Research of Note from May 2005

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Growth of Youth-Serving Organizations
The Bridgespan Group
Available free online at

“What happens when a youth-serving organization attempts to grow larger and expand its services?”

That’s what the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation wanted to know when it commissioned Bridgespan to examine the experiences of 20 youth-serving organizations that had successfully expanded their operations to serve more youth. Those groups included the Harlem Children’s Zone, Larkin Street Youth Services, YouthBuild USA and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington.

Bridgespan presents its findings as a white paper and a series of case studies that capture the details of each organization’s growth story.

The issue is important, the researchers say, because the number of youth-serving organizations in the United States grew by 41 percent from 1997 to 2002 (to a total of 7,164), while funding for those organizations grew by 70 percent, from $4.7 to $8 billion. About two-thirds of that increase went to established organizations.

Bridgespan discovered that for most youth-serving nonprofits, the growth process was filled with twists and turns, and sometimes left management regretting the decision to expand. Organizations that weathered the initial uncertainties of growth often emerged “larger, better staffed and structured,” but “still struggling to maintain sufficient funding to ensure their long-term viability,” the white paper says.

It is telling that many organizations reported that their growth was not part of a long-term strategic plan, but came in response to unforeseen opportunities to acquire funding or staff, or because someone in another city wanted to open an affiliate office.

Even successful growth sometimes left the organizations financially fragile. Unlike for-profits that are able to benefit from economies of scale, some nonprofits found that their service-delivery costs increased as they hired and trained more staff and added evaluation systems.

Other observations that consistently emerged:

• For organizations with multiple sites, finding the right balance between local autonomy and central control posed a recurring challenge.

• Bringing in a chief operating officer was often essential, yet often proved challenging for the organization’s leader as well as for the staff.

• The complexity caused by growth gave rise to needs for formal management systems and for staff with more specialized skills. That made the organizations more professional but tended to create internal stress.

• Growth almost always required redefining the role of the board of directors and its members.

• Foundation funds could propel growth, but they were unlikely to sustain it.

• In order to expand without sacrificing quality, the organizations found it essential that their programs be codified, so that key elements and processes were applied consistently among sites.

• The later an organization made performance measurement part of its culture, the more disruptive the process was.

• The availability of funds for building infrastructure consistently lagged behind the need.

In a statement announcing the report’s release, Clark Foundation President Michael Bailin said, “The study’s findings suggest the need for significant changes in the ways in which growth occurs in the nonprofit sector, as well as how funders can more effectively support growth.”

The Benefits of Camp
Directions: Youth Development Outcomes of the Camp Experience
American Camp Association (ACA)
Available free online at book.pdf.

The ACA bills this study as providing the first “scientific” evidence that going to camp produces positive developmental outcomes for youth.

The association surveyed 5,000 camp participants (ages 8 to 14), their parents and camp counselors before and immediately after summer camp sessions in 2002 and 2003. Nearly 2,300 families participated in the follow-up survey six months later. Eighty ACA-accredited day and residential camps took part.

The survey looked at 10 “constructs” in four developmental “domains:” self-esteem and independence (positive identity); leadership, friendship skills, social comfort and peer relationships (social skills); adventure, exploration and environmental awareness (physical and thinking skills); and values, decisions and spirituality (positive values and spirituality).

On average, campers, parents and counselors consistently reported small but statistically significant growth in each of the four domains, and said that some of the gains persisted six months after camp.

“We can finally corroborate all our anecdotal evidence and state unequivocally that the camp experience clearly is a vital component of the educational process,” Marla Coleman, ACA president, said in a statement accompanying the report.

While the study might provide the best feedback to date on the effect of camps, it points to the continuing struggle to acquire “scientific evidence” about youth program impact. In lieu of long and expensive research projects, such as longitudinal studies, organizations find surveys to be the best evidence they can afford to gather.

Among the highlights: Ninety-six percent of the youths said camp helped them make new friends, and 92 percent said camp helped them feel good about themselves. Among parents, 70 percent said their child gained self-confidence at camp.

Campers and parents were asked to rate their level of agreement, on a four-point scale, with statements such as, “I’m good at doing things on my own” (campers) or “My child feels he needs help with most things he does” (parents). Counselors weighed in on the same issues by completing observational checklists during the first day of camp and the last two.

When average pre- and post-camp scores for youths and parents were compared in each of the four domains, the effect of going to camp – expressed as “effect sizes” – ranged from 0.05 to 0.24. Counselors’ scores ranged from 0.21 to 0.41. Effect sizes of 0.05 or higher were considered statistically significant. The study notes that, by convention, effect sizes of less than 0.29 are considered small and those greater than 0.50 are considered large.

Immediately after camp, the kids reported their greatest growth in the domain of physical and thinking skills, while parents reported seeing the most growth in positive identity. Six months later, campers and parents reported lingering evidence of growth in the positive identity and social skills domains.

While admitting that the effect sizes are small, Marge Scanlon, the ACA’s executive officer for research and intellectual resources, notes that the majority of campers participated in only one- or two-week camps. She says the study’s advisory board believed camps “compared well to other youth development programs that would run an hour a week or two hours a week on a year-round basis.”

The study was conducted in collaboration with Philliber Research Associates and was supported in part by a grant from the Lilly Endowment.