A More Democratic Camp: Response to Our New Sliding Scale

by Emily Pinkowitz, Education Director

Bird Alliance of Oregon Education is dedicated to creating opportunities for all people to connect to nature in ways that are meaningful for them. Summer camp is a vital element of this platform, offering children the opportunity to explore, learn, and delight in nature for weeks at a time, while providing essential child care to families. However, the cost of camp programs has made them prohibitive for a significant number of families in our community. To address that barrier, this year we committed to expand access to camp by piloting a sliding scale payment model.

A group of kids hike through the Columbia River Gorge. The photo shows them walking on a trail away from the camera with the Columbia River in the background.

As we shared in the January Warbler, when families began registering for summer camp this winter they were presented with the opportunity to choose an amount that was feasible for them. Families also had the opportunity to give back by paying an additional amount, leveraging their privilege and abundance against the inequities that prevent many children from accessing nature education.

When we launched this pilot, we were unsure how it would be received. Would families opt to use the discounts? Would families choose to “pay it forward”? Would this truly shift who we welcomed to camp this year, creating a more democratic summer program?

Within days of opening registration, an answer started to emerge. Registrations poured in at record-breaking levels. Within one week, we had sold out close to half of camp! By four weeks out from launch, we were at 90% capacity. Now, three months from the start of the season, all but a handful of slots are full.

As we reviewed the data, we were excited to see how dramatically our audience had transformed. Over 250 campers will be coming to camp this summer using discounted rates, with 10% of families opting to pay less than $50 for a week of camp. This change correlates with a shift in the zip codes represented by our camp audience. Close to 200 campers are now coming from zip codes with a median household income below the average in Portland. When we removed cost as a barrier for attending camps, families responded. As a result, this summer our programs will more fully represent the breadth of communities in our city.

With this shift come some financial costs, and we were also moved by the spirit of generosity and collaboration that was reflected in the registration process. Close to 5% of families chose to pay 125% of camp fees to help sustain this program into the future, and over 60% opted to support the true cost of camp, which was far more than we had projected. We are also grateful to supporters who donated to the Spencer Higgins Education Fund. Their support enables us to take bold action to more fully embody our mission to inspire all people to love and protect the natural world.

This summer, we’ll be operating camp at normal capacity for the first time since the pandemic hit. We can’t wait to see the Bird Alliance of Oregon Wildlife Sanctuary and our cabin at Marmot alive with hundreds of children laughing, playing, and learning. They’ll make friends, build community, and spark a deep lasting love of the earth born from extended, rich time in nature. We’re grateful that this year, these unparalleled natural spaces will be accessible to more families from across the city. Together, we are fostering a lasting, resonant sense of place in the outdoors for all.

If you would like to support this effort, donations can be made to the Spencer Higgins Education Fund.