Free to Give: Camp Rainbow Gold

Free to Give: Camp Rainbow Gold

Dec 21, 2021 Elizabeth Lizberg

The following interview is part of Philanthropy Roundtable’s “Free to Give” series highlighting the impact philanthropy can have when Americans have the right to give freely to the causes and communities they care about most. Learn more here.

“Camp Rainbow Gold started 38 years ago. Dr. David McClusky in Twin Falls, Idaho had a young patient who was battling cancer and was really sad because he couldn't go to regular summer camp with his friends. Summer camps in the area couldn't let him in because he was in the middle of cancer treatments.”

“Dr. McClusky was on the board of the American Cancer Society and around that time a grant came along saying ‘Do you want to apply for funds to start a camp?’ Of course, we applied, received the grant, and Camp Rainbow Gold was born. It operated as a program under the American Cancer Society until 2014, at which time we became an independent nonprofit.”

“Our first camp was literally camping in tents out in the woods with a few volunteers. It has grown a lot from there over the years. We're most known for, and our biggest return on investment is, our camping program. We have five total camps.”

“At our teen and youth oncology camps, the kids with cancer come to camp and we have a medical team there that supports them. So, if they're going through chemo at that time, they can still receive treatment and parents can have the peace of mind knowing doctors are there keeping an eye on their kid.”

“But our philosophy is we support the entire family. Cancer doesn't just happen to the child diagnosed, it impacts everyone. With that belief and value, we include two family camps that welcome the entire family.”

“We also have a sibling camp that is just for the brothers and sisters. The kids with cancer do not get to come to that, which is a little different than a lot of camps. The siblings of kids with cancer tend to have long-term psychosocial effects from the cancer diagnosis—you see higher rates of suicide and teen pregnancy and drug use, so we're very passionate about our sibling camp.”

“Our college scholarship program has been going on for 14 years and has awarded more than a million dollars to Idaho's children who have battled cancer and attended Camp Rainbow Gold. This year, we're thrilled to have awarded our very first scholarships to siblings as well, because the financial burden affects the entire family. Again, our philosophy is that cancer affects the entire family, so why should the kids with cancer be the only ones to get those college scholarships? That was incredibly exciting to kick off.”

“Another program we have is our teen support group. COVID has slowed it down a little bit, but we're excited to get back up and running. You could see through camp that our teens needed more than one time a summer to get together. They needed continued support because, let's face it, high school is hard regardless. You throw in cancer where you may look different, you may not get to do all of the activities, you may miss school, and it’s even harder.”

“We started a support group, but it's not your typical support group. We don't put them around a table and ask them to tell us their feelings. We provide emotionally empowering experiences, fun challenges that they go through together and then we push a little bit in an activity called ‘happies and crappies.’ Through sharing some celebrations and struggles, you often find important connections and support.”

“Those are our main programs.”

“In addition, we purchased 170 acres two years ago, after talking for more than 20 years about facility issues and what we needed for our camp programs. One of the biggest issues was space. Both of our family camps and sibling camps are at maximum capacity, which means we were turning kids away. We were leasing camps that would not give us long-term leases and we would sometimes not know until very late if our weeks were confirmed. Plus, they were not interested in adapting their facilities. So, we would bring a medical trailer, five utility trailers full of supplies, and we would build out camps. We would add wheelchair ramps and seats in showers and handheld showers and things that just make it a little easier for some of the kids who have challenges. The search went on for years.”

“We did a feasibility study in 2007 and put the project on hold until we became an independent nonprofit in 2014. Then, it took five years to find the property, secure it and develop a master plan. We were moving forward fast, having a lot of success in our capital campaign—and COVID came along.”

“You know, treasures come out of trials. And we've really had some good treasures that came out of this. We did virtual camp in 2020. The doctors and all of us realized these kids need to get back together. So we started asking, ‘What can we do to get these kids back together?’ We were worried about leasing the other campsites and having them not meet the standards we were going to need for COVID, so we said, ‘All right, this property is 26 buildings, can we remodel and figure something out since the camps have to be smaller?’ So we had smaller, shorter camps at our new site. One of the major reasons we were able to do that was because of a grant from a donor-advised fund.”

“A $500,000 grant from the Murdock Foundation allowed us to get a lodge remodeled for outdoor eating since our COVID protocol restricted any camp-wide activities indoors and update the old commercial kitchen so it would work. With those last two pieces of the puzzle, we hosted our first camps with more than 120 kids and we were safe and, very excitingly, healthy. There was no COVID and we learned a lot as property owners.”

“Having donor-advised funds absolutely got us though COVID, and not just by writing checks. Donor-advised funds provided training, support, information and even just took the time to check in. A fund local to Idaho reached out and said, ‘What are your challenges? Are you getting your questions answered? Are you learning about the PPP? Here's some training.’ I have to tell you it feels like they genuinely care about our organization. I'm not saying other donors don't and corporations don't, but donor-advised funds seem to have a capacity that goes further than writing the check and saying, ‘Hey, give us a report of how you're spending the money.’ That is really valuable for nonprofits because sometimes, as a nonprofit, we don’t have the resources to access those additional insights.”

“Donor-advised funds were important even before COVID. One in particular is set up to have staff who we meet with regularly and they share our vision beyond our internal capacity. So, as they're meeting new people coming into the donor-advised fund, they can then identify donors, match us up and make sure we meet. By having a kind of gatekeeper, all of these people who are interested in investing can learn more about our organization and know our foundation is strong. It provides us with the platform to come forward and say, ‘This is our story, this is how we're strong,’ and meet many different donors we wouldn’t otherwise have access to.”

“Do we fit into every category donor-advised funds want to support and invest in? No. And do they have some guidelines and structure we have to follow? Of course! We do grant reports, and sometimes we even get checked out more in depth. Here's the thing—the process we go through to be checked out more in depth and by a wider variety of potential donors strengthens our game. It helps us become even better in crossing our T's and dotting our I’s. It prepares us for other donors outside of that fund, to sit in front of them and be able to say with confidence, ‘Here are our financials, here’s the return, here's what we're doing.’ And again, there's also the additional training and other support.”

“Any nonprofit executive will tell you their organization does grant reports, you do other processes, you have to build the relationship. Well, it's no different than with these funds. I met the Murdock Foundation for the first time around 2015 and sat with Terry when he was here in Boise. He listened to our project, he advised and we kept our relationship going as you would any other donor. Murdock talked to us and guided us and said ‘tweak this’ or do ‘this’ and I would say it's comparable to working with any donor.”

“Comparable to any other donors, donor-advised funds are about relationships and about providing the right information to the right people. We are aware of who's bringing the funds to us and we're provided the opportunity to meet and/or thank them personally. I also still feel a very personal relationship, even with the staff of the funds. The staff of The Idaho Community Foundation just came and did a tour of our new property—and that's a big deal! They're the contact with the donors, and that's the first step you take. They’re honest with us about who they're talking to and what funds they might approach. It’s about the people in the relationships, it’s not about the name on the check.”

“One of the most interesting things in the grant from Murdock Foundation is when they asked us if we would be open to making part of their gift a matching gift, and that was brilliant on their side. We didn't think of it! They released funds right away that allowed us to jump in and get started and then put the rest as a match. That idea and support is just strengthening our story and it's allowing us to reach even more people. That’s what you want from donors.”

“We had a fire going and it got dimmed by COVID. Donor-advised funds really fueled our fire again and especially allowed us to host our in-person camps this summer, and we're forever grateful. It’s magical.”


-Elizabeth Lizberg, CEO and executive director of Camp Rainbow Gold in Boise, Idaho.  

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