STARTING AN ORGANIZATION at Harvard requires dedication and persistence. Maintaining the organization through its infancy involves choosing the organization over a fifth class and that hot date on Friday night. Yet, according to the Handbook for Students, all you need are (1) a constitution and by-laws, (2) a complete list of officers and members, (3) letters of acceptance from two faculty or alumni advisers and (4) reasonable evidence of ability to meet its financial obligations. Felix Cheung '98 says the "administration was very helpful and instructive" when he founded the Observatory Theater, a comedy theater troupe. It was "actually kinda amazing," he marvels. Cheung points out that his endeavors may have been facilitated by the fact that his organization "is not controversial, not ethnic or religious, and is different from others on campus.'
Michael Luo '98, founder of Diversity and Distinction, a magazine dedicated to minority concerns, claims that it's "pretty easy to start an organization" but that "money is everything." Money, says Margaret E. Bourdeaux '97, has been one of her biggest obstacles in developing the as yet unchartered Hippocratic Society. Recruiting members has been "hard on the pocketbook," she confirms.
As any good Harvard student might suspect, bureaucracy is also a stumbling block. "It's frustrating to think that everything needs to be approved," says Bourdeaux. The university does not officially allow unchartered organizations to poster on campus, for example. Animae Society president Michael Kim '97 cites the difficulties involved in postering and recruiting for a new group. "On the whole the Dean of Students was very helpful and really glad to help out, except in publicity," he says. But unbeknownst to many, Kim explains, the Civil Liberties Union of Harvard will grant postering permission to certain unchartered groups. Others like Luke O'Brien '97 and several Leverett House cohorts "really had no problems, surprisingly enough" in starting their organization, the Arnold Cultural Society. O'Brien's group is a film appreciation society in which only Schwarzenegger films are shown because "[one] cannot dilute the power of Arnold with Stallone, for example."
But just because an organization has been chartered does not mean that it will survive, as evidenced by La Organizacion Boricuia (La O). Though supported by the Harvard Foundation, La O has collapsed due to "internal problems with themselves and perhaps a little apathy," according to Marina Santini '98. "It's hard to keep up with grants, communication with other groups, and activities." Santini says, especially if potential members are already dedicating their time and energy to other Latin American organizations. Santini emphasizes that "La O is the only Puerto Rican group on campus," but even with this difference it has been difficult to resurrect the club.
Amy Saxton '97 can sympathize. After taking over HORIZONS, a pre-professional organization for students of color, she realized that "it's hard to get people involved....[It's] hard to get students to look past tomorrow and plan down the road for the next two months." Saxton notes that it is crucial to not only make an organization viable and legitimate, but to convince students that it is. For Saxton, the recent Career Forum was an opportunity to spread the word.
HORIZONS co-founder Xavier Gutierrez '95 says one difficulty with beginning and maintaining organizations is that" everything comes down to the students, which is good in some ways, but we [the students] are not professional organizers and ma Brs...It would be helpful to have some guidance." He further notes that most directors of organizations are not seniors because" [seniors] are tired of being the ones to do everything." Gutierrez also mentions money problems, criticizing the University's policy on funding. "[You] need to front the money and then get a grant afterwards. This isn't a problem if you're a self-sufficient, money-making organization, but many organizations are not," he explains. Gutierrez believes that "Harvard has a big monopoly on how they want organizations to be" and they have control by making many "grants for only specific groups....Funding is very, very difficult."
So if you are thinking of starting an organization, go for it! But positively make sure that (1) you have a good idea which sustains itself, (2) you have a good funding source and (3) your focus is not lost through time.