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When Harvard’s Clubs Become Companies

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{shortcode-097912bcb5705790fe60eafaa545d1c65c60540e}ays after freshmen arrive on campus in the fall, they are greeted by a bustling club fair in Harvard Yard staffed by hundreds of student groups, wooing prospective members with free food, merchandise, and energetic pitches.

While most clubs advertise opportunities to find social connection or gain pre-professional experience, a small-but-growing number of student organizations boast perks and resources more akin to those of small corporations — including themed apparel, glamorous formal events, all-expenses-paid travel, financial aid, and six-figure budgets.

For decades, Harvard has taken pride in its hands-off approach to monitoring the finances of student clubs, even while some groups have faced high-profile allegations of mismanaging thousands of dollars of club money.

In March, a monthslong Crimson investigation found that the former president of the Harvard Undergraduate Foreign Policy Initiative transferred roughly $30,000 from the student organization’s bank account to her own. The dispute was later brought to the Harvard College Administrative Board.

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Recent months have seen the Dean of Students Office — a College administrative body that oversees undergraduate life — move to learn more about the entities that govern so much of students’ time at Harvard.

In April, Associate Dean for Student Engagement Jason R. Meier said in an interview that the DSO would be conducting an audit of the College’s independent organizations with Harvard’s risk management office. The audit aims to gain a more “inward view” of the student organization ecosystem.

The Crimson reported later that month that the DSO was weighing a proposal to temporarily freeze the creation of new clubs, citing a shortage of resources to support existing ones.

Still, administrators have doubled down on their commitment to preserving the autonomy of clubs to spend their budgets and operate as they see fit.

“Student organizations are independent, and the Dean of Students Office does not provide oversight of the content of the work of the organizations,” College spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo wrote in an emailed statement.

As these clubs grow, often by embracing the Harvard name, the line between student organization and corporation has blurred.

Interviews with more than a dozen club leaders and members painted a picture of the ways that some of Harvard’s most recognizable clubs have evolved to resemble something else: full-fledged companies.

The Money

Among campus organizations with large bottom lines, many generate income by hosting paid conferences, often for academically involved high school students.

The oldest of these organizations, the Harvard Debate Council, hosts a variety of programs including a signature debate tournament and other workshops. In the 2020 tax year, the Council brought in more than $1.8 million in revenue and declared more than $500,000 in net assets.

Officially incorporated in 1974, Harvard’s International Relations Council is another campus leviathan, featuring six constituent programs across a 700-strong membership, according to its website. Among the IRC’s endeavors are a series of international and domestic high school Model United Nations Conferences, which host more than 5,500 high school students annually, according to the IRC’s website.

In 2020, the IRC — a nonprofit — reported more than $700,000 in revenue and $1.2 million in net assets on their tax forms.

The Harvard Crimson also hosts an annual two-day program for high school students, the Harvard Crimson Journalism Summit, which can cost as much as $300 per student to attend.

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Though many clubs, like the HDC, IRC, and The Crimson, rely on long-established reputations in order to maintain clientele and revenue streams, more recently formed student-run conferences have proven able to catapult themselves to financial success on surprising timelines.

One such organization is the Harvard Association for U.S.-China Relations, whose programming includes conferences and annual summits for Chinese students. Just seven years after it held its first conference in 2006, the club reported more than $400,000 in yearly revenue, though this number dipped to $140,000 in 2019, their last reported year.

According to Athena P. Bowe ’15, a former seminar leader and director of internal development at HAUSCR, the Harvard name is an undeniable factor in the success of these conferences, especially when students are eager to improve their chances of admission.

“To ignore the legitimacy the Harvard name lends to any of the student organizations would be disingenuous,” she wrote in a statement. “Some students I’m sure hoped [the Harvard Summit for Young Leaders in China] would improve their chances.”

Most recently, HUFPI demonstrated that robust streams of cash could be established on the order of months, not years. In summer 2021, the young club held a lucrative conference for high schoolers interested in international relations — just over one year after the group had formed.

The conference brought in foreign policy titans including former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger ’50, Blackstone CEO Stephen A. Schwarzman, and former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta — and more than $180,000 in revenue.

Alongside the wealthy organizations that generate income from hosting conferences and competitions, some of Harvard’s student groups grow their budgets by consulting for external organizations, benefiting from perennial interest among Harvard undergraduates in consulting careers.

