I really want a new (insert here: archery range, campership fund, pirate ship for the waterfront). My (insert here: camper fees, organization's budget, personal bank account) does not support this. Where do I get the money?
It's all about relationships. Thankfully, that is something camps are good at!
Why Raise Funds?
Our community of camps is as diverse as the campers we engage. For many years I worked for a large nonprofit (a "mothership") that had a strong camp component. Now I work for an independent nonprofit camp where HR, risk management, program design, facilities management, and fundraising are all in-house. Then we have our friends in the for-profit (who are really for-campers) camp sector who are adding nonprofit programs to their portfolio or may rely on community support for specific programs or projects. So we all need to know how to raise funds and friends for our camps.
Who should help raise funds and friends for camp? There may not be an easier answer than this: everybody. That said, there is some strategy involved. In a nonprofit camp, the best model to create a strong fundraising plan is the trinity of executive director, development director, and board president. I fully understand that not all nonprofit camps and not all camps in general have the staff capacity to delegate fundraising tasks. Instead, we wear our many hats.
Let's share those hats with our best ambassadors — camp families, camp counselors, our volunteers, and our board of directors, if applicable. Our relationships with these key people will drive our fundraising. Whether a tech camp, a day camp, a residential camp, an adventure camp, a faith-based camp, a sport camp, or a camp for people with special needs — we all have campers who had a great time, made friends, and tried an activity for the first time. Their stories form the basis of our case, the reason for people to donate to our camp, project, or initiative. In addition, these camp families and counselors can play key roles in talking with prospective donors and, with our help, often times even asking for donations.
What Does Culture Have to Do with It?
In our camp community, we talk a lot about our camp culture, and every camp has one of their own. It binds together staff and campers in a common experience defined by shared norms. I think we can all agree our culture creates effectiveness. For camps to understand and embrace fundraising, we need to develop a culture of philanthropy as well. All staff and volunteers need to understand that everyone they meet is a potential friend to camp. The Rotary Club that just volunteered by clearing trails may have a fundraiser for us; the plumber who fixed the dining hall leak may have a daughter with a school service requirement; the camper family may have a neighbor who has heard about the power of camp and wants to make a donation. These relationships form the basis of our extended camp family, and operating in a culture of philanthropy means we look to this large camp family for support. Does this mean we ask everyone we meet for money or an in-kind donation? Trust me, if I did people would run away when they saw me coming at the grocery store. But we do look for how we can share our inspiring mission with a bigger and bigger circle of people. Everyone at camp has the responsibility to form positive relationships with people with whom they come into contact — and when we share the impact of camp in our stories, we develop a philanthropic mindset.
We Need to Say Thank You
Alongside a culture of philanthropy is a culture of gratitude. A camp is ready to accept donations when it has a plan to say thanks. We must steward our donations with integrity and honesty. At a recent local philanthropy panel, I heard a top philanthropist say her favorite thank you was a personal card from a child she had helped. Another donor shared he liked getting a phone call when the organization started its new reading program with that donor's support. "We thought you should know the books are here. Thanks for helping to make this possible for our special kids." I have seen wonderful camper art used in thank-you cards; videos of campers saying thanks, and camp BBQs for volunteers and donors as a thank you. Cultivate a true culture of gratitude for the many people who support your camp work. Remember, if you are a nonprofit there are legal requirements around acknowledging financial and in-kind gifts. Your local nonprofit resource center or community foundation can help you navigate — or contact a nonprofit in your area and meet with its director, which is also a great way to share your work with someone else (remember, expand that camp family).
There are grants, special events, mailings, car washes, bake sales, and more — how you raise money is determined by your time and your camp's relationships.
Nonprofit camp? If your fundraising drives your camp budget year round, then create an annual fundraising plan that is 12 or even 18 months long. A mix of grants, mailings, and events is a best practice with additional focused time in face-to-face conversation with major donors. Every organization individually defines what constitutes a major donor — people who can give $100 are a major donor to some organizations ; others would identify a major gift as $1,000 or $10,000 and so on.
Even if you just need funds for a specific project — perhaps that new archery range — start with the date you need it, and then use a calendar to back up your fundraising plan to a start point that allows enough time to meet your goal. Need to order new bows and arrows by May 1? Maybe you start planning in January.
