The Voucher Model: Jumpstarting Teen Engagement

Screenshot: CBS LA

By Dr. Jonathan Mirvis

Over the past decade well over $100 million dollars has been invested in the United States in teen Jewish education and engagement. Large philanthropic organizations have made investment in this age group a priority and their crucial efforts continue to this very day.

While these investments have led to the development of creative and exciting initiatives, the goal of ensuring major market share for Jewish engagement and education among American teens remains elusive. According to the report “Effective Strategies for Educating and Engaging Jewish Teens” (March 2013) compiled by The Jim Joseph Foundation, BTW Informing Change and Rosov Consultants, only 20% of teens in the U.S. are engaged in Jewish activities. On the assumption that this number has grown over the past four years, it is fair to assume that the overwhelming majority of Jewish teens are not engaged.

The above-mentioned report highlights an abundance of highly effective teen programs that are successfully implemented in the field and which could be scaled up to attract larger numbers of participants. However, while educational organizations may be highly motivated to expand their reach, there are financial constraints that discourage major growth.

If Jewish educational organizations are to compete successfully for the time and attention of non-engaged Jewish teens, they need to price their programs attractively at prices that are far below their actual cost. This pricing leads to an operating deficit which could be difficult to cover if growth is maintained. While successful programs may be able to raise philanthropic dollars, foundation grants are usually given for a limited period and thus a growth strategy will incur a major financial risk for the organization.

Is it possible to change this paradigm and provide an incentive for growth? This seems to be the central challenge for the field. If a different paradigm could be developed, the full benefits of the important recent investments could be felt and the field could grow dramatically.

In search of a new paradigm, it is worth examining the operating model of Birthright-Israel, which has succeeded in attracting large numbers of the non-engaged. It may be argued that Birthright-Israel’s success can be attributed to the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in the project. However, the contribution of their operating model is of no less importance.

Birthright-Israels Operating Model

At its inception, Birthright-Israel made a seminal policy decision regarding its modus operandi. While the organization assumed financial responsibility for the system, it decided that the implementation of the trips would be outsourced to other organizations. Birthright-Israel would thus limit itself to prescribing the educational guidelines for the trips and providing educational support and in addition, would provide a mechanism of strict quality control.

In accordance with this policy, Birthright-Israel developed a complex operating model. Within this model, I would like to highlight the following key elements:

  1. The participant costs would be covered by a “voucher” (my term) system. These “vouchers” are covered in the USA by a coalition of partners comprising private philanthropies coordinated by the Birthright Israel Foundation, the Israeli Government, and North American Jewish Federations.
  2. The trips are organized and operated on a fee for service basis by third parties. This enables both nonprofit and for-profit organizations to organize and operate Birthright-Israel trips
  3. Birthright-Israel sets the educational, operational, and marketing standards and guidelines for the trips and invests in staff training for the tour educators and councilors.
  4. All trips are evaluated by an external independent agency. The evaluation reports are scrutinized and if needed, corrective action is sought. In this manner, quality control is maintained.

Advantages of the BirthrightIsrael Model

The advantages of this model are significant:

  • The vouchers finance the system and as such, an abundance of vouchers provides an impetus for the growth of the system. Since the trip organizers and operators are paid on a fee for service basis, they are motivated both educationally and financially to recruit more students and expand the program.
  • Fee for service enables those who deliver educational experiences to focus all their energies on ensuring that they deliver a high quality program without needing to worry about fundraising.
  • Fee for service payment has broadened the field to include for-profit educational organizations as well.
  • Birthright-Israel has attracted hundreds of highly talented tour educators to staff their trips. Given the financial stability of the system, many of these educators are willing to make multi-year commitments to the program.

If the Birthright-Israel model could be adapted to the realm of teen education and engagement there would be a “change in the rules” and organizations would be incentivized to grow and reach out to new populations. Furthermore, most if not all of the abovementioned advantages would emerge in the teen realm as well.

In calling for a voucher system there are two major challenges which need to be surmounted. The first relates to determining the intensity of programs and their quality requirements for voucher eligibility. With diverse programs being offered by multiple providers locally, nationally, and internationally, the task will certainly prove to be complex. Yet the Jewish Agency has initiated voucher type programs, MASA and Onward Israel, and has demonstrated that this challenge is surmountable.

A second major challenge is the provision of funding. Here too Birthright-Israel, MASA, and Onward Israel have demonstrated that high quality vision driven initiatives are able to draw together coalitions of funders including the Israeli Government, which will support such initiatives.

Dr Jonathan Mirvis is a Senior Lecturer at The Hebrew University’s Melton Centre for Jewish Education. His specialty is the field of Social Entrepreneurship.

A free Kindle Download of his recent book It’s Our Challenge: A Social Entrepreneurship Approach to Jewish Education will be available from Amazon from Sunday March 19, 12am PST through Monday March 20, 11:59pm PST