Reevaluating MinCo’s subgroup budgets: Problematizing “need-based” budget allocations

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“Cut the decorative pieces,” “Cut retreat to Montreal,” “Cut a lot of food:” These were some of the most interesting remarks in this year’s College Council (CC) budget subgroup recommendation sheet. This document was shared for the first time with all student organization leaders earlier this term. The move, aimed at increasing transparency, was an outstanding decision taken by CC.

The release of the budget recommendation sheet – which discloses the great disparities in the amount of funding requested by and allocated to various student groups – has allowed for many crucial conversations to take place across campus. Within athletic clubs, for instance, requests ranged from around $50 to over $30,000. Many of these requests were well justified – even those at the higher end of the spectrum. Some, unfortunately, remain puzzling. But at least this year, more students are aware that massive disparities exist.

Many funding allocations, however, are still carried out behind closed doors. Minority Coalition (MinCo) groups, for instance, only have access to their own budget – receiving a single figure without any explanation. These groups are mostly absent from the CC sheet, as they receive all or most of their funding from MinCo and the Davis Center (DC). As with CC, MinCo’s budget allocations are “need-based.” But the current formula to determine need relies heavily on a club’s previous year’s spending – a very questionable indicator. “Excessive” spending, for instance, is rarely accounted for in this equation. As a result, groups that cater food from up-market restaurants, fund trips around the country and invite speakers who demand thousands of dollars in speaker fees are unsurprisingly in “need” of  more money.

This year’s allocations, with the DC’s involvement, were largely welcomed by students. But with the current model, there is a high likelihood of issues arising in the future. In order to prevent this, MinCo needs to incorporate additional factors into its formula for determining need.

First, MinCo should take into account the plans set forth by new leaders. Groups should neither be at an advantage nor at a disadvantage simply due to the way they have operated previously. Ideally, meetings between student leaders, the MinCo treasurer and faculty moderators should occur at the start of each year before determining budgets. During these meetings, groups should also be made to disclose their other sources of funding. Not taking into consideration the external sources of funding groups may have when allocating budgets could result in certain groups having immense financial prowess.

Need for funding should also consider a group’s “core target” size. Groups that are serving a subset of a community being served by other groups, but are spending significantly more, should justify their need to do so. Large expenses, especially, should be put under more scrutiny. A MinCo board member should ensure that due diligence has been done by asking questions such as: Is the equipment being ordered cost-effective? Have groups explored the option of venturing a little further out (to North Adams, perhaps) to cut costs? Were reasonable estimates of the attendance of events made when ordering food? Did the food run out, or did lots go to waste? Without these questions, groups can be tempted to spend excessively on single events to ensure that they continue receiving high budgets.

On the topic of food, although it remains a mystery how most organizations spend their money, based on the funding request remarks published by CC, it is clear that several organizations spend a lot on food  (even when that is not an organization’s main focus; religious and cultural organizations often revolve around community meals, but the vast majority of clubs don’t). I sympathize with the fact that groups are sometimes forced to spend on food in order to lure students to their events. But this is perhaps the more serious problem that has come to light from CC’s budget allocation sheet. It is an issue that the College needs to tackle in a more serious manner. So far, lack of commitment to clubs has largely been accepted as a consequence of the College being academically rigorous with a large student-athlete population. This needs to change. We desperately need to study the issue and look for more creative ways to increase participation in clubs.

Returning to the original issue of determining “need,” it is evident that using spending as an indicator can be problematic. However, the first step that needs to be taken by MinCo is increasing transparency. After all, the release of CC’s budget document not only brought out disparities in funding requests, but it also highlighted how much groups rely on food to lure Williams students out of their burrows.

Shreyam Misra ’21 is from New Delhi, India. He intends to double major in economics and physics.