STUDENT UNION ADMINISTRATIVE CAPACITY: no honey before the bees.
By Jurita Kruma
I wonder, how often does one think about the convenience of the chair one’s sitting on while browsing Facebook? Or getting annoyed by someone singing in the room while one’s reading “War and peace” by Dostoevsky? As ridiculous as it may sound, questions asked about our own daily activities are serious enough and worth taking into consideration while thinking about non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), and especially – student unions (SU): organizations to be one of the most important social partners for ministries and government at one time, and at the other – having to struggle for roof over their heads, availability of printing paper or printer at all.
NGO’s don’t need anything. Over past few years every state over the globe has or is facing the economic recession, which means that everyone’s belt must be tightened up – bus instead of car, homemade meal instead or restaurant dishes, etc. Long before financial challenges common opinion about non-profit or non-government organizations was: a bunch of people working altruistically towards fulfillment of their mission - making our society and country a better place to live in. Altruistically? Yes. Moneyless? Hope, not!
The most obvious mistake made is lack of understanding the basics of successful entrepreneurship management – rules that can be usefully applied to non-governmental sector. In order to achieve goals faster and more effectively, every company as well as every organizational formation and institution by its resources and capacity must be proportional or close to being proportional to resources and capacity of its partners. Financially as well as emotionally and by its working schedule. Easy to say, but so hard to get!
Financing student movement. Student union of Latvia (LSA) is national level non-profit organization for student representation founded in 1994. LSA have 34 members – university student unions (USU) standing for rights and interests of 103 000 students in Latvia. The main source of financial support (apart from occasional sponsorship activities) is membership fees that are covered by USU annually.
As provided by the Law of higher education (HE) institutions 1/200 of every HE institution’s budget belongs to USU (legislation included by initiative of LSA), so that USU are able to pay membership fees. Fees are calculated by formula: A= (B/C)*D, where A – the fee amount B – amount of LSA annual budget, C – total of budgets of universities in Latvia, D – amount of university budget. The fee is proportional to the size of budget for every university and its student union.
The size of LSA budget is 38 925 LVL (approx. 47434 EUR or 40997 GBP), out of which 65% are spent on executive board members’ wages, 10% - administrative costs, 13% - annual project costs, 4% - international affairs, 1,8% - representation materials, 0,5% - banking costs and 5% - unforeseen expenses. If we compare the budget of LSA as national level organization to budget of biggest USU – Student council of University of Latvia, the proportion is 1:5.
By actual data there are 72% of membership fees already covered which stands for average number of fees collected annually, and the changing number brings trouble to sustainability of organization as its main headache is to get money from its members who by various reasons can be unresponsive.
For government and LSA members LSA has proposed a policy which states that LSA should be annually and directly funded by state in amount of 300 state determined minimal wages (according to actual data – approx. LVL 60 000 or 83892.62 EUR or 72507.55 GBP) starting year 2013. The membership fees then could be more symbolic and stating moral rather than financial responsibility towards LSA.
All for one, one for all. If we make a comparison to NUS, LSA suffers from disadvantages of its organizational structure when the board of LSA is responsible for political decision making as well as operational existence of organization what makes the functional processes within LSA less effective. NUS has solved the problem by creating multi-body system:
• NUS-UK – legally elected representatives (president, vice-presidents for zones, section officers and liberation officers, block of 15) to make political decisions
• NUS Policy and delivery - full-time staff coordinated by CEO and responsible for operational tasks and resource provision for decision-makers;
• NUS Charitable Services – organizing campaigns
• NUS Services Limited – earning money for benefits of organization, selling NUS extra cards etc.
What does it mean? People responsible for being a voice or students have without a question all the resources they need to make political decision making effective, while the staff provides representatives with financial resources and resources of research, knowledge and management. That leads us to conclusion: positions as student representative would be much more available and attractive for students if they were strictly operational or strictly political, so that provide necessary focus, specialization and effectiveness.
As public benefit organization LSA has no legal rights to join any economic activities such as selling merchandise or own a bar, like it is done by NUS in order to profit for the wellbeing or organization.
Show me your office and I’ll tell you who you are. Since the foundation of LSA it has moved its office over 6-7 times, having some bad and some worse office rooms, causing loss of certain credibility in the eyes of its members, as well as documentation and time resources while moving. Currently LSA office area is 34 m2, having small hall, rest room, closet-type kitchen, one room for PC and recordkeeping and one room for holding meetings. Office equipment consists of one PC and one printer, two tables for PC and staff meetings, ten chairs and two closets for books and documentation.
LSA main staff consists or LSA executive board members – eight people in total. Apart from daily work in LSA office are held meetings for several working groups making policies and project teams.
If to compare the equipment compliance to the role and goals of organization, LSA lack several resources that NUS-UK office has: separate working units for every board member and spares ones for visitors, project managers and working group leaders etc, several meeting rooms for convenience of working groups and project teams, as well as office that is representative, easy to find and enjoyable to visit.
There is lack of projector for demonstrating graphic information and giving presentations all together, TV set tooled up with web camera in order to have local and international video conferences in order to make the most at the age of information and virtual work organization, large scale printer/scanner/copying machine, kitchen furniture in order to decrease individual expenses for time and money having lunch outside the office, lounge room for informal meetings and convenience of visitors. At top of everything a shower and couch for international guests would nicely increase positive attitude towards LSA as student travelling friendly and decrease local and international residents’ accommodation expenses.
The meaning of all this is simple – organization must be provided with administrative resources in order to fully divide itself to intellectual activities such as policy making, lobbying and strategy planning, etc; for organization to be more proportional to all its social partners in order to increase communication and collaboration efficiency.
More people are less people. In the times of economic recession it would be quite understandable – people want to feel more secure and avoid financial difficulties, so they tend to get lasting jobs, spend less etc. Even if rising unemployment rate indicates that there is labor available, rarely is has any benefit for NGO’s and especially student unions. Students as they are the most active part of society want to start their carriers early and have additional money for personal needs, so they get job while still studying. For student union to attract to student representation these “gone-to-labor-market” students it is one way or the other:
• deal with working students that can offer part-time or less attention;
• attract students that don’t need wages because of having wealthy parents and can do student representation as a hobby;
• provide student representatives and other staff members with competitive wage to get them to be fully devoted to their job and eliminate the need to get another.
Public may only think that decision and policies making does not require finances at all, but reality still proves the opposite, especially in times of economic recession. And why would we need people to stay within the union as long as they can and rotate as less as it is possible? For the cause of sustainability, effectiveness, credibility and development.
To conclude: currently student unions compete with regular companies within levels of professionalism and ability to attract resources. Student unions and NGO’s all together need basic resources to reach for better performance that eventually could be described as excellent.