Founded in 2000, the Harvard College Consulting Group is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that has worked with high-profile clients including Disney, Pepsi, and Microsoft, according to its website. In 2020, the group reported more than $440,000 in revenue — down from $880,000 the year before — as well as more than a million dollars in assets.

While another such club, Harvard Undergraduate Consulting on Business and the Environment, was founded in 2008, it only began explicitly charging clients case fees in 2018. Since then, HUCBE has worked with big-ticket clients including Google, Amazon, and Pfizer, according to its website.

Often bound by confidentiality agreements, students involved in these groups undergo a rigorous and selective recruitment process and can spend up to dozens of hours per week on leading the club or working on cases for prominent clients.

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“It definitely borderlines on being a little bit absurd,” HUCBE President Alexander H. Dang ’24 said of the time board members are asked to commit to the organization.

Like Bowe, Dang also recognized the impact of the Harvard name, though he maintained that it was simply a way to “get your foot in the door.”

“It still doesn’t change the fact that, even if we were not Harvard, we would have to do good work to get them to come back,” Dang said. “It definitely helps.”

Other student organizations, including The Harvard Crimson and the Harvard Lampoon — a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine — generate revenue by producing a publication. Though they do generate income from their content, including the sale of ads, both The Crimson and the Lampoon appear to largely break even in their publishing endeavors.

According to public tax records, in 2019, the Lampoon’s publishing entity brought in approximately $224,000, with a net yearly loss of $174,000. In that same year, The Crimson generated approximately $500,000 of revenue for a net income of just over $75,000.

Costs and Compensation

With millions of dollars spread across clubs, Harvard’s wealthiest organizations are uniquely equipped to offer a variety of extravagant benefits to their members.

Members of HUFPI have traveled with the club to Dubai, France, and South Korea for a variety of foreign policy initiatives and engagements, but trips with these organizations are not always explicitly linked to club functions.

A member of HAUSCR said they were given the opportunity to attend trips with the club including a previous spring break trip to New Orleans and a planned trip to Thailand this summer.

Harvard Model United Nations members also have the opportunity to travel for the group’s conferences in China and India.

While HDC can’t boast international travel for its members, collegiate competitions require regular travel across the United States — all fully funded by the organization for participants.

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Many clubs also subsidize branded merchandise and group bonding activities, including dinners out, retreats, and other socials.

HCCG has previously hosted opulent socials for its members at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, the Searles Castle, and an island in Boston Harbor. The club also subsidizes restaurant meals, outings, and concert tickets for their membership.

In HCCG’s 2020 public tax filings, the club disclosed almost $150,000 in spending on “student networking” alone.

Merchandise — for example, free North Face jackets offered to HUCBE members this year — is also a popular way to reward members for their time while cultivating a unified club image.

“I totally understand how the gift can be construed in a certain way,” Dang said of the decision to provide premium apparel. “At the time, in my judgment, just giving members a lump sum of cash wasn’t really accomplishing anything.”

Some clubs with particularly robust cash flows have opted to provide financial assistance to certain students in the form of cash payments, programs that are designed to allow financially constrained club members to dedicate time that would otherwise have to be spent at a job.

The Crimson’s financial aid program provides as much as $1,500 per semester to qualifying students, sometimes through the Federal Work Study Program.

HCCG describes a similar “scholarship” program on their website to compensate qualifying students, as does HUCBE. In 2019, HCCG provided $31,500 to 33 individuals, according to public tax filings.

Though these programs enable certain students to access otherwise inaccessible opportunities, some students say they can create an incentive to choose and stick with certain clubs out of financial necessity rather than genuine passion.

“Low-income students, if their options are work or a student organization that pays, they probably are going to choose the student organization that pays. I don’t think there are a ton of choices,” said Joseph W. Hernandez ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, on the club’s financial aid program.

“I do think that pushes more students towards those specific organizations, even if there are some issues within those organizations,” he added.

Some clubs also have employees, including HDC. The DSO appointed Arthur Joseph “Tripp” Rebrovick III ’09 as the club’s coach, yet his salary remains a product of Harvard Debate Incorporated’s revenue. Rebrovick earned $50,000 in fiscal year 2020, per tax filings.

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Harvard Student Agencies — a student-run nonprofit which operates more than a dozen business lines across campus, including tours, merchandise shops, and tutoring — has nine permanent staff members who help operate the business. HSA raked in roughly $3.3 million in tax year 2019, with cash and investment assets totaling more than $2 million in value.

Charitable Giving — and Receiving

Some of Harvard’s organizations also apply their excess funds to philanthropic ends.

