Incentives and Young Jewish Adults: The Questions We Should Be Asking

by Daniel S. Horwitz

It is no secret that in order to attract young adult participants, the organized Jewish community has readily provided incentives in exchange for participating in various programs. These incentives take on different forms, from free trips to Israel, to subsidized housing, to discounted JCC memberships, to the provision of free alcohol at events. There are even programs that go so far as to pay young adults to study Jewish topics. Knowing that we as a community are using incentives, it’s essential that we use them responsibly, and to do all that we can to ensure that donor dollars used to provide them are having the greatest impact possible.

Question #1 we should be asking:
What will the long-term impact of this particular incentive be?

A particular concern as it relates to the use of incentives is what impact said incentives will have on the desire of young adults to engage with the Jewish community long term. In general, while utilizing incentives may help bring about the desired impact in the short-term, studies have shown that in the long term, utilizing incentives may lead to a weakening of intrinsic motivations to partake in a given activity.(1) For example, while an incentive such as providing free alcohol for a young adult to engage in monthly Jewish text study might help achieve that goal in the short term, it might be counterproductive to that young adult enjoying Jewish text study and consciously seeking it out over his/her lifetime once the incentive of free alcohol is removed. This is because incentives have both an economic effect (which is direct) and a psychological effect (which is indirect).(2) After removing the incentive from the equation, the “effort” offered by the young adult to engage in the Jewish community and Jewish text study could very well be lower than it was before the incentive was offered in the first place.(3) This is something the Jewish community needs to be aware of as it determines whether or not to incentivize programs, and how it chooses to go about doing so. It’s a reality that remains largely absent from conversation when determining how incentives are designed and what the long-term consequences of using them might be.

Question #2 we should be asking:
What are we doing to meaningfully evaluate the incentives themselves?

While there have been numerous studies as to the outcomes/impacts that certain incentivized programs are having (Birthright Israel in particular has significant data available thanks largely to the research of Leonard Saxe, Barry Chazan and others), there seemingly have been no meaningful evaluations of the incentives themselves being used by any mainstream Jewish organization to determine whether donors are getting the most “bang for their buck,” both in an engagement sense and in an educational content and outcomes sense. This lack of commitment to investigating and enabling the most efficient use of donor dollars will only serve to dissuade large-scale donors from giving in the future.

Let’s for example look at Birthright Israel. While there is significant data collected regarding participant outcomes, there has not been any meaningful data collected that would help determine whether the charitable dollars raised to provide the free trip are having the greatest impact possible, both in terms of total dollar amount being spent, as well as in terms of educational possibilities. For example, would registration numbers drop significantly if participants, who are required to make a $250 deposit to reserve their spots, were told that instead of receiving that $250 in return after the trip (as is currently the case), those dollars would go towards helping the next group of young adults go on the trip? What if participants were told that their $250 deposit could be donated to the participant’s Israeli or Jewish charity of choice at the conclusion of the trip, instilling and educating about the Jewish value of charitable giving in the process and helping participants recognize that their trip was funded due to the generosity of donors? By not having any data on this kind of question / alternative structure, it is possible that the Jewish community, which contributes millions of dollars each year towards Birthright through its Jewish Federations, is spending much more money than it needs to on this program in order to achieve comparable outcomes, or at the very least is missing an opportunity to further educate the participants.

On a smaller scale, let’s examine a local Torah on Tap program. The Detroit Jewish Federation’s Torah on Tap program meets monthly at a local bar for two hours. No RSVP is required to attend, and during the two-hour session, alcoholic beverages are free for attendees due to the generosity of a single anonymous donor. During the two-hour session, a local Orthodox outreach rabbi offers four 15-minute teachings, often encompassing stories containing a moral or highlighting a particular Jewish value, interspersed with 15-minute intervals for socializing. About 80 young adults attend each monthly Torah on Tap gathering – an impressive figure. Due to its small-scale local nature, no formal data has been collected as to whether an “open bar” is the best mechanism for attracting the target audience to Torah on Tap. Perhaps “the first round is on us” would be just as successful a draw. Or perhaps, should the donor wish to keep it as open bar, a $5 suggested donation for each drink to a Jewish charity of choice would be a meaningful way of engaging those in attendance. Perhaps it could be instituted that one is only entitled to access the open bar in exchange for bringing a dry food item to donate to the local kosher food pantry. There simply hasn’t been any meaningful data collected from those in attendance to determine what it is that brings them in, and if there were changes to the incentive, whether or not that would impact their decisions to attend. Perhaps if free snacks were offered in addition to the open bar, attendance would double at a relatively inexpensive additional cost. Or, what if the current donor could donate half as much money per Torah on Tap event due to modifying the incentive, only lose 10% of those in attendance, and yet utilize the program’s incentive structure to engage those who did continue to attend on a deeper level? Such data would undoubtedly be of interest both to the current donor, as well as to any potential future donors.

Question #3 we should be asking:
What does this mean going forward?

Hopefully, this piece can serve as a catalyst for a more robust discussion about and evaluation of the use of incentives in engaging Jewish young adults, with particular focus on measuring not only outcome-centric data, but also the incentives themselves. Organizations need to be investigating how to most efficiently use donor dollars while best enhancing engagement and Jewish educational outcomes, which will likely involve extensive surveying of the target demographic (including those who are currently utilizing the incentive, those who are not currently utilizing the incentive, and those who have utilized the incentive in the past) to determine their wants and needs, as well as how they might react to a change in the offered incentives. Should a new idea take hold or appear promising, the ability exists to treat the organization’s existing outcome-centric data (for those organizations such as Birthright that have collected such data) as that produced by a control group, and to meaningfully compare and contrast Jewish educational impact and outcomes in data collected post-shift in the incentive offered.

Admittedly this is delicate work, as damaging organizational reputation to “hip” programs can make them “not hip” very quickly, and it is important to note that reputation is key in attracting the demographic. So too, there are associated costs with conducting this type of research, and for some organizations, the costs might be prohibitive.

The greatest challenge of all will be countering the historic tendency of Jewish organizations to embrace a narrative of “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” and having it shift to a narrative of “how can we constantly be improving and striving to most efficiently and effectively utilize donor dollars?” Admittedly such a shift will be difficult, but in a Jewish communal world that is contracting, and with donors (rightfully) demanding accountability and data, it is essential.

Rabbi Daniel S. Horwitz is Director of Immersive Learning at Moishe House and a Northeastern University Doctor of Education Candidate.

1 Uri Gneezy, et al., “When and Why Incentives (Don’t) Work to Modify Behavior”, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 191-210, 191 (Vol. 25 No. 4 2011).
2 Id. at 192.
3 Id. at 194.