For nonprofits creating an annual fundraising plan there is a dizzying amount of research about the number of times we should ask supporters to donate. Twice a year? Three times a year? Two letters and a phone call? Three e-mails and a face-toface- meeting? To me, the best approach is to know your circle of support. Most people have limited tolerance for a mailbox stuffed with solicitations with gift envelopes, solicitor phone calls during dinner time, and commercials or telethons imploring them to please donate at this 1-888 number. For many organizations, the answer is some mix of the preceding options (except for those dinner time phone calls — never do that). Donor fatigue is a real issue, and we must partner with, not take advantage of, our extended camp family.
Special events big and small require time and planning. While a car wash may be a little easier than a fancy ball, someone has to plan, advertise, and invite and thank everyone. Sometimes the net result is not worth the time, unless you factor in the valuable PR that may come with an event. At my own camp, we use our special events to introduce new people to our mission. That has longterm return for us. Always keep in mind your camp's culture. Is yours a camp that would have a fancy ball? Maybe a hoedown is closer to your culture? When our camp sends out a fundraising mailing, we ask for the "campy" paper because we don't want the glossy paper — culture counts.
In general, grants are great for projects, but don't count on them to pay staff or utility bills — at least not year after year. Grants and foundations have funds to disburse based on IRS guidelines, but their capacity to give is also driven by the stock market and trustee or family interest in your cause, as well as the number of applicants.
People ask me all the time if a grant-writing course is needed to be a strong grant writer. While truly a personal decision, and some great training is available, I always answer that the best grant writer is a strong writer in general who has passion for the subject and can follow directions. Foundations large and small have set guidelines for their proposals for a reason — some even dictate the font and margin size. If they say no attachments, do not add that super cute, how-can-you-not-love-this-camperface picture. My own camp writes 35–50 grant proposals annually, and we assemble and revise a set of standard tools each year to have at the ready:
- A two-page case statement with history, mission, and programs (we add or subtract from this case statement depending on the grant and its requirements); note that more and more grants and foundations use online applications, so you can cut and paste according to their word count restrictions.
- Organization budget (and/or project budget)
- Roster of staff and camp experience
- Roster of board of directors
- List of partner institutions and programs
- 501c3 nonprofit certificate
- Articles of incorporation — found at ioncenter.org/getstarted/tutorials/establish/inc.html
- Permission to fundraise in X states (varies state by state)
- Two or three great quotes and pictures from campers
- Evaluation results and methods
Timing is everything. Remember if a grant deadline is March 1, the organization's trustees or committee may not meet until April, and funds may not be disbursed until May — cutting it close for that new archery range for the summer. Grantors and foundations are not entirely unapproachable. We should feel comfortable asking questions like "When might we hear your decision?"
The power dynamic of asking for money has long been an intimidating factor in the fundraising game. An individual or institution has money, we want/need it, and humbly outstretch our hands to ask for it hoping against hope the answer is yes. Remember the relationships. I like to think prospective donors are lucky to hear my camp's stories. We partner with others to make our inspiring vision a reality, to engage our campers in powerfully positive camp experiences, and to send them into the world as better humans. What's not to love? That said, sometimes people say no.
No Is Not Always Bad
A no to a donation or grant proposal may mean your project was not a fit. I call that good information that will help save you time later. Maybe too many applications were received to fund. Make sure you check in with your grantor to ask for feedback. Sometimes an individual donor will say, "No, not right now; let's talk in a year." More information to file away and create an action plan around. Maybe he or she is paying off student loans, caring for an aging parent, or getting ready to close a business. Sometimes a donor prospect is dissatisfied with your camp — great information to welcome and pledge to act on. I think transparency inspires confidence. Most importantly, the no is not personal. The grantor or individual is not saying no to you or that he or she doesn't like you. Get a little thick-skinned. Maybe it's just not his or her time to join your camp family.
Sounds like a lot of work? It is. To be the best advocate for my camp's mission, I have to believe there is no work more worthy of being big and bold about. My confidence in our camp's story is what may compel people to join our caring community of camp supporters. You carry that passion too — which may inspire people to join you.
Learn from the best — While many resources may say nonprofit, take the best and leave the rest, as much of the information has application across many types of camp.
Set up rules in your e-mail to send these blogs and e-newsletters to designated folders upon receipt. Save them to read when you have some focused time. Also recommended:
Since 2004 Tina LaRoche has been executive director of Camp Holiday Trails, a year-round, nonprofit camp for children with special medical needs in Charlottesville, Virginia. Prior she was a leader at the Ketchum-Downtown YMCA in Los Angeles for ten years and worked with AmeriCorps during the start-up years. Tina can be reached at email@example.com.