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Saturday, December 27, 2014

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The value of ‘free’ incentives

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When I first ran extracurricular Jewish programs for high school students, I was able to fill a room by offering a basket of stale pretzels. Soon pretzels were no longer a draw, and doughnuts drew the crowd. Next, we gave away pizza.

Over the years, incentives to attract participants have grown, from free meals to raffles for trips and cars. In my final year teaching high school, I was asked if we would consider offering a cash stipend to participants in a lunchtime learning program. We refused.

We have created a culture of “free” (or at least highly subsidized). To be transparent, throughout college and beyond I reaped the benefit. I ate more than my share of bagel lunches and Chinese dinners, I went to conferences for pennies, and I travelled to Israel – several times – for a few hundred dollars. Some of these experiences enhanced my Jewish identity, others drew me toward a career in Jewish communal service, and still others were just good fun.

To me, these adventures appeared to be free, but to our community, they are costly. Individual donors and foundations, federations and non-profits, and even the State of Israel, annually invest hundreds of millions of dollars to create “free” – dollars that they choose not to spend in other arenas.

Free can be the entry point to sustained commitment. The New York Times knows this. Each month, online readers are granted 10 free articles. This taste of the newspaper entices users to purchase premium access, opening the gates to virtually endless content. Just as the Times cannot afford to have all of its readers read endlessly for free, we as a community cannot afford – financially or sociologically – to have all of our members experience Judaism endlessly for free.

In considering our community’s investment in “free” as a tool for engagement, I propose that program organizers consider four questions in weighing incentives – big or small – for participation:

• What do the incentives say about our values? A free trip to Israel sends a different message than a raffle for a car. A free dinner in the sukkah bespeaks different values than a drink at a club. Our choice of incentives demonstrates to participants the underlying culture and intent of the effort.

• How does “free” catalyze movement over the threshold to premium? After a summer at camp, is there a built-in next step to year-round engagement? After a Birthright trip, what support is there to connect participants to local programs and opportunities to return to Israel?

• How do we measure the success of “free”? Beyond counting the heads that show up for free incentives, do we calculate the return on investment over time to determine the lasting impact? How do we demonstrate that “free” drives ongoing engagement?

• What is the impact of “free” on future engagement? To what extent does the incentive inculcate a culture of entitlement? In the long run, does “free” encourage or inhibit participation in full-fare programming?

Incentives bring hundreds of thousands of teens and young adults through our communal doors. In deliberating these investments, however, we must carefully consider the implications of moving from pretzels to pizza to car raffles.

 

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