Student fundraising for public interest faces uphill battle

BY JAY MUNIR

With two nights of telephone calls remaining in this year’s Student Funded Fellowships (SFF) phone-a-thon campaign, the campaign’s organizers are hoping for a significant increase in student support to meet their fundraising goals. The money raised will be directed towards the summer public interest funding fellowships used by students who work without salary in public interest jobs over the summer.

Last summer, about 200 HLS students received summer public interest funding. This year, according to SFF’s organizers, about 30 students have pledged a day’s salary, and 150 additional students have made nominal contributions. As of Wednesday evening, the campaign has brought in about $12,000, slightly more than one-third of last year’s total of $35,000.

“I’d like students to step up a little,” said Carrie Dunsmore ’01, SFF co-chair. “The goal is not just raising money, the goal is participation in our community. Especially now, when people are making over $2,000 a week.”

The money raised from students is combined with law firm contributions and profits from the annual Public Interest Auction. The law school matches the SFF campaign’s pledges through a loan, and the organization repays the law school in the fall after collecting student donations.

Part of SFF’s challenge is to convince students who received funding last summer, many of whom will work in lucrative law firm positions this summer, to donate a portion of their salary to this year’s crop of public interest students. Julie Yip ’02, who used her funding to work for a grassroots human rights organization in Bangladesh last summer, said, “the funding allowed me to have one of the most amazing experiences of my life.” Students like Yip may represent the best hope for SFF fundraisers. “I haven’t yet donated money, but I certainly intend to,” Yip said.

“I have not yet made my donation, but I am planning to!” said Taryn Fielder ’02, who worked with the New Zealand Human Rights Commission last year and received summer public interest funding.

SFF co-chair Jeff Lerner ’01 is counting on these pledges to materialize. “I would like to see at least half of the student body contribute, even if some of the individual contributions are for only $10 or $25,” Lerner said.

Past Student Public Interest Network (SPIN) President Ayn Ducao ’01, who spent last summer working for the New York and San Francisco offices of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, cited financial difficulties as the main reason behind her decision not to donate money this year. “I donated last year since I had a firm job. But I’m strapped for cash in the short term this year so I didn’t give,” she said.

Students were split on whether the law school adequately supports summer public interest work. “I don’t think summer public interest funding is adequate,” Ducao said. “For one thing, the school could give more money. Another thing the school could do is hire some sort of administrator or professional fundraiser to assist with SFF.”

“The school delegates summer funding to students to too large a degree. Students’ energies should be focused on academics and learning, not begging,” Nina Kohn ’02 agreed. Kohn expressed concern that the school’s lack of support for public interest funding meant that students were begging other students for money. “I think it [SFF] has the potential for being divisive.”

Megan Leef ’02, who has already pledged money to SFF, said that although the school does not adequately support the program, “[public interest] is a choice students make that they do not have to.”

While Lerner praised HLS for providing administrative support, he views HLS as neutral towards the fundraising campaign. “I feel like the school is pretty much indifferent to SFF; it neither helps us nor hinders us,” he said.

Others were less critical. When asked whether HLS supports summer public interest funding enough, Yip replied in the affirmative. “I think the school is committed to supporting public interest, and every public interest student appreciates the support,” Fielder agreed.

As the campaign enters its hectic final days, its organizers are aiming to triple their current pledges while sending a message to students interested in avoiding law firm life. “We support you in whatever you want to do,” Dunsmore said.

Lerner concurred. “While we all enjoy new buildings, I think when students faced with pretty high debt contribute part of their salary to support other students pursuing unpaid public interest work, they send a clear message about the priorities of the ‘consumers’ of legal education.”

SFF’s organizers hope that increased student participation will also strengthen the school’s commitment to public interest funding. Dunsmore believes a successful fundraising campaign will boost the school’s image in the public interest world. “Harvard is good for public interest, and it would be nice to boost our reputation,” she said.

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