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Summer Camps Draw Philanthropists’ Dollars

Situated in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, Eisner Camp and Crane Lake Camp make every effort to provide their campers with a memorable summer experience. But it’s only recently that they’ve honed in on the one thing that will allow those summer experiences to continue for years to come — fund raising.

Eisner and Crane Lake, which form the Union for Reform Judaism’s Northeast Camp Institute and serve as pillars of the national network of overnight camps operated by the union, serve nearly 1,400 children each summer. But for the past 10 years, the camps’ haphazard fund-raising efforts produced just $30,000 to $50,000 annually. And even that “was just by luck,” said Louis Bord-man, executive director of the two camps.

In the past year, however, the camps revamped their fund-raising efforts — and reaped nearly $1.5 million in donations from camp alumni, families of campers and foundations.

The turnaround at the Reform camps appears to be part of a wider philanthropic trend. While Jewish camping has long been central to the American Jewish experience, it is just beginning to pique the interest of philanthropists who traditionally have directed their donations to day schools and to newer Jewish educational programs like Birthright Israel, the travel program for young adults.

At the same time, Eisner and Crane Lake have taken several significant steps. The camps hired a full-time director of development, forged a strategic capital plan and implemented a formal program of “annual giving.” Now, the two camps are preparing to undertake a $20 million capital campaign over the next three years. And that’s just the beginning, according to Bordman.

“It shouldn’t be a $20 million campaign, it should be a $100 million campaign,” Bordman said, adding that he sees the potential for opening as many as three new overnight camps in his region over the next 10 years.

“Right now, I serve some 1,400 kids every summer,” he said. “Shouldn’t I be serving 20,000?”

On a recent Saturday night, at the first ever alumni gathering for all 12 of the Reform union’s camps, the newly bolstered approach to fund raising was sparklingly apparent. As almost 400 ex-campers mingled at The Lion’s Den in Manhattan’s West Village, sipping beer and listening to a lineup of former campers sing their Reform Jewish hearts out, there was a larger plan at work. Of course, the free event was designed to reconnect campers and provide a venue for rekindling old friendships. But it was also a prime opportunity to get former campers’ addresses and add them to the growing list of potential donors.

“We’re trying to utilize the alumni to leverage their support for the future,” said Corey Cutler, 38, the institute’s director of development. Cutler was hired in April 2005.

“Jewish overnight camping is finally on the philanthropy map,” he said in an interview at the nightclub as the evening’s host, former counselor Molly Kane — dressed in her Eisner Camp baseball shirt, blue athletic shorts and striped socks pulled up to her knees — yelled to the crowd, “Is there anyone in this room who can name all of the URJ camps?”

During Cutler’s yearlong tenure, he has secured three major donations totaling slightly more than $1 million; each gift will be put toward the construction or refurbishment of a camp building. The additional $400,000 has come from annual giving, as well as from matching funds provided by the Grinspoon Institute for Jewish Philanthropy, an offshoot of the West Springfield, Mass.-based Harold Grinspoon Foundation.

Sparked in large part by philanthropist Grinspoon’s focus on Jewish camping, a growing number of camps are committing themselves to development efforts, and with fairly astounding results. Since December 2005, when the Grinspoon Institute launched a $2 million challenge grant program for Jewish camps across the denominational spectrum, 26 camps have raised a total of $9.6 million.

Founded in January 2004 to help Jewish nonprofit organizations create and meet fund-raising goals, the Grinspoon Institute began its work by providing development consultants for 13 camps. The number of camps now stands at 30, with the institute hoping to help up to 20 more in the coming year. The institute also pays a portion of Cutler’s salary, with the remainder provided by the camps themselves and by the Reform union.

The institute “wanted to help camps plan and do the all important work of fund raising that they typically haven’t done successfully,” said the Grinspoon Institute’s director, Susan Kline. At Eisner and Crane Lake, an additional grant from the Foundation for Jewish Camping has provided funds for the Olim Fellowship, a leadership development program for camp staff.

Eisner and Crane Lake seem to be a model for what is to come. According to Paul Reichenbach, director of camping and Israel programs for the URJ’s youth division, the union would like each individual camp to have its own development director. Currently, the URJ is seeking a director of development to oversee fund raising for all 12 camps.

“We have not done the job we needed to do in maintaining and developing alumni relations,” Reichenbach said.

“All of a sudden, we woke up and realized that the future and the ability to grow is dependent on developing a cadre of people who believe in developing the mission,” he said, adding that over the next decade, the URJ is looking to raise at least $50 million to refurbish its existing camps. “The reality is that camping is a very competitive environment.”


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