January 29, 2008

S.G. seeks Uncommon Fund bids

Student Government (S.G.) has been fervently soliciting proposals this week for the Uncommon Fund, a $60,000 pool drawn from the student activities fee and the ORCSA budget that is aimed at funding innovative projects by individuals or campus groups. The fund is a reincarnation of last year’s New Initiatives Fund, which previously awarded thousands of dollars to projects as diverse as a native plants garden, a dog park, and a wind turbine.

“We want to see applications from as many people as possible,” said Amanda Steele, the chair of the Uncommon Fund committee. “This is a great opportunity to get grant money for smaller ideas and events.”

The fund gained considerable attention last year for its allotment of $26,000 to the University of Chicago Democrats (UCDems), who brought political operative James Carville to campus for their annual Progressive Gala. The decision proved controversial for a number of reasons, including the amount of money allocated, the decision to charge students to see Carville’s speech, and the close ties between many top S.G. leaders and the UCDems.

“The fund evolved out of the…idea of a big-speakers fund, and that was the only big-speaker proposal that was submitted,” said Matt Kennedy, vice president for student affairs and last year’s chairman of the New Initiatives fund. “I want this year to be judged on its merits, though. It deserves its fair shake and for people to get to look and see if it’s working.”

Kennedy and Steele hope that frustration with last year’s decisions will inspire more applications from students and organizations with worthwhile projects.

“I was pissed about what happened last year,” Steele, who works with the University’s chapter of the ACLU, said. “But I hope people will use last year as a jumping-off point and we’ll see a real rise in applications.”

Kennedy also emphasized the success of some of the proposals awarded grant money last year.

“We saw that with the native-plant garden—something that students had been talking about for a long time but just didn’t have the resources to do—- the University actually ended up giving them additional money to work with facilities,” Kennedy said.

Steele and other committee members have been e-mailing RSO leaders with the hope of drumming up interest, and will host a grant-writing workshop February 4 in the Reynolds Club to help students unfamiliar with the process. According to Kennedy, S.G. believes it can double the 20 proposals it received for the New Initiatives fund, especially after extending the submission period until February 18—two weeks after last year’s deadline.

“We want to see applications from as many people as possible, the people who don’t have other opportunities to seek money,” Steele said. She went on to say that while she was most interested in unique and focused applications, the committee would also consider large events similar to the Carville address.

“I think we have to be willing to grant money to the best applications, and only after the fact will we be able to judge what those are,” Steele said.

Still, Uncommon Fund committee members face a sizeable challenge, as initial interest in the fund has proven tepid.

After not receiving enough applications last quarter, S.G. was forced to extend the deadline for those applying to serve on the allocation committee, and the proponents of the fund recognize that they are battling preconceived notions about S.G.’s funding procedures.

“That part [recruiting committee members] wasn’t hugely successful,” Kennedy said. “But we’re working on getting publicity, letting people know about it, and I think we’re definitely going to see some great ideas.”