interesting changes were discovered when examining both research studies. Much of the data contained in the 2003 study was not collected for the 1999 Salary Study since the latter publication focused exclusively on salaries. In addition, the titles of positions were not always the same, and data in the 1999 study were divided between salaries for first-year staff compared to “veteran” staff. Nevertheless, Tables 1 and 2 on page 41 illustrate statistical changes. As would be expected, the salaries of both full-time and seasonal staff increased for most of the positions.

Further data are available in the Benchmarks Study about camp budgets. This can be helpful in planning or analyzing your own budget against others like yours — whether based on region of the country, or size of budget. The following delineates a few of the significant budget-specific findings from the Benchmarks Study:

  • Day camps received 89 percent of their operating income from camper fees in the summer.
  • Resident camps got 78 percent of their income from fees in the summer and annually received 59 percent of their entire operating budget from fees.
  • Rentals accounted for an average of 13 percent for resident camps with contributions in the form of capital, operating, or camperships comprising almost 20 percent of the revenue.
  • Thirty-four percent of the day camps said they had a camp store while 75 percent of the resident camps had a store.
  • The biggest selling item in all camps was clothing followed by food and snacks and then souvenirs.
  • The largest annual expenditures at day camps were year-round staff (29 percent of the budget); followed by part-time staff (18 percent); and program and supplies (8 percent), with various other line items contributing less than 5 percent in expenses.
  • For resident camps, year-round staff comprised 23 percent of the budget with part-time staff at 16 percent, food at 11 percent, and other line items such as benefits, insurance, and utilities contributing less than 6 percent each.

The tables in 2003 Camp Benchmarks also provide interesting comparative data. For example, independent, for-profit resident camps got 96 percent of their revenues from camper fees compared to 49 percent for independent, nonprofit camps. Some small regional differences were also evident — in New England resident camps, the percentage of salaries for year-round and part-time staff were almost the same (19 percent) while in the Southern region, almost twice as much of the budget (25 percent) was for year-round staff compared to seasonal staff (13 percent).

Youth Development Outcomes of the Camp Experience

During the summers of 2002 and 2003, ACA undertook the biggest comprehensive study of camper outcomes ever conducted in the U.S. The Youth Development Outcomes of the Camp Experience Study was funded by a major grant from the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis, Indiana, with additional assistance from the CAMPaign ’07 (ACA’s current fund-raising initiative). A total of 125 ACA camps participated in pilot testing, field testing, and in the stratified sample for data collection. The goals of the research project were:

1. To measure change in a subset of important developmental constructs such as positive identity and social skills; and
2. To ascertain factors that might be associated with positive change such as length of stay, type of camp, and program format.

Most people associated with organized camps believe that youth development is what organized camping is all about. Youth development is the process of enhancing adolescent experience and promoting the successful transition from childhood to adulthood. With this definition in mind, the ACA Research Committee, ACA staff, and external research consultants from Philiber Research Associates identified ten developmental areas or constructs that appeared from the camp and youth development literature to capture camp experiences: positive identity, adventure/exploration, making friends, peer relationships, overcoming insecurity, independence, leadership, environment, positive values, and spirituality.

Good News!
From the pre-survey (a month before camp) to the post-survey (at the end of camp), campers reported that they gained on six of the ten constructs! The greatest gain was in adventure/exploration (learning new skills and doing things they don’t do at home) followed by making friends, positive identity, independence, leadership, and spirituality. According to the camper data, a small decrease occurred in peer relationships with no change in feeling secure, environment attitudes, and positive values. Parents, on the other hand, believed that gains were made in all the constructs from the pre-to-post survey with the greatest gains in adventure/exploration skills, making friends, becoming more independent, and peer relationships.

Knowing that Positive Change Occurs Is Important
The camper characteristics associated with change are still being studied and wil be reported in a future issue of Camping Magazine. Campers who came to camp with lower pre-camp scores (i.e., those who reported lower skill levels of social functioning) showed more positive change than those who came with higher self-reports. Conversely, campers who came to camp with high precamp scores were more likely to show slight negative change than others. Most of the overall changes were small but it was clear that when children were high functioning when beginning the program, the room for change was limited. Older children, those over ten, showed more positive change in all of the areas except environment and positive values. Boys seemed to show more change than girls in independence and positive values as expressed by parents. Camp staff thought that boys had more positive change than girls related to social skills.

To the extent that youth development can be enhanced, however, we must uncover the characteristics related to change. For instance, in early analysis we are seeing that religiously affiliated camps appear most likely of the sponsoring groups to see statistically significant positive change in their most important outcome which, in most cases, was spiritual growth. These camps have something to teach the rest of us about how to integrate our most important outcomes into everyday camp life. In other initial data analyses, it appears that camp characteristics such as session length, sponsorship, day or resident structure, staff to camper ratio, experience of the director, staff turnover, camper fees, budget size, or program structure seem not to be related to outcome changes. Change, however, did vary from camp to camp. The factors at play are still being analyzed and final results could clarify these statements.

In the coming months, this rich data set will be more closely examined to ascertain where other relationships might exist and to determine if multivariate combinations of factors contribute to camper outcomes. Additional reports will be offered in Camping Magazine, in regional and national conferences, and in other ACA communication venues.

Enhancing Supports and Opportunities for Youth

During the summer of 2003, while evaluating what program characteristics may be related to the positive changes analyzed in the Youth Development Outcomes Study, the work of Youth Development Strategies, Inc. (YDSI) was examined. Dr. Michelle Gambone and her staff at YDSI have validated a way to measure the supports and opportunities associated with attaining strong youth outcomes that predict achievement of long-term outcomes in adulthood. This is exciting and ground-breaking work! Among the supports examined in the YDSI work are supportive relationships, meaningful opportunities for involvement, challenging and engaging activities, and safety.

The YDSI survey for camps was piloted in four of the camps who participated in the 2002-2003 ACA Outcomes Project. The results were enlightening! Young people in the camps (N=582) showed markedly stronger performance than young people in other youth development programs and middle or high schools, particularly in the dimension of “supportive relationships.” Campers in the four camps reported that supportive relationships, which included aspects of guidance, emotional support, practical support, adults’ knowledge of youth, and peers’ knowledge of youth were rated as optimal by almost 70 percent of the respondents. A sense of physical safety was rated as optimal by 55 percent of the campers and emotional safety was optimal for 69 percent. Scores related to youth participation were lower with only 13 percent reporting that input and decision making were optimal and only 2 percent reporting optimal opportunities for leadership at camp. Almost 50 percent of the campers reported opportunities for skill building (e.g., growth and progress, challenging, and interesting) were optimal.

Available from the Bookstore
2003 Camp Benchmarks: Program and Operations, Staffing, Financial and Demographic Profiles

When the data from the four ACA camps were compared to other baseline data that YDSI collected from youth development organizations, middle schools, and high schools, a significantly higher percentage of campers reported optimal levels of these dimensions. However, it must be remembered that these campers came from just four camp programs. Much more study is needed.
Because of the potential to establish benchmarks for youth development programs in general, and camps in particular, the next step in the ACA research efforts is to strengthen the performance of camps in implementing recognized and validated youth development strategies. One way to accomplish this goal is by benchmarking YDSI’s Supports and Opportunities Survey in a large number of camps, evaluating the strategies that lead to improved performance, and sharing the results with the youth development field and with camps.

Therefore, in the summer of 2004, ACA administered the YDSI survey in approximately eighty camps. This information will assist in establishing a standardized youth development evaluation system for camps and will contribute to our understanding the relationship between supports and opportunities for youth and camper outcomes. This information will make a major contribution to youth development understanding in our society.

After the data from the YDSI survey are analyzed, the plan is for a sample of camps to come together to develop and then implement improvement strategies. During the summer of 2005, this sample will be resurveyed to ascertain if the improvement strategies have contributed to an increased number of campers reporting optimal experiences. ACA and YDSI will collect information on the strategies to evaluate their effectiveness in improving practices. This foundation will ultimately result in the establishment of “best practices” for youth development in camps and other youth programs.

Embracing the Information Age
The ACA 2003 Camp Benchmarks Study, the Youth Development Outcomes of the Camp Experience Study, and the YDSI survey confirm ACA’s commitment to tapping the value of research initiatives in the current techno-savvy information age. For years to come the information gleaned from these studies, as well as future studies that use these data as a foundation, will provide credible information, enabling camp professionals to focus on the effectiveness of all efforts to enrich the lives of children and adults.

Karla Henderson, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management at North Carolina State University. Contact the author at

Marge Scanlin , Ed.D., is the American Camping Association’s executive officer of research. Contact the author at

Originally published in the 2004 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.