In a news release sent out Monday, Marquette Student Government announced the formation of an ad-hoc committee to review the student organization funding process “in response to internal and external concerns.”
“One of the biggest areas we know that can be improved is reimbursements,” said Communications Vice President Alex Lahr, a senior in the College of Communication.
In the last fiscal year, about a fourth of funds allocated to student organizations by MUSG was never reimbursed for a variety of reasons. This amounted to about $20,000 of unused money that was added to the prior year reserve fund, which holds more than a quarter-million dollars.
The ad-hoc committee will be chaired by SOF Committee chairman Zach Bowman, a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences. The committee will specifically be reviewing MUSG’s SOF outreach efforts to increase the “quantity and quality” of allocation requests, and MUSG’s internal SOF policies and procedures.
“All our forms of revenue come from students,” said Financial Vice President Cole Johnson, a junior in the College of Business Administration. “So our goal in the SOF process specifically is to utilize a portion of those funds in order to bring about positive benefit that students themselves create.”
MUSG’S ALLOCATION PROCESS
The amount of funds for SOF is set when MUSG plans the budget for the next fiscal year. This year, MUSG’s operating budget is $471,000. Most of this funding —$429,000— comes from the $30 student activity fee every undergraduate student pays alongside tuition each semester. MUSG is constitutionally required to spend 30 percent of student activity fee revenue on SOF.
At the same time, MUSG sets each of the five non-club sports funding periods and two club sports funding periods. SOF periods are determined by when an organization’s event will take place.
When a group wants funding assistance for an event, it must fill out the SOF application available on the MUSG website. The MUSG financial office reviews all applications and prepares it for the MUSG SOF Committee.
The SOF Committee is made up of Executive Vice President Bowman; Johnson; Program Board Assistant Emily Wulfkuhle, a junior in the College of Education; Commuter Senator Aliya Manjee, a freshman in the College of Arts & Sciences; Carpenter Tower Senator Julia Markun, a sophomore in the College of Communication; Communication Senator Emmaline Jurgena, a sophomore; and Zack Wallace, a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences.
The seven committee members review each application based on its merits and then allocates funds based on the requests in each application. The committee looks for applications to be detailed and “well-planned.” Members of the committee said they want to see detailed quotes to justify a group’s specific requests.
When looking at an application, Wallace said the committee looks for how an event will benefit students on campus.
“We talk about promotion, advertising and that kind of stuff,” Wallace said. “We take a look at that and obviously evaluate what kind of requests they have for that specific line and what they describe as what they’ll ensure them success.”
MUSG generally does not publish rationales for allocations, but it does explain its reasoning to the groups themselves, and MUSG will answer questions from them.
Many allocation decisions are based on what the committee is constitutionally allowed to fund. Lahr said MUSG cannot fund recruiting or fundraising events, capital goods, operating expenses, expenses that fall outside the funding period in which the group applies, or events that charge admissions fees.
After reviewing the request, the SOF Committee takes a vote. Requests for less than $750 require four of the seven votes. Requests for more than $750 require five, and applications for more than $2500 must also receive a two-thirds majority from present senators, at which point the senate can approve, reject or cut the amount approved by the SOF committee.
A group has seven days to appeal the decision. The appeal is reviewed by the Budget Committee and requires four out of six votes to overturn the decision and issue a new allocation.
MUSG uses a modified process for club sports. Rather than planning events, projecting expenses and preparing an application for that specific event, clubs estimate their expenses for the coming semester and request funds accordingly. Regardless, club sports are similar to other student organizations in that they must provide documentation for their estimated costs and the application is reviewed by the SOF committee.
This year, the SOF Committee gave all groups a flat percentage of what they requested after removing ineligible expenses.
HOW STUDENTS RECEIVE ALLOCATIONS
When the committee allocates funds to groups, it does not simply cut a check and send it to groups. MUSG uses a reimbursement process that requires groups to keep specific receipts of the costs they incur during their event, a system similar to the university’s as a whole. MUSG then reimburses the groups for the total amount of these receipts.
“MUSG has a long standing policy of utilizing the reimbursement process for approving expense payments,” said Dennis Butler, comptroller at Marquette. “This ensures that the organization is only reimbursed for expenses allowed per MUSG’s governing documents.”
As a result of this process, total student organizations’ reimbursements are always less than the total amount of money allocated by MUSG. According to data provided by MUSG, in fiscal 2011, 65 percent of all funds allocated to groups was collected. In fiscal 2012, 72 percent was collected, and in fiscal 2013, 74 percent was collected.
The SOF Committee does take measures to minimize the amount of money not reimbursed to groups. Each year, the committee over-allocates for SOF knowing that organizations will not use all of the money allocated.
Reimbursements as a percentage of the SOF budget are significantly higher than as a percentage of total allocations. In fiscal 2011, 76 percent of the total budget was reimbursed; in fiscal 2012, 78 percent was reimbursed; and in fiscal 2013, 85 percent was reimbursed.
While it may seem like total reimbursement rates are increasing, this may be due to falling student activity fee revenue. The SOF budget decreased in the last three years by close to $19,000. In comparison, reimbursements remained relatively constant.
According to Johnson, there are a variety of reasons why all allocations are not collected by groups. If groups cancel events, or change the content of events after they have been allocated funds, they will often use less money than they anticipated.
Although student organizations cannot use SOF funding for capital goods, MUSG can use the reserve fund for its own capital goods if two-thirds of the Senate approves the use of the money. MUSG used this provision in October to purchase $1,739 worth of computer equipment for its offices. The official financial policies do not describe other uses for the fund.
MUSG’S OUTREACH TO INCREASE REIMBURSEMENTS
The SOF reimbursement rate rose by 9 percent over the last three years. Bowman attributes this rise to outreach efforts made by MUSG in recent years.
“I think that’s evidence that there’s been better communication in recent years,” Bowman said. “Perhaps there’s been better planning by groups, but clearly something is going right there.”
MUSG made several reforms to the SOF process in recent years. In 2012, it moved the SOF application process online. It rewrote the guidelines for SOF to make the process clearer to groups and posted them on the website. Prior to 2011, there were no guidelines online.
Officers from multiple clubs agreed the process was made easier during the past three years. Jacob Dahleen, treasurer for the Marquette University Rowing Club and senior in the College of Engineering, allocated for the team for three years. He said at the beginning of his treasurer tenure he mostly learned through repeated experience, but that treasurers starting now would have it easier.
“The website has really improved over the past three years,” Dahleen said.
Dahleen also highlighted another change MUSG implemented this year: Clubs are now required to send a representative to sessions organized by MUSG that explain the SOF process.
The transition from paper to electronic was bumpy for some, however. MARDI GRAS’ president at the time, David Mesick, said miscommunication over the change led to the group to fill out the form incorrectly and having their entire $2,670 request for the winter trip rejected in 2011.
“MUSG had recently switched its funding from a paper form to an online system,” said Mesick, a senior in the College of Engineering. “So we had filled it out incorrectly. So there was no instruction given to us.”
CONCLUSION LOOKING FORWARD
The ad-hoc committee has not announced if it will make changes, but it will hold “informational listening sessions” for student organizations to “gain insight on potential improvements” to the SOF process.
Despite the potential for changes being unclear, Mesick said he thinks improvements could be made to the process.
“I wonder if there’s a better way to do it,” Mesick said. “I think MUSG could save a lot of money.”