SA’s funding process needs to change

The Process

Imagine that you’re trying to host an event for an organization, and you’d like to get money from Student Association to host the event. Organizations go through this process all the time, so it must intuitive and effective, right? Absolutely not.

Let me tell you the steps that you need to take. First, if you want to cater from anywhere but Sodexo and you want to spend more than $100 on food, then you must file a catering exemption. If you don’t file the exemption, or you file it incorrectly, then you don’t get money, per university (not SA, as is common misconception) policy. Then, you need to file an event sponsorship application. These two forms ask for a significant amount of overlapping information, which makes you wonder why you must fill both of them out.

Next, if you anticipate at least 150 students, then you need to file an alcohol-free waiver for the event, indicating that you will … not have alcohol at your event. You wonder why this form is necessary, but it isn’t that much of a hassle, so you decide to fill it out anyway.

If you file early enough before your event, you go to an FAC (Financial Allocations Committee) meeting where the FAC chair kindly guides you on how to budget for your event and maximize the funding that SA gives you. Then, you host your event which might require sign-in sheets, depending on a number of factors, and file a post-event sponsorship application.

If you didn’t file for an FAC meeting early enough before your event, then you must now go to an FAC meeting. At this astoundingly pointless meeting, the FAC chair will ask you if the numbers that you submitted after your event are correct, one category at a time. You say yes to all of those things because, of course, you filled out the form correctly.

The emails giving meeting times used to be sent out the morning of the meetings, which was a problem. Austin Carr, the current FAC chair, changed that so now the meetings are sent out at 6pm the day before — a positive change, as you now have more time to plan to go the meeting or find someone to replace you if you cannot go.

Then, the FAC writes a bill which goes to Senate. If your event cost less than $1000, then the FAC defends your bill at Senate for you, which is another positive increase from $500 last semester.

If your event cost over $1000, then you too must go to Senate. They give you an approximate time to arrive, which is almost never correct. When your organization’s event finally comes up on the agenda, they ask you questions about the event, including possibly producing a sign-in sheet. You answer their questions, then inexplicably are asked to leave the room like the discussion is secret, even though SA will publish minutes of the discussion afterwards anyway. When they invite you back into the room after the discussion, they tell you how much money you got. Hooray!

Then, you wait several days to get an e-mail saying that SA has transferred money to your organization’s account. Next, you fill out part of a check request, you produce the approval of the catering exemption, the e-mail from SA indicating that money was transferred for your event, the itemized receipts involved in the purchase and submit them to SA, which then submits them to the business office. You ask yourself why adding SA into this part of the process is necessary, rather than just submitting to the business office, but it really isn’t that big of a deal, so you move on.

You must complete this entire process in thirty days.

The Problems

This thirty day requirement is to be within “the proper accounting period,” as Joan Carter, accounts payable manager, puts it. She works for the business office, which handles the final stretch of the journey where the money finally reaches your personal bank account.

“Wait, my personal bank account?” I hear you asking. Of course. Personal student money is always on the line. That reality is the most terrifying part of this convoluted process: Events hosted by student organizations for all of the TU community are paid for with students’ personal money. While ostensibly this requirement seems fair, for reasons that will become apparent as you continue reading, it’s actually quite absurd.

If you can’t afford to pay for your event up front, then you’d better find someone else to pay for it. No one else is willing? That’s perfectly understandable, given the inherent risk associated with waiting for a reimbursement that may never come. Well, too bad. You don’t get to hold your event.

But, I mean, the process is actually pretty simple if you file all of the forms correctly and punctually, right? Certainly. Unless a problem happens at one of these steps. And I know that a problem can happen at each of these steps from personal experience, or from seeing it happen to someone else. For instance, the FAC has submitted the wrong bill to Senate. The funding application got lost. The FAC gave a meeting time, and when the representative arrived, no one was present. Sometime after SA submitted the form to the business office, a check request just disappeared for months.

Ideally, you have to wait one week for reimbursement. I’m approaching four months.

Many problems occurred in the process last semester at no one’s hand. Luke Lau and Kim Bartlett were FAC co-chairs for part of last semester — but only part. They both quit at different points throughout the semester, and I cannot blame them: Being FAC chair is unnecessarily arduous, and the misery of that job translates to pain for students. I asked both of them why they quit.

Luke quit first, but I’d like to start with why Kim quit. She said that she “stopped being FAC chair because of the workload and time commitment needed to do the job well.” After her “co-chair had to suddenly step down,” she had “to pick up the slack and quickly.” She said, “I had a lot of help from Vice-President Whitney Cipolla, Treasurer Cocking, and Deputy Chief of Staff Clement, but it was not a position that I felt I could take on for much longer. This is a committee that needs all of your attention if you are doing it alone and I could not promise that for an extended period of time.”

Let me break down a bit why being FAC chair can be so stressful. For one thing, the FAC chair gets a lot of emails: People complaining about money, people saying that they filled out the forms, the actual applications for funding, questions about funding, meeting requests, etc. They have to write the bills, which Austin (who replaced Luke and Kim as FAC chair after they left) said takes him “hours upon hours.” They must go to the Senate meetings (which last several hours each week) and argue for or against the award of funding to organizations. And the process can be soul-sucking.

That’s the reason that Luke Lau quit. “What triggered it was the [Kappa Delta] bill that went through that night [of Senate],” he said.

“Saudi Student Club and the Chinese Student Association went before KD’s event and they were heavily scrutinized for their attendance as they both spent more on food than their attendance would allow for and while I knew that it was gonna happen, I felt that they had done everything they could. I told them before the event to spend less than their estimate just to be safe and they both did. So their representatives go up, I’ve seen all of the Chinese Student Association’s receipts and attendance sheets by then and the Saudi students had all their receipts and attendance sheets there, and then Senate nitpicks their attendance for quite a while… and they end up getting within $100 of their requested amount. I know for a fact that the Chinese Student Association spent way more than they requested that night, but it’s still good I guess. Like stuff happens. They were fine with it.”

“And then the KD bill comes up. The organization representative did not seem like she had had a part in planning the event, and without attendance sheets, she says 412 in attendance, which was interesting to me because it was exactly at the start of the cap of the amount that they needed to get reimbursed for. I tell every representative to bring their attendance sheets if they expect over 150 …, to Senate when they have to go. When I proposed to not fund it that night as there was no proof of attendance, people responded with ‘I went to the event and signed in so there were definitely sign in sheets,.’ or ‘I’ve been [in some position] for this sorority and I’ve never brought in sign in sheets but there’s always sign in sheets there.’ They never really say they had proof of the attendance, but they find literally every way to defend this person up there. And of course it passes, with no attendance sheets.”

Remember how earlier I said that you might need to produce sign-in sheets? That’s subject to a number of factors, examples of which are given in the financial allocations guidelines. But those are only examples, and you might be able to satisfy Senate by merely claiming the existence of sign-in sheets.

The FAC chair already has to deal with an inadequately educated organization base; though, that might be because of how SA educates the organizations. Organizations send a representative to attend one of two meetings at the beginning of each semester with a powerpoint that may have outdated or incorrect information — like last semester, for example. Then, the FA (Financial Allocations) guidelines are put online. As someone who has been treasurer of an organization before, this document only really makes sense if you already understand it.

Then, the FAC has to deal with a fickle Senate which simply cannot make up its mind about how to fund organizations. To be fair, given the current system, this probably results in more organizations being funded than would be otherwise, a wonderful thing given the opacity and risk of the process.

Given the difficulty of being FAC chair, you might imagine that there is decent pay for working in that capacity. There isn’t. According to Chase Cocking, the current treasurer of SA, the FAC chair is paid minimum wage, $7.25 per hour, plus twenty cents for each year on SA.

I asked Austin how many hours per week he worked for FAC chair, and he shared this little tidbit with me: “I do get 10 billable hours per week; however, I blow through my 10 billable hours within the first three days of the pay period. So Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, I’ve already used all my hours for that entire two-week period. So, typically, I’ll put in twenty hours [each week].”

I also asked Luke if he thought that the process needed to change. He highlighted many weaknesses of the process: “Organizations … forget to fill out one of the three applications in time, they decide to tell the truth about their attendance and it’s not enough for how much they spent on food. Suddenly, students or departments are out sometimes hundreds of dollars, for usually a well planned event that they won’t get reimbursed for just cause they missed jumping through one of SA’s hoops. In the fall, whenever I caught it in time, I found myself meeting with organization representatives outside of FAC meetings to explain the process better or checking with them during their planning steps to make sure there wasn’t any chance that they would do something that Senate would not be able to fund.”

“Sometimes events need certain things that SA can’t fund that are integral to making an event how it is. Chinese Student Association’s Mid-Autumn Festival in the fall had mooncakes, something that’s definitely difficult to find in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Omani Night was decorated like a fancy dinner, table cloths, centerpieces and all. Try to do that on the $500 miscellaneous [rentals] category. Try to find good ethnic food in Tulsa and then try to get it at $7 per person that SA gives you. You end up with organizations that end up footing part of the bill for their event or you have pizza shoved into every monthly meeting that happens on campus.”

“The most important part of the org funding process that needs to change is the Senate. It’s currently made out of some truly amazing people, people who need to fulfill a leadership requirement, and people who decide that some nights are the nights that they need everyone to hear their opinion and a meeting that’s already running until 12 is the perfect audience. And they’re all sitting in front of people who look up from their homework long enough to say Aye or Nay depending on which is more popular. Decisions are being made for student organization funding by people who have never been on the receiving end of the process, never tried planning around their caps, never struggled to get reimbursed either just cause they haven’t planned an event before or they come from Cabinet with their cap-less bottomless budgets. While funding guidelines aren’t something that can be changed immediately, changes for funding guidelines for Fall 2017 should be decisions that are made during these coming months and the Spring Senate elections openings will be an opportunity for new ideas and people to make a difference in the current Senate behavior.”

Pay careful attention to the third paragraph, the observation of the fact that decisions about funding are made by people who have never had to follow the process. That’s pretty upsetting when you remember how nitpicky they can be with student organizations, like the Chinese Student Association and Saudi Student Club.

I hope I’ve made it perfectly transparent how utterly miserable this process is, for students in particular but also for the FAC chair, and how desperately it needs to change. In my interview with Austin, he agreed with me that the process needed to change. In fact, when we spoke, he showed me many of the changes that he had already made to the FA guidelines before we spoke.

To that end, I have some suggestions.

The Solutions

What if the organization doesn’t fill out these forms correctly, or forgets to fill one out, or doesn’t quite understand what to put in each box? That’s still a problem. And this area is where good web design can come into play.

I envision a singular web form that ameliorates these problems by providing useful information next to each box — the form on SA’s website already has this to some extent, but it could be improved, and it could be the only form. What if you could check a box to file a catering exemption request, as well? What if there were a checkbox asking about alcohol at the event, along with a description of what precautions must be taken if there were? If you check the box no, and your student attendance is less than 150, then nothing extra happens. If your student attendance is at least 150, an alcohol-free event waiver is automatically filed. If you plan to have alcohol, an alcohol event waiver is automatically filed.

There’s a text box where you can type out all of the forms of advertising that you used, and it isn’t clear that you need multiple special forms of advertising. Instead of a text box, you could have a bunch of checkboxes with a helpful hint indicating that you must be able to check multiple items, or options to write in your own. After all, flyers in a variety of buildings and digital signage are common methods of advertising — a checkbox would make the process simpler for organizations and the FAC chair. The form could have a list of examples of items that were previously approved for the miscellaneous category so that organizations better understand its purpose.

Those are just some of the ways to improve the clarity of the process. While updates to the funding application form will hopefully help reduce the FAC chair’s need to clarify information and speak to student organizations, that job will still require a lot of time and work, perhaps more than the FAC chair is being paid for.

So, I also recommend raising the FAC chair’s pay. That job is difficult and immensely time-consuming, beyond the amount that the chair is paid. To ensure that someone is always motivated to do the job, and that the compensation is more fair, better pay for the FAC chair would be a positive change.

Most importantly, the requirement for students to spend personal money on events, potentially being out hundreds of dollars, must be eliminated. A credit system would remedy this problem. I wholeheartedly agree with Austin: “Not everybody has a ton of bucks to spend on their event, and then once you split that money up into different people, there’s different receipts, somebody could lose it, so somebody’s not going to get reimbursed in a timely manner, or at all. I would love to have the credit system … It doesn’t make sense for us to disincentivize putting on large scale programming.” Then, the transaction can be authorized straight from the organization’s account, not involving student money at all.

Additionally, these organizations put the events on for all students, anyway, so it seems strange that their members are personally fiscally liable for the student turnout. Because the event is for the benefit of all students, it should be funded by SA’s money.

Obviously, there is one major pitfall: What if an organization vastly overestimates its attendance?

My suggestion to that problem is to have a two-fold system: SA can vote to finance the event for a certain amount before the event, and, if it underestimates, will finance the difference afterwards. The organization files the funding application, wherein it argues for a projected attendance number: “We have (or will) put flyers in every building, blasted it on social media, and had digital signage, so we expect 150 students to attend.” The organization meets with FAC, and the FAC then recommends an attendance level to fund — maybe the organization has not had this high of attendance before, so it thinks that only 120 students will attend. The organization might modify its budget to plan for 120 students, or it might try to plan for 150 students anyway.

The FAC then goes to Senate, and argues for the funding amount. Senate grants the amount that the FAC argues for, but the organization wants to spend more money. So, they spend the money in the account to cover 120 students and their own personal money to cover the remaining 30 students. But 160 students attend! Now they need to be reimbursed for the difference.

Either way, the organization files the post-event update. If its attendance and expenditures exceeded the recommended amount, the organization is reimbursed up to that level and the process continues as it currently works.

Organizations, especially new ones, would be able to request help for planning events from the FAC (or another committee) to help them secure funding and become a successful organization.

Ultimately, this change makes the process much less stressful for all sides: Students don’t worry about losing personal money, Senate doesn’t have to tell some unfortunate student that they will not be reimbursed after the money is spent and the FAC chair gets more information about the process, and fewer angry e-mails. It incentivizes larger events and encourages better planning. It’s more fair to the students and organizations participating.

Or, students could keep losing personal money because someone tripped somewhere in the current labyrinthine process.

Post Author: tucollegian

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