Background

Character at Camp is an innovative initiative anchored in the belief that summer and year-round camp programs provide an unparalleled opportunity to promote the character development of young people. While camps vary greatly in their mission, size, activities, programming, and location, many are run with an intrinsic focus on youth development and character-building skills and traits. ACA's recent National Camp Impact Study demonstrated that camp experiences support social connectedness among youth and the development of skills and traits such as perseverance, responsibility, and the willingness to try new things. This study also found that these skills and traits last over time. Individuals who attended camp as children demonstrate these skills and traits throughout academic environments and well into their early careers.

For more than a century, character development has been foundational to the camp experience, as each camp distinctively offers a variety of opportunities to develop important character skills and traits. Camps provide young people with experiences in less-distracting settings, often surrounded by nature, that can help support character development through social interactions with peers and counselors, time for reflection and other activities. In today’s world, the benefits of building character skills and traits such as gratitude, kindness, creativity, curiosity, perseverance, resiliency, empathy, courage, and teamwork could not be more important.

Character at Camp Initiative

The Character at Camp initiative will be conducted during the next six years. ACA will make available in-person and virtual training opportunities, educational tools, and other resources to camps to strengthen, expand, or establish character development programs at the more than 15,000 year-round and summer camps across the US. As a direct result of this new initiative, ACA will invite camp leaders to participate in educational and peer-learning opportunities, networking, training, other experiences to learn how to help develop character skills and traits at camp. ACA will work with camp professionals, youth-development experts, and others to create new educational resources, training, and assessment tools to provide camps with opportunities to engage in this important initiative.

Starting in 2025, all eligible nonprofit camps will have the opportunity to apply for competitive one-, two-, or three-year grants to support their character development programs. Eligible organizations will be able to apply for funding in amounts ranging from $50,000 to up to $300,000 based on the length of the grant period. Funds may be used for staffing, training, curricula, assessment, communications, and/or outreach and partnership efforts to support camps’ specific goals related to character development. The initiative will support a broad range of camps serving young people from varied backgrounds and experiences, including under-resourced and underrepresented youth, as well as provide funding for developing character-based programming that is culturally relevant and values the diverse perspectives of youth and families.

What We Need from You

As we begin the exciting work of exploring Character at Camp, we need to learn more about how you think about character. Please complete this quick 5-minute survey today.

Take the Survey

If you have additional questions, please reach out to ACA at character@ACAcamps.org.

Read the press release.

Frequently Asked Questions

How was this grant made possible?

American Camp Association’s Character at Camp initiative has been made possible through the generosity of Lilly Endowment Inc. Lilly Endowment has been a longtime supporter of character development programs and youth development programs, including programs that provide positive camp experiences.

Is there a specific definition of "character" that you are using for this program? (Alternative: How does the ACA define character?)

We are drawing upon well-established resources, such as Character Lab. While there are many definitions of character, Character Lab defines character as: “Intentions and actions that benefit other people as well as ourselves.”

We do not define the specific thoughts, skills, traits, and actions that make up “good character.” Character is defined by specific cultures, communities, and contexts; thus, we encourage every camp to think about “good character” in partnership with the communities they serve — and especially the young people themselves.

Our camp already has a character program. Would we need to change our current character programming to participate?

This initiative seeks to ensure that every camp will have opportunities to participate in a way that makes sense for them.  ACA recognizes that for more than a century, character development has been foundational to the camp experience, with camps offering youth a variety of opportunities to develop important character skills and traits.

We believe every camp will benefit from networking and learning from youth development experts and other camp leaders. There’s no one-size-fits-all-approach. The initiative is flexible and offers both financial and educational resources to support camps in strengthening, expanding, or growing their existing programs. Camps could also consider creating opportunities for increasing access to camps, adapting their existing programs, and/or cultivating culturally responsive practices or training camp staff.

Is this initiative only for nonprofit camps?

Through this initiative there may be targeted opportunities for both nonprofit and for-profit camps to expand, improve, establish, and celebrate how they support character development, but some opportunities will be limited to 501(c)(3) nonprofit camps (i.e., charitable organizations). Nonprofit camps that are and are not accredited by ACA will be eligible to participate in various parts of the initiative.

