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‘A Pandemic Economy’: Student Groups Face Financial Turmoil

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As budgets shrink and student activities go remote, campus extracurricular groups are scrambling to remain financially viable amid the uncertainty created by the coronavirus pandemic.

Akanksha Sah ’21, the president of Harvard Student Agencies, said the non-profit has prioritized its financial resources to continue employing as many students as possible since having to discard its initial budget and financial projections in March.

“Our initial projections were thrown out the window pretty quickly, and then we had to make sure we were using whatever money we did have to funnel it into the right places,” Sah said. “It’s not easy being a company in a pandemic economy, but we’re trying our absolute hardest to make sure that we set HSA up for many more years of success in the future.”

Harvard Student Agencies employs more than 600 student employees each year who are responsible for a variety of tasks, ranging from manning The Harvard Shop's storefronts to collecting and delivering laundry to students across campus. However, these positions have been largely understaffed due to a current University policy that bars Harvard students from in-person employment.

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Despite running into hiring obstacles due to University policy, Sah added that HSA is “really happy” about the new microfridge partnership between the company and the University this year.

“Normally, we rent microfridges out directly to the students,” Sah explained. “This year, given that the students all have grab-and-go meals and they are all cold, we and the University worked over the summer to put a microfridge in every single dorm so every single student who is living on campus could have one.”

Financial reassessment has not been the only challenge faced by extracurricular groups in recent months. When undergraduates were mandated to leave campus in March, many student groups were forced to shift their operations to the video conferencing platform Zoom.

Among the groups affected are several performing arts organizations, which often relied heavily on ticket sales and advertising to generate revenue in past semesters.

Jennifer Y. Wang ’22, president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, said ticket sales make up the bulk of the organizations’ annual revenue. That usually includes sales from a tour in China — an excursion HRO cancelled this year. The reduced earnings from ticket sales is negated by the lack of concert costs, according to Wang.

“It all balanced out because for most of our concerts, we also do end up spending a decent amount of money,” she said. “But not having a final performance last year meant that we got to save that, even though we didn't generate any revenue from ticket sales.”

HRO alumni have also provided aid to the group to combat the difficulties presented by the remote format.

“We have an alumni foundation that fundraises for us, which wasn't affected too much by the pandemic because they can still operate as normal,” Wang said.

Mary L. Reynolds, music director for the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players, said the organization's board is working on “finagling” the budget to account for the loss of ticket revenue and plan for the future. She added, however, that ticket revenue is not the first concern of the group, but rather its members' wellbeing.

“It is not the priority of the board to generate revenue through ticket sales this semester,” she said. “And we don't and have never and would never ask for member dues.”

Reynolds also said that the order to vacate campus back in March came at a very “inopportune time” for the group, which was ramping up efforts for a new show at the time. She added, however, that profits from past shows created enough “cash on hand” to support the group’s activities throughout this semester — which will be the first in decades in which the group will not perform.

Though the unfamiliar format of a remote semester leaves student groups without a roadmap, organization leaders have worked to innovate in their group’s operations.

Wang said that in lieu of physical concerts, the HRO will create an online concert composed of member students performing their parts individually and having the production professionally edited. She said this project, along with events such as socials and professional masterclasses, will keep members engaged this semester; however, the new format will still be a challenge, according to Wang.

“We are a student organization and we are part of Harvard,” she said. “But we're not getting money from Harvard. When we want to do things, we have to get that money ourselves. We have to fundraise. We have to figure out things on our own.”

—Staff writer Sydnie M. Cobb can be reached at sydnie.cobb@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @cobbsydnie.

—Staff writer Declan J. Knieriem can be reached at declan.knieriem@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DeclanKnieriem.

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