Members of the Bowdoin Labor Alliance (BLA) shut down their online mutual aid fund on Tuesday after College administrators notified them that the effort violated College policies that prohibit independent student fundraising.
Before closing on Tuesday, the fund had raised and distributed over $15,000 to Bowdoin students, staff and other community members struggling with the economic fallout of the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis since April 1.
“The fundraising effort was not permitted by [Student Organizations Oversight Committee (SOOC)] policies,” wrote Dean for Student Affairs Janet Lohmann in an email to the Orient.
Both the Student Handbook and SOOC guidelines limit independent fundraising efforts by student-run clubs. According to the Student Handbook, student organizations may only fundraise for charitable causes only if they solicit donations exclusively from current students and have received prior permission from the director of Student Activities.
Clubs that violate SOOC policies risk losing their SOOC charter, which allows them to hold events on campus and receive funding from the Student Activities Funding Committee (SAFC).
According to Sonia Shah, the chair of the SOOC, the committee asked the fund’s organizers to clarify that the fund was being organized independently of the College and of BLA activities, but it did not request that organizers shut the fund down.
“When the SOOC reached out to BLA regarding the initiative, we had simply asked them to completely disconnect the Bowdoin Labor Alliance and Bowdoin from this mutual aid network and update the language on their website,” wrote Shah in an email to the Orient. “The SOOC did not push the students who started the initiative to shut down the mutual aid network in any way.”
But according to the fund’s organizers, administrators continued to take issue with the fact that the fund was hosted on the BLA website, even with the additional language clarifying its independence from both BLA and the College.
Lohmann wrote in an email that “using the term ‘Bowdoin’ suggests it is a Bowdoin sponsored initiative, which it was not.”
Neither the Student Handbook nor SOOC guidelines explicitly prohibit using the College’s name in fundraising efforts.
“We changed our language to try to disconnect [the fund] from BLA … but unfortunately, the fact that it was hosted on the BLA website was still a concern for them,” said Ben Ray ’20, one of the organizers and a founding member of the BLA, in a phone interview with the Orient. “[Administrators] made it clear to us that if we couldn’t migrate to a new webpage, the fund would have to be taken down for us to maintain our charter.”
Ray said organizers considered moving the fund to another online platform but found the associated technical difficulties to be prohibitive.
The College maintains its own support fund to provide financial assistance to staff members facing financial emergencies.
Before taking the fund offline on Tuesday, organizers had completed all 47 of the requests for aid that they had received, using over $15,000 in donations. Ray said he and his co-organizers were hoping to continue to receive and fulfill requests as needed, and they were surprised by the pushback they received from the College.
“We had thought that the fact that we’re living in really exceptional times and that these are truly unprecedented circumstances would validate the fact that people need this resource right now,” said Ray.
Diego Grossmann ’20, another student organizing the fund, shared Ray’s disappointment.
“Honestly it was surprising and so contradictory to get pushback from Student Activities and from the administration about a violation of these kinds of rules,” Grossmann said in a phone interview with the Orient. “We’re getting emails from the administration telling us to care for each other and do anything that we can to find creative solutions to support each other, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Shah acknowledged the need for flexibility in implementing SOOC policy during extraordinary circumstances but said that hosting the fund on the BLA website too closely associated the fundraising effort with the club.
“While we appreciate that students are leading an initiative to help others, we specifically have these policies to ensure that any club who chooses to fundraise can be held accountable in case anything goes wrong,” she wrote.
In lieu of the fund, organizers have posted links to local organizations and other mutual funds supporting Brunswick residents during the COVID-19 crisis on the webpage. A statement announcing the suspension of the fund at the top of the webpage does not mention the College’s involvement.
Grossmann said the organizers are not actively planning to launch a new aid fund but indicated that they are staying in touch with community members who are continuing to face financial struggles.
“We’ve already received messages from aid recipients talking about new situations and the fact that they need more help, and if we see that need is ongoing and that no one is filling that need, then we might step in and do something again,” he said.
Editor’s Note, 4/24/2020 at 9:20 a.m.: The original version of this article has been updated to reflect the fact that the SOOC, not Student Activities, charters student groups.