The Character at Camp initiative has several goals. One is to increase understanding of how camp experiences impact and support character skill and trait development. The first year of the initiative will include a landscape scan of how character is currently being incorporated into camp programs, as well as a series of in-person and virtual networking and education opportunities beginning in the fall of 2024. The expectation is that resources and training materials from the insights gained through this phase will be made available to all camps.

Through the full six years of activities under the initiative that are supported by grant funds from Lilly Endowment, there will be ongoing education, training, and peer-learning opportunities for all camps, offered both virtually and in person. During the initiative’s second grant-making phase, 501(c)(3) nonprofit camps will be invited to apply for one-, two-, and three-year competitive grants to strengthen, expand, or establish character development programs at their camps.

Additionally, the initiative will include a rollout of evidence-based character curricula and tools for the entire camp field, including resources to help camps communicate the benefits of character development programs and resources to help camps fundraise for these programs. Opportunities for youth engagement will also be included. In addition, a large-scale communication effort will celebrate the entire camp field and its contributions to character development.

Do I have to be an ACA-accredited camp or an ACA member to participate?

No. It is expected that camps of many types, even camps that have not participated with ACA before, will be invited to participate in various parts of the initiative. In fact, ACA welcomes camps and camp professionals who have not previously had a connection with ACA to engage in this initiative where appropriate. Further, the initiative includes a robust outreach plan to invite new individuals and organizations into this effort.

How will you ensure this initiative will promote character practices that are inclusive?

This is a priority for ACA.  We will do this in two ways. First, we will develop and share new and existing resources to support camp leaders with opportunities to engage with and learn from each other and better understand the communities they serve. This work will include engaging youth development experts to lead workshops and share and adapt training guides for the camp context.

The second way is through a competitive funding opportunity. Camps submitting proposals with an emphasis on being culturally relevant and valuing the diverse perspectives of youth and families and/or proposals that will increase access to camps, will be prioritized in the selection process. Camps interested in consideration for funding through this initiative will be expected to provide a detailed plan about how they will execute programs that are culturally responsive to a wide variety of campers – especially to campers who have historically been underrepresented in the camps.

Who can apply for grants?

In order to apply for a grant under the second grant-making phase of the initiative, the applicant must be a nonprofit organization recognized under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3) that is located in the United States, including the following U.S. territories: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Camps without this status are encouraged to join Character at Camp events and peer engagements hosted by ACA and to utilize the insights and tools developed through the initiative, as well as explore opportunities to collaborate with eligible organizations that apply for a grant.

When can I apply, and when will grants be given out?

Information about the initiative’s first grant opportunities will be available in Spring 2025. The deadline for submissions is expected to be in Fall 2025. The plan is that grants to selected applicants will be awarded by the end of 2025. Subsequent funding opportunities will follow in 2026, 2027, and 2028.

What can grant money be used for?

We encourage eligible camps to apply for funds to support staffing, training, curricula, program implementation, assessment, communications, or outreach/partnership efforts as they relate to increased or improved character development opportunities at their camp.

Do I need a grant writer to submit our proposal?

No. The grant submission process will be straightforward so that any camp leader should be able to prepare and submit a proposal. If you do use a grant writer, we ask that the camp staff responsible for carrying out the proposed activities work closely with the grant writer to ensure feasibility and shared understanding.

ACA will host a series of engagements to help camps through the grant application process starting in early 2025.

Are there resources to help me write a grant proposal?

Starting in January 2025, the initiative team at ACA will provide support for proposal development through virtual and in-person workshops, virtual office hours, and on-demand support. While ACA cannot tell you what to propose, nor if your proposal will be approved, ACA is committed to ensuring all eligible camps that are interested can apply without significant burden.

Sounds great! How can I get involved now?

ACA is excited to get started and welcomes your feedback! Please complete this 5-minute pulse survey to help ACA begin to understand how character development is currently being incorporated into your camp programs.

In April, a more in-depth survey on character development at camp will be available, and your participation will help ACA better understand how camps are developing character skills and traits in their programs.

ACA will host a series of in-person and virtual engagements for the camp community to learn, share, and network with other camp professionals supporting the development of skills and traits of character at camp. Additional information and registration details on those events will be available in late April.

Grant applications will open during the second phase of this initiative, starting in the spring of 2025.

If you have additional questions, please reach out to ACA at character@acacamps.org.