In the past year, HUCBE launched a program to allocate $30,000 scholarships to 10 underprivileged students in the Boston area.

Recently, the organization also donated $17,000 to both the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center and the Jimmy Fund at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in honor of its late president, Arda Cataltepe ’23, who died in November. In addition, the organization donated $40,000 across nonprofits in Turkey and Syria to assist in providing relief following devastating earthquakes earlier this year.

HCCG also declared more than $7,000 in charitable donations in 2019, its most recent public filing.

HDC’s “Diversity Project” recruits and trains Black students in Atlanta to participate in a Harvard summer debate program. According to 2020 tax filings, HDC provided almost $130,000 in scholarships to 40 students for the program.

Beyond donating to other nonprofits or relief causes, some of Harvard’s clubs also receive donations and find financial support in robust alumni giving networks.

In 2020, public tax records show that both the Lampoon and The Crimson’s trusts for donations each held approximately $7.5 million.

‘A Fine Line’

Like companies, several of Harvard’s wealthy student organizations hire accountants and perform yearly independent audits — a requirement for nonprofits that generate more than $200,000 annually.

Still, off-mission spending — or even theft — of funds has affected Harvard organizations throughout their existence.

In 1975, The Crimson reported that an external audit had identified “improper management” by Harvard Model United Nations, when members of the club spent thousands of dollars on extravagant meals, hotels, and liquor.

The Crimson reported in 1994 that two student executives had stolen thousands of dollars from the yearbook, less than a year after a former business manager of the Harvard Krokodiloes improperly spent $3,000 of club money on personal items, such as clothing from The Gap.

Eight years later, two Harvard undergraduates pleaded guilty to embezzling almost $100,000 from the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, a collegiate theater company.

And last year, a Harvard Risk Management and Audit Services audit of Harvard’s now-defunct student government structure, the Undergraduate Council, reported a “risk of errors, overspending, and misuse of funds” and a “risk that funds are awarded for inappropriate purposes.” The audit, which was obtained by The Crimson, did not identify specific instances of mismanagement.

Time and time again, College administrators have reaffirmed their commitment to student organizations’ independence, even when its guidelines and best practices are disregarded.

Some DSO regulations have even been eased, such as a previous requirement that student organizations submit yearly financial reports.

Even as Harvard refrains from monitoring and influencing the finances of its student organizations, it seems administrators remain aware that clubs’ actions can reflect back on the University’s reputation.

A DSO resource guide for student organizations implies that debt can be taken on by clubs, but it may present a reputational risk to Harvard.

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“Faculty, staff, graduate advisors, or trustees have no legal responsibility for undergraduate organization debts,” the resource guide reads. “However, debts incurred by undergraduates should always be a matter of concern to advisors or trustees, since debts reflect on the good name of the organization and ultimately of Harvard College.”

In February, the school renewed efforts to enforce restrictions on clubs’ use of Harvard trademarks in their names and promotional materials, requiring that clubs formed after 1998 include the words “college” and “student” or “undergraduate” in their branding.

Still, some campus organizations continue to operate under their original names, sidestepping regulations. On Instagram, HCCG posts under the username “@harvardconsulting.”

HCCG did not respond to a request for comment.

While HUCBE Director of Finance Justin Xu ’25 said he feels the naming policy is “arbitrary,” he said it might be more productive to offer “more guidance” to students on legal structures and potential governance required for their organizations.

In an emailed statement, Palumbo — the College spokesperson — stressed that restrictions of club branding are imposed by the University’s Trademark Office.

“The DSO is a partner of the Harvard University Trademark Office, where the policy sits, and the DSO works with student organizations to come into compliance with University policy,” he wrote.

Outside of immediate oversight, Dang said access to further financial resources or advisers could benefit student organizations.

“I appreciate that they don’t directly oversee and police what you can and can’t do, but I think it’d be great if there was someone who had the skills of our personal auditor or accountant, but maybe he or she was just a general resource for Harvard orgs,” Dang said. “I think it would be great.”

But without this information being readily accessible, Dang said he fears students risk making consequential financial mistakes despite a lack of “malicious intent.”

“I appreciate the process that they’re doing — gathering more information while still trying to stick to the core belief of letting students in organizations run themselves,” Dang said of the DSO.

“It could be a fine line,” he added.

—Staff writer Ella L. Jones can be reached at ella.jones@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @ejones8100.

—Staff writer J. Sellers Hill can be reached at sellers.hill@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @SellersHill.

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