Student groups divided on MSA's funding application

BY EMILY ORLEY
Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 12, 2009

One of the Michigan Student Asembly’s primary purposes is distributing funds to student groups that need the funding. To make the process easier for student organizations to obtain this money, the assembly completely revamped its funding application at the beginning of last semester.

But so far, student groups have given the new process mixed reveiws, some contending that the process provides a vital resource for groups during hard times while others complaining that the process is still too opaque and complicated.

LSA junior Brad Snider is in the latter of the two groups. Snider, who led an Alternative Spring Break team this semester and had to request funding from MSA, said the process of obtaining funding from the assembly is still inefficient and, quite simply, “a waste of time.”

“It is very confusing. It is not clear what the different committees do or how they determine how much money they are giving you,” Snider said.

Former MSA Treasurer Lisa Averill said, however, that the process is made clear to student organizations who apply for funding.

“We pretty clearly outline our entire process for them,” she said. “And if they come to office hours or anything, we’re always willing to go over it with them in more depth.”

The funding application is made available online at the beginning of each fall and winter semester. Around this time, the chairs and vice-chairs for the Budget Priorities and Community Service Committees hold office hours and funding workshops to help student organizations apply for funding.

For many student organizations, navigating this process hasn’t been hard. It has, however, proved pivotal to the functioning of their groups, especially as traditional funding sources back out of giving because of tough economic times.

“Student sponsors are backing out at this time, but (MSA is) still providing,” said Neil Thaneder, president of Detroit Partnership.

Jordan Salin, former chair of MSA’s Budget Priorities Committee, said the assembly received very few complaints from student organizations that did not receive their desired amounts of money in his tenure.

But he added that the changes to the application have produced positive results.

“We gave out more money than in recent years,” Salin said. “There was a noticeable improvement in the quality of applications attributed to the application changes.”

According to MSA treasurer Vishal Bajaj, the Budget Priorities Committee is typically allocated between $125,000 and $130,000 each semester and the Community Service Committee is typically allocated about $45,000 each semester to provide to student groups.

Bajaj said this is considerably higher than the 40 percent of MSA’s overall funds required to go to the Budget Priorities Committee and 20 percent required to go to the Community Service Committee by MSA’s constitution and compiled code.

Despite the detailed process for fund allocation, there are student groups on campus who feel they are not given a fair shot by the MSA budget committees.

Andrew Dalack, co-chair of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, a pro-Palestinian organization, said the new funding process lacks transparency, which raises many issues for him.

“It is unclear why sometimes we receive more or less money for certain events,” he said.

Dalack said he thinks the funding allotment discrepancy may have something to do with politics.

“The political opinions of the members of BPC and CSC may affect our ability to get funding,” he said, “especially if individual members of the various funding bodies fundamentally disagree with SAFE's mission and principles.”

Averill said any students whose neutrality might be compromised — for example, if they are members of certain groups — don’t provide input on that group’s funding. She said the opinions of individual members are not a factor in deciding funding allocation.

“We all understand there are a million organizations on campus with different ideas and ideologies and everything,” Averill said. “Nothing gets factored in as to whether you agree with them or not. Obviously it’s very important to the campus to have differing viewpoints, so that’s not a factor at all.”

Averill said some of the basic standards to decide whether or not a group or event will be provided funding are the impact it would have on the student body — she said an educational event would be likely to earn more funding than a social one — and the scope of the group.

“If it’s (a student organization) that includes a very large portion of the student body, either in the event or the group itself, that’s one of the things to kind of determine how much we’re going to contribute to it,” Averill said.

Bajaj, who used to be the treasurer for the Indian American Student Association, said he had a good experience earning MSA funding, but that he does think there are problems with the system.

“I think the problem lies within the fact that to get that money, it was having to beat the system,” he said. “You have to realize there are certain things they’re never going to fund and there are certain things they’re always going to fund.”

Bajaj said he thinks the problem lies mostly with new and up-and-coming student organizations that don’t know how to get around the process. He said MSA should make the process more transparent so student organizations know what it consistently funds and doesn’t fund.

“I think that’s the problem, student organizations shouldn’t have to feel they have to trick MSA,” he said. “It should be easier and more transparent.”

MSA also considers financial need of each group when determining fund allocation. The committees take into consideration whether or not the funds from an event go to charity and if organizations need MSA backing to operate.

“Basically we want to give them the money to allow them to operate, but if they have enough money to operate themselves, then they don’t have financial need,” Averill said.

Conner Sandefur, president of the Native American Student Association, said his group was upset after it was denied funding for one of its events earlier in the year. Sandefur said his group was told the funding was denied because it already had enough money in its account. That money, however, was earmarked for its powwow fundraiser, Sandefur said, and was not meant for the event.

“We still had the event but our account was depleted because we had thought we had a strong proposal and were counting on the funding,” Sandefur said. “This left us at a disadvantage for our powwow.”

Later in the year, when NASA requested funds from MSA for its powwow because its savings had been spent, the group was denied again, Sandefur said. The assembly told the organization the reason it was denied was because the money it would make on admissions tickets at the powwow would cover the costs of the event.

“I'm not sure how the funding committee made the determination that they understood our budget more clearly than we do,” he said.

Averill said if any organizations are not content with the funding they are granted, they are given the opportunity to appeal.

“People come to appeals a lot, and a lot of the time people who do come to appeals end up getting more money because it’s usually very legitimate reasons why they’re there,” she said.

Despite the many complaints of a lack of transparency, inefficient processes and budget committee members who make decisions subjectively, there are many campus groups that say MSA has been extremely helpful when it comes to funding.

Reid Benjamin, treasurer of Relay For Life, said the funding process is very effective in a multitude of ways.

He stated that the necessary training about the process and available meetings with MSA representatives helps to make things run efficiently.

“I have a hard time saying anything negative about the process because it’s gone so smoothly,” Benjamin said.

Julia Hawley, treasurer of the Solar Car Team, said MSA has been very beneficial to their cause as well.

“Usually they give us a pretty good portion and overall we’ve had a positive experience,” Hawley said. “We always ask for more money than we think we can get but MSA is always generous.”

Bajaj said he plans to reform the funding process while he is MSA treasurer, possibly increasing the amount of money allocated to the Budget Priorities Committee among other changes, to make funding easier for student groups.

One of the issues with student funding is that it is a system of reimbursements, Bajaj said. Therefore, if student groups do not have enough money up front, they still cannot host events, even though MSA will ultimately provide them funding.

Bajaj said he also plans to put the entire application online and hold more individual funding workshops, possibly even approaching student organizations rather than having student organizations approach MSA.