Every Tuesday at 7 p.m., a dozen or so undergraduate students gather in The Link to decide how Duke’s more than 350 student organizations will be funded.
The group, called the Student Organization Finance Committee, is an independent branch of Duke Student Government assigned with disbursing the University’s annual student activity fund, worth nearly $1 million.
SOFC used to have a more obscure presence on campus: it had the reputation of being elitist, a group that only catered to certain student organizations with a greater knowledge of the funding process, according to current members. Organizations without that knowledge struggled to access SOFC funds.
This year, however, SOFC is taking a decidedly different approach to its job, with more goodwill towards student groups and committee-wide reforms.
Junior Drew Flanagan, the current SOFC chair, has worked to promote organization-wide reforms. You might recognize his name from the SOFC email blasts sent every few weeks.
“My friends will make a joke, ‘I know your name. Where do I know your name from?’ The answer: the emails!” Flanagan said.
Changing organizational culture
Flanagan is now in his second term as SOFC chair. He became the first sophomore to hold the position when he was elected in March 2020.
Before Flanagan became chair, as an analyst on the committee, he was constantly frustrated with SOFC’s management and lack of transparency. He wasn’t sure how the organization was making decisions regarding its $1 million budget.
“For a long time, a lot of group leaders—particularly cultural and identity group leaders—felt that things were being decided arbitrarily by a group of students that—well, like, who put these students in charge?” he said. “The hearings felt unproductive. They felt uninviting.”
But Flanagan and his team have tried to change SOFC’s organizational culture. Before, student groups would come to a hearing, say what they needed to say, then leave immediately, Flanagan said.
“When I came in, I was very intentional about wanting to shift—and I credit a lot of people on the SOFC executive team for making this possible—from an interview into a dialogue,” he said. “‘How can we work together to make your event a success?’ That’s the conversation. Not ‘What do you need, what’s the least amount of money we can give you?’”
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According to the 2020-21 SOFC Analytics Report, a product of their new analytics division created to bring about more transparency and better communication, SOFC gave about $0.71 for every $1.00 a group requested. This year, that amount is about $0.81 for every $1.00 a group requests.
Junior Hannah Long, executive vice chair of SOFC, said SOFC tries to avoid giving out money just for the sake of it.
“We play by our policies and keep it consistent,” Long said. “That being said, we have been encouraging people to ask for money as much as they can. We had a student organization leader orientation at the beginning of the year where we had over 300 attendees.”
Leaders of student organizations praised SOFC for its responsiveness and streamlined processes.
Senior Rebecca Williamson, president of the a capella group Duke Out of the Blue, wrote in an email that her experiences with SOFC “have overall been very positive.” She noted that the questions her group receives at hearings are sometimes redundant given the application submitted beforehand.
“That said, the students behind SOFC are all phenomenal at what they do, and I have nothing but respect for the organization,” Williamson wrote.
The two co-presidents of The Coop, juniors Riley Hicks and Claire Kraemer, wrote that they “had a super positive experience working with SOFC.”
“Although we are still in the process of getting our fund code from [University Center Activities & Events] and it has taken longer than we would’ve liked, [SOFC’s] guidelines were clear and the committee was welcoming during our hearing.”
Despite their generous funding, SOFC still uses a technical and unambiguous approach to evaluate an organization’s budget proposal. During one hearing, a group planned to spend several hundred dollars on pamphlets for their event. However, it is a nonnegotiable tenet of SOFC policy to cap such expenses at $40. SOFC encouraged the student group to use QR codes instead.
In the past, SOFC would not clearly communicate with student organizations, Flanagan said.
“If someone says, ‘My event is only open to some,’ in the past, we’d wait for them to leave and then say, ‘Well, it wasn’t open for everyone, so let’s not fund it,’” Flanagan said. “They’d find that out after the fact and wouldn’t necessarily get a clear answer why. That was the way a lot of groups felt. They felt that SOFC was a process that you had to game.”
To solve this issue, the SOFC analysts and the executive team have adopted a stakeholder model to maximize the likelihood that groups can host funded events. SOFC is increasingly recruiting members from all types of student organizations, such as DuArts, Duke Partnerships for Public Service, DSG, University Publications and, in the spring, Duke Center for Multicultural Affairs.
“It’s an appointment—a service—rather than a club,” Flanagan said.
Senior Hadeel Hamoud, vice-chair of policy and outreach, joined SOFC to help streamline its services and make them more “equitable and transparent.” She posted SOFC’s policies and funding guidelines, like meal caps and speaker honorariums, in an accessible online hub.
Hamoud believes the best way to make SOFC more equitable is to democratize knowledge about it.
“Once a group has knowledge about [Committee] processes and institutionalizes it, they can pass it on and take more advantage of SOFC resources,” she said. “When I was in those leadership positions, I personally didn’t know as much. There’s a lot of information bias.”
Over the past two years, student organizations have become more knowledgeable about SOFC, and many have said they are having improved experiences with the committee, Hamoud said.
Some of the other initiatives Hamoud and other executive members have implemented include drop-ins, overhauled email blasts, greater funding transparency and a revamped disbursement application process.
SOFC is currently undergoing a shift in its “culture, vision and spirit,” taking on the role of not just a funding body, but rather “a center of activity and involvement on campus,” Flanagan said during SOFC’s spring semester report to DSG in February 2021.
“It’s typically been a one-way conversation” between SOFC and student groups, Flanagan said at the time. “When I came into the chair role this fall, one thing we were really excited to see was a deviation from this and making us seem more of a partner organization, rather than a group that is mysterious, unknown and really unhelpful or uncommunicative.”
Weekly emails used to detail SOFC hearing times and procedures; now, they highlight student organizations and events. There used to be no public data on how much money clubs applied for or received; now, that information is available on an online tracker with detailed notes explaining funding discrepancies. Groups used to email Excel spreadsheets with their funding requests to Duke-unaffiliated Gmail accounts; there’s now a Duke Groups form instead.
“That was the big transformation I was all about,” Flanagan said. “How do we make this more inclusive, transparent and equitable?”
Connor Booher is a Trinity sophomore and a staff reporter for The Chronicle's 117th volume.