As the number of student clubs overseen by the Activities Board at Columbia has increased, the budget of the Activities Board at Columbia has decreased—meaning more groups must compete for limited funds.
Last year, ABC—which oversees cultural, performing arts, preprofessional, academic, publication, and special interest groups—funded 149 student groups with a total allocation of $290,925. This year, although the number of ABC-recognized groups has risen to 160, ABC’s funds have fallen to $288,971. With ABC’s resources being spread increasingly thin, organizations must seek additional funding from councils, dean’s funds, third-party corporations, and personal contributions.
In select cases, groups can request funding from the academic departments that advise them. With fixed capital from Student Life fees, ABC takes into account what it believes departments should cover when determining allocations.
Given that the number of clubs seeking money appears to be increasing, ABC is looking to departments as external sources of assistance. Though student organizations have raised concerns over the efficiency of its club financing methods, ABC expressed the hope that academic departments will supplement funding for clubs that fall under their purview.
“ABC works on a very limited budget, and it’s very much a zero-sum game,” said ABC president Alex Li, CC '18. “So, when we give a fixed amount of money to a specific group, that takes away from our chance to give to other groups.”
ABC’s regulations mandate that clubs must be in existence for at least two semesters before being eligible for recognition. Typically, clubs must be recognized for an additional two semesters before being considered for funding, after which ABC will increase the club’s allocation according to demonstrated need.
As a result, groups are left to find external sources of funding even after being recognized. The Columbia Space Initiative, a newly recognized club founded in 2015, will not receive funding from ABC until next year, and has had to seek sponsorship from several different sources.
“It’s more work because you have to hunt them down,” co-president of the Columbia Space Initiative Keenan Albee, CC ’17, said. “You have to do the legwork, and find which funding sources are available.”
The Columbia Space Initiative, which had a budget of roughly $2,000 last year, has been funded by various project grants from Columbia College Student Council and Engineering Student Council, as well as the Dean’s Travel Fund and competitions hosted by NASA. Members have also made personal contributions out of pocket.
“We’d prefer not to,” Albee said, “but that’s really because a lot of friends were excited about doing cool space projects, so we wanted to contribute ourselves rather than let them languish.”
ABC-recognized clubs have also found bureaucratic obstacles within the process, such as the mandate that only 50 percent of their allocation can be for transportation and lodging.
One example is Columbia’s chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics is a design-intensive club that builds aeronautical machines to compete in nationwide tournaments. Although ABC provides them with consistent annual funding that helps finance the purchase of materials, AIAA has often had to apply for external grants, like the Dean’s Travel Fund or the Joint Council Co-Sponsorship Committee, to cover travel.
“It’s kind of a bummer that we can’t allocate our funds in a way that would be most useful to us for our travel needs,” AIAA president Jefferson Hancock, SEAS '17, said. “However, Columbia has been good about giving us ways to work around that with resources like the travel fund.”
In contrast to AIAA’s relative stability, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers has received a fluctuating allotment in past years. Hancock, who also serves as ASME’s president, partially attributes this variability to the club’s previous mismanagement of funds. To account for a reduction from $722 last year to $200 this year, ASME has relied on $2,650 worth of grants and co-sponsorships from the mechanical engineering department to cover the remainder of their programming.
“Towards the end of last year, we were trying to invest in a set of Fundamentals of Engineering Exam books, which help prepare people for one of the first steps in getting their professional engineering license,” Hancock said. “The study materials are pretty expensive, so we wanted to make that more accessible to loan out to students. That purchase order basically got rejected because [ABC] thought it was something the department should pay for.”
ABC allots funds according to what the board estimates academic departments should cover, increasing pressure on groups to pursue departmental funding.
In the future, ABC aims to better meet the needs of student groups, either with an increase in its own funding or in departmental allocation.
“The money always has to be spent,” said Li. “It’s just a question of who spends it.”