Student group funding: an imperfect process

For non-SAC-funded groups, finding funding can be more difficult than expected

· April 24, 2014, 7:23 pm   ·  Updated April 25, 2014, 4:53 pm

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Henry Lin | DP


The funding deficit for student groups — spurred in part by the moratorium imposed by the Student Activities Council in September 2012 — is nothing new. Neither, though, are alternatives to alleviate the funding squeeze. But for groups that aren’t SAC-funded, these sources often bring with them a number of restrictions and prerequisites that can make accessing their funds difficult.

There are 18 sources of alternate funding, according to the Alternate Funding Guide created jointly by the Undergraduate Assembly and the Social Planning and Events Committee. However, students who must rely solely on these alternate funds are not entirely pleased with their availability and distribution.

SPEC has three funding committees to which student groups can apply — Fully Planned, SPEC-TRUM and Connaissance. The money for all three sources “comes directly from the UA in the budgeting process,” SPEC Treasurer and Wharton senior Gib Baltzer said.

Seth Koren, a College and Wharton junior and president of Penn Secular Society, a non-SAC-funded group, recognizes that while there are a decent number of alternate funding options available, many have strings attached.

If a group’s event “doesn’t fit into one of the boxes” outlined in the funding guide, “it shuts some doors in terms of funding,” Koren said.

Nikolai Zapertov, a College senior and former UA representative on the budget committee, voiced similar concern. “If a group is not, for instance, related to an intercultural group or religious organization, they’re excluded from a lot of the funds,” Zapertov said.

In October, Zapertov started a petition to increase transparency in the student group funding process and Koren wrote a guest column in The Daily Pennsylvanian criticizing the SAC moratorium.

Earlier this month, the SAC executive board wrote a guest column in the DP stating that the moratorium may be partially lifted next semester, if certain conditions are met. SAC Chair Kanisha Parthasarathy, a College junior, said that SAC groups’ combined debt has declined by $31,000 since the 2012-13 school year.

“SAC recognizes somewhere between 150 and 200 groups,” Executive Director of the Office of Student Affairs Katie Bonner said. She estimates that at the beginning of each academic year, there are about 400 registered student groups, with this number swelling to about 600 by the end of the year — leaving roughly 400 groups not recognized by SAC.

For those groups, there are concerns regarding how to maintain the money they fundraise or acquire. “The policy in the Penn Book is that efforts are supposed to get deposited into a University account,” Bonner said, referring to the handbook that outlines student policies. But University accounts cannot be acquired without a budget code, which requires SAC recognition — and therein lies part of the problem.

College junior Lisvet Luceno is the president of two student groups — one of which, Onda Latina, is SAC-funded, while the other, the Cuban American Undergraduate Student Association, is not. Luceno feels that the guidelines set forth for non-SAC-funded groups are difficult to navigate.

“I talked to someone at OSA about what options we have for banking, and the only thing they could suggest was opening an account with the Student Federal Credit Union. But that would require one of our board members’ social security number,” Luceno said. “Who wants to have their social security number attached to an account?”

“At this point we literally have all of our money in a Ziploc bag in our treasurer’s drawer,” she said.

Bonner recognizes the issues that arise from situations like Luceno’s. “We know that we have a lot of student groups that are registered but that don’t have access to a budget code, and they have no other option than to go to a private institution and set up an account,” she said. “It’s not something we endorse, but it’s something that happens.”

Luceno also voiced concerns over the limited amount of funding available. As part of the Latino Coalition, her group, CAUSA, does receive funding on a rolling basis, but does not receive a funding allocation at the beginning of a given semester or year.

“With the LC it’s first come, first serve, because they don’t want to dish out to people and have it not be used,” Luceno said. As such, groups under the Latino Coalition can only apply for funds if they have an event in mind, because the Coalition has limited funds to distribute to the 16 constituent groups it represents.

Insufficient resources for distribution are a continuing concern around campus, for SAC- and non-SAC-funded groups alike. Zapertov said that “groups want to keep getting bigger and do bigger things, but alternate funding sources do not get increases, while SAC gets increases every year through the UA, based on tuition increases.”

The three SPEC funding committees, for example, had a total of $339,200 allocated in the 2012-13 school year, according to the UA budget. For next school year, they have $330,500 allocated.

But Bonner said that even SAC-funded groups “have felt a crunch.”

“There have been cuts to their budgets so that the moratorium can be lifted,” she said. She added that it’s important for students to recognize that funding for student groups was insufficient before the moratorium prevented new groups from applying for SAC funding.

“One fundamental piece about the SAC moratorium is that before the moratorium, there were a lot of groups that were not recognized by SAC,” she said. “Should the moratorium be lifted, it would still only be a small number of the large number of groups that we have that would get in. Students feel like once it’s lifted it’ll all be fixed, and that’s not the case.”

Bonner said that the administration is very aware of the dearth of resources accessible to students and encourages SAC- and non-SAC-recognized groups alike to take advantage of the alternate funding sources that are available.

The existence of the alternate funds, though, is not enough to assuage Koren’s displeasure. SPEC’s three funding committees, for example, accept applications for funding from any registered group on campus, but restrictions still apply as to whether a group will receive the money it requests.

“Essentially anyone can apply for Fully Planned. The only restriction is that it’s fully planned — that you know what your costs are going to be,” Baltzer, the SPEC treasurer, said.

While this system is designed to make sure the groups receiving money don’t misuse it, the structure of Fully Planned also creates some issues. Koren finds it difficult to secure speakers for events for the Penn Secular Society without being able to count on being funded.

“I think my issue with [Fully Planned] is that it’s really hard to get someone to agree to come contingent upon you getting funding,” he said.

Baltzer said that this is a concern that has been communicated to SPEC before. “I think in general, the easiest way for groups to avoid this situation is to come to funding sources far in advance of their event,” he said in an email. “While we want to be funding events that are fully planned (hence the name), it’s fine if groups come to us with a quoted honorarium and rough cost estimate for venue and any other components of the event.”

Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., a member group of the Multicultural Greek Council, received funding from SPEC-TRUM as well as Fully Planned for its Love’s Kitchen event, which it co-hosted with Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. in February.

“Because my group does not have a ‘budget code,’ it has caused several issues with receiving funding,” College junior Yvonne Hyde-Carter, Alpha Kappa Alpha’s recording secretary and a member of SPEC-TRUM, said in an email. “Our organization had to put out the money in advance and has yet to be reimbursed.”

Hyde-Carter said that this funding problem is more of an issue with OSA than it is with SPEC. “OSA and SPEC need to have better communication and a better process so that student groups don’t have to wait so long for their reimbursements,” she said. But, she added, “I have seen just how important of a role [SPEC-TRUM] play[s] in ensuring that minority organizations’ events actually happen.”

To involve more students in the decision-making process of allocating its funds, SPEC has requested less money from the UA for Fully Planned for the upcoming academic year, such that the extra money can go into the SPEC-TRUM and Connaissance pots. Fully Planned allocations are determined by members of the SPEC board, while decisions to allocate funds from SPEC-TRUM and Connaissance are influenced more by the student body. “For Connaissance, anyone can go to the meetings,” Baltzer said. “After they’ve been there three times, they can vote” on events to be funded by the committee.

“Fully Planned is a little opaque,” he added. “Ideally we want to involve students more.”

Bonner agreed that student involvement and responsibility are important in the grand scheme of funding on campus. “We want groups and individuals to know that we’re here to discuss this issue, for sure. OSA believes that our student groups and the things they do is what make Penn Penn, and we want to be as supportive of that as possible,” she said. “But we also have to be realistic and reasonable about it.”

Parthasarathy, the SAC chair, said that until the moratorium is lifted, the Alternate Funding Guide is “a fantastic resource for students.” She also suggested ways for student groups to solve their funding issues if SAC isn’t an option.

“Raising revenue is the easiest way to be able to put on your events,” and while raising revenue is tough on a college campus, being conscious of costs that come along with certain spaces and event types is crucial.

She also stressed the use of the Common Funding Application — a one-stop-shop through which groups can apply to all 18 alternate funding sources at once.

Zapertov said that the “CFA is helping with transparency — but that’s contingent on the CFA being circulated widely ... but I’m not sure that it has been.”

Despite the criticisms of the funding process, OSA wants to assure students that measures are being taken to resolve the problems. With the moratorium, “we tried to plug the leak,” Bonner said. “We’ve been working on the plumbing.”

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