And now for the moment of truth: where will the money come from? And less obviously, where will the money reside until it is spent? In very rough form, the answer to the first question is some combination of individuals, families, institutions, corporations, foundations, government agencies, or private donors. In more or less corresponding fashion, the second answer is personal or business bank accounts, institutional coffers, or with non-profit organizations. For new math circles with negligible expenses the answer to both questions tends to be the checking accounts of one or more individuals, such as the coordinators, who have a clear interest in supporting the enterprise. This arrangement is a natural way to begin, especially for organizers who are unsure whether their math circle will catch on among students. However, after a year or two of successful operation (and usually sooner than expected), the scope of the circle will have expanded sufficiently to incur more substantial costs, and the coordinators will want to take stock of how much money they are actually spending and where they might turn for additional financial support. In short, the time will have come to draw up and fund a budget.
It is to the organizers’ advantage to anticipate the implementation of outside funding and address this need in the initial planning phase of the math circle. Among other things, this will motivate a more expