This afternoon, the Activities Board at Columbia (ABC) released the allocation decisions for approximately 160 student groups from the 2012-2013, 2013-2014, and 2014-2015 academic years in the form of a public Google Doc. This move comes on the heels of a decision made at ABC’s November Town Hall to “increase transparency” regarding the allocation of funds for student groups at Columbia. The document is available for download here. ABC’s “Our Philosophy” description, from President Tony Lee, can be found below.

Our Philosophy

Dear ABC Groups,

Over the past few months, the Activities Board at Columbia has been talking with student groups and discussing among ourselves about how to better serve the student groups we represent. One of the biggest things that ABC and our groups wanted was increased transparency. As a result, at our semesterly Town Hall back in November, we promised to release explanations for allocation decisions for every single one of our groups and make all future allocation packets submitted by groups available to the public. Today, we are acting on our first promise. It took a bit longer than expected because we had to dig through and compile discussions for approximately 160 student groups and 17 hours of meetings (this is a lot, as I will explain later).

While we stand by the work we put into our decisions, we want you to know that these decisions are not perfect, nor do the explanations in this document capture all the nuances and considerations of our discussions. Due to the nature of allocation discussions, we can only start determining allocations towards the end of the year, when our groups have completed their programming. As a result, we can only spend the last three weeks of April trying to vote on over a 160 groups and approximately half a million dollars. Our normal meeting times are an hour and a half from 8:30pm to 10pm, but as you may expect, four and a half hours are not nearly enough time for our task. Even after locking ourselves in from 8am to 5pm for an extra Saturday session and going over time at all our meetings, we barely managed to finish before we got kicked out by Lerner at our last meeting at 1AM. This meant that not every single important detail that was discussed was written down as we were struggling to finish before the end of the year.

Yet we understand that you will have questions about why some groups get higher allocations than other groups, and these are important questions you should be rightly asking. These are questions ABC grapples with every year, and questions to which our stance can shift. However, while the lack of time meant that certain things weren’t written down completely or discussed to the fullest extent, I am proud of the quality of allocation decisions and the process which we arrived at them. While there is no strict formula we use that can fairly determine allocations (if only such a thing existed), as president last year, I tried to make sure we approached allocations with consistency and reason. The document itself contains explanations, but I will write down some of the most common standards that we used, and also address a few common questions that people have regarding allocations. We will also be rewriting our allocation packets to make our standards clearer in our overall initiative to increase transparency.

1) Applying to Grants and Funds

The questions that we ask in our allocation packet are obviously important things we consider, but another extremely important factor we consider is whether a group requesting an increase in funding for a new or recurring event has actively sought out and effectively used funds and grants for the events in question.

Allocation increases are by definition recurring, so when we see a group asking $500 for an awesome new event, but never held it and didn’t apply to funds like the Gatsby Grant or the Joint Council Co-Sponsorship Committee to hold it, we did not grant allocation increases.

The same logic applies to group requests for allocation increases to simply have more food or better food at events. If a group wants more money next year to make a recurring event have a bigger impact or be more innovative, but hasn’t applied to grants to make it happen yet, especially to funds like the ABC Co-Sponsorship Fund designed specifically to help recurring events not covered by the JCCC, we basically did not grant increases.

Allocation increases are permanent recurring increases in funding, and we do not give these without groups’ showing a track record of successfully utilizing increased funding through their use of grants, funds, and other methods of revenue-raising that are available to them. We include ways to apply to these grants in our weekly newsletters.

2) No More Meaningless 5% Increases

One of the things that confused me the most about how ABC approached allocations before the 2013-2014 Academic Year was ABC’s tradition of giving 5% increases to groups who had done a good job as “pats on the back,” even if they were able to be successful with their current level of funding. Yes, it’s awesome that groups are doing well, but will an extra $50 really make a difference to a club with a $1,000 allocation? No, but if we withhold such a small increase from just 10 groups with an allocation of $1,000, we would have $500 to give to an awesome group that could really use the money to do great things.

3) Why do certain groups get so much more than others?

The degree of the disparities in group allocations should be a point of discussion, but there are two explanations (not complete justifications) for this phenomenon:

1. Certain groups have simply been around longer and have accumulated larger allocations through years of existing and being successful. Traditions like the 5% pats on the back have often acted almost like compounded interest. This tradition no longer exists, thankfully.

2. Certain groups just cost more by the nature of their mission. For example, let us say there we have Group A and Group B, both extremely healthy with 50 regular members. However, Group A’s mission is to travel around the country for competitions, requiring plane tickets and hotels and entrance fees. Group B’s mission is about exploring the benefits of meditation and fasting within a quiet room in Lerner every week, requiring $0 in tech fees and food. While both groups may be equally valued by ABC, one group will simply require a greater allocation.

With that said, while it makes sense that there should be disparities in allocation amount, I myself have deep concerns about the degree of these disparities and the attitude I’ve seen from some of the groups with larger allocations per capita. However, to cut them to a degree such that the the average student would feel is “fair” would probably cripple their activities and traditions of success. I suspect this is an issue the ABC will continue to examine for years to come.

4) Why did certain groups get less than the amount the board voted for?

Basically, we scale down increases because due to a lack of funds, councils can’t give us the entirety of what we’re asking for. This unfortunately affects groups that we voted to give particularly large increases to.

This has gotten extremely long, but I hope that these thoughts along with the explanations in the document should help you better understand how ABC approaches allocations. We help manage over 160 groups representing the most diverse spectrum of group missions and categories on campus, and as such, our allocation process is one that takes a very long time to fully understand. Even after four years on ABC, it isn’t easy for me whenever we have to talk about a group’s allocation.

Tl;dr We’re not perfect, but we really do care about helping you. We hope that you will respond to our efforts at increased transparency knowing that we try our best to do very difficult and complicated jobs.

As always, feel free to email with any questions, comments, or concerns you may have.

Tony Lee
President, Activities Board at Columbia 2013-2015