Calculating a Nuanced ROI in Experiential Jewish Education

Thankfully, over the past few months, the environment that I work in has shifted; we have moved from producing mostly medium and large-scale events (where numbers were the focus) to a model that places relationships at its center.

[This is the third in a series of articles highlighting the scope of best practices in experiential Jewish education.]

by Samantha Star

In order to calculate a Return on Investment (ROI), a pretty standard formula is typically used: you invest a certain amount of capital and after a period of time, you calculate the difference between the amount you started with and the amount you ended with; this figure is your ROI. When it comes to money the math is easy, but when it comes to people – in my instance the participants and alumni of educational programs – the calculation becomes much more nuanced and complex.

Don’t get me wrong – I do understand why focusing on numbers is important; if an organization and/or funder is investing money and time into a program, we need to demonstrate success, and numbers talk. Was the cost per person worthwhile? Did the program service enough people? Will these people return? Were there new faces in the room?

While numbers are certainly important, in the field of experiential Jewish education, however, we must ask: “Is quantity really the most effective way to measure the ROI?” I would argue that our first and most important focus should be on the quality of the experience.

Thankfully, over the past few months, the environment that I work in has shifted; we have moved from producing mostly medium and large-scale events (where numbers were the focus) to a model that places relationships at its center. I am now able to dedicate my energy to developing smaller groups and communities, and set actual goals for myself and my programs, instead of only focusing on numbers.

Here are some benchmarks I try to use when developing and evaluating the success of my experiential programs:

1. Meeting Educational Goals

How can we measure whether people learn and retain information presented at programs?

While we can’t ask each participant to complete a pop quiz when leaving an event, we can have a conversation (and by that I mean an actual face-to-face conversation with someone) in which we ask them, “What did you think of the session/program/event?” “Did it meet your expectations?” “What were your expectations?”

We must be open to this feedback and use it to improve programs.

2. Seeing Old and New Faces

How does any business evaluate their success aside from dollars and cents? Returning clientele and new clientele. No business can survive on returning clients alone. Eventually people move or their needs and priorities shift, and businesses need to have a steady stream of new customers.

The same holds true for programming in the Jewish Community, especially among young professionals. It is critical to make sure that we have both familiar and new faces represented at every program, and knowing where these new faces are coming from is just as important.

3. Knowing What our Participants’ Goals Are and Ensuring that They Too are Getting a ROI

We cannot run a successful program without knowing the goals of our participants. We need to make sure that participants are getting a ROI, and they will, if their goals are met. In advance of programs and when evaluating them, we need to make sure that we are making time and space to learn what our participants’ goals are for the experience, and whether they are being met.

4. Success Does Not Happen by Accident

Throwing programs or events together last minute might work in the short-term, but it won’t allow us to become sustainable and meet our long-term goals. Unfortunately, when people hear the words “informal education” they assume that there is no intentionality or planning behind this type of education, but this is simply not the case. In order to run successful events and get a ROI, we need to be thoughtful and deliberate with the choices we make. Everything from venue to music, advertising methods to speaker, and educational content to the thank you email need to be thought-out to ensure that participants get the experience they need in order to learn and grow.

5. People Learn Differently and Must Be Engaged Through Multiple Mediums

Some people are auditory learners. Some are sensory learners. Others yet might best retain information by hearing and seeing and feeling all at the same time. Settings specifically can affect people’s senses (think endless meetings in a board room), which then affect their overall experience. We need to make sure that our methods are as diverse as our learners, which, I know, is a lofty goal.

I realize that I am fortunate to work in an environment that now values the quality of relationships with our learners and participants more than the quantity of participants that I can get into a room. We are doing our stakeholders and funders a disservice by simply counting heads. At the end of the day, the only number that should count is how many people come back for more.

Samantha Star is Manager of Birthright and Alumni Development Initiatives at the Bronfman Israel Experience Centre in Montreal, Canada. She is a graduate of Cohort II of the Yeshiva University Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.