Eric Lankin
Jewish Nonprofit pro and Adjunct Professor HUJI

Free is Sometimes Too Expensive

When I was a congregational Rabbi, I remember coming home to my wife after a synagogue program and telling her that we had 100 participants at the program. Using her skills as a Rabbi’s wife, she recalculated the attendance and much more effectively approximated the amount of participants. Her method was to take any number I provided and divide it by two! Yes, it is apparently a general principle that leaders in non-profit organizations often overstate the number of participants in a program.

Overstating the number of participants is not a malevolent act or a reflection of bad counting skills. If the only community measure of success of an educational program is the number of participants, then of course, you count in the staff members present including kitchen staff, security guard, and janitorial team. Also, another way to maximize attendance is to offer the program at no cost or free.

Being honest about this, only measuring the success of a program by the number of participants and having to offer a program at no cost is a double whammy of grossly misunderstanding the purpose of education and non-profit marketing.

Profit-making companies have an easy measure of success- the bottom line. However, non-profit organizations including schools and religious institutions have not only the challenge of measuring success but also a fiduciary responsibility to their donors to use the funds donated wisely and prudently to achieve stated goals. As non-profit leaders, both volunteers and professionals, are our goals so limited that we only judge success by attendance? Education is defined by changed behavior and yes, a change in the rates of participation is a measure of changed behavior. However, I have also been to countless non-profit board meetings including synagogues and I hardly have seen a board measure the success of their organization by the change in the behavior of its members inspired or educated in its religious services or programs.

On the matter of offering free programs to encourage participation, I believe that one of the most damaging principles in life is to think that something is free. In truth, nothing is free and everything has a cost. When individuals think something is free, what is free is often wasted and devalued.  Dr. David Bryfman, Director of the New Center for Collaborative Leadership at The Jewish Education Project and one of the most provocative and thoughtful leaders in the Jewish education scene, was quoted in the Forward ( May 25, 2012 edition). He said, “Free has consequences. Free is not sustainable. And free is never really free; someone is always paying for it, whether those costs are borne by individuals or the community, because funds directed one way are invariably taken from someplace else.”

Offering something for free has a cost. Basic marketing theory notes that after you select a target group and develop a product that will meet their needs, the price of purchasing the product should be only partially related to the cost of producing the product. A most important indicator of the proper price is related to “perceived value.” Isn’t it true that your expectation of the value of a musical show at $100 a ticket is significantly greater than the $30 price of a ticket for the same show? Isn’t it also true that many Jews misunderstand Jewish teachings and consider the holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur more important than the other Jewish holidays because in most synagogues you have to buy tickets? Sometimes offering something for free devalues it in the eyes of the participant.

Do not imagine that I am making a veiled or even implicit criticism of Taglit-Birthright Israel that offers a free trip to Israel to young adults 18-26. No one doubts the real costs of this program generously provided by philanthropists, Federations and the Government of Israel. Each of those parties considers their contributions as an investment in changing the future of Diaspora Jewish life. Moreover, this program has been carefully studied by scholars showing the profound impact and behavioral change of the participants. Although more than 300,000 Jewish young adults have participated, counting the large number of participants who spent 10 days touring Israel is the least significant of the measures of success of this tremendous program.

The sooner that Jewish young adults learn that there is a real cost to Jewish life the better because they are not hesitating to buy other social opportunities and activities at full price. However, equally important, is that the Jewish community must be aware that our young people function in a marketplace of competing programs and values. If they perceive that the only way the Jewish community thinks that they will participate in Jewish educational activities if it is free or at a heavily subsidized cost, then its offerings will be devalued in the eyes of these young people. If the participation in what the Jewish community offers suffers, it isn’t the fault of the young person qua customer, it’s our fault because we are not meeting their needs and that includes spiritual content and meaningful educational opportunities.

Even free is sometimes too expensive.









About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Eric Lankin is the president of Lankin Consulting and an adjunct professor in the MA program in Nonprofit Management and Leadership at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has volunteered working with Jews in recovery for over 30 years. His family made aliyah in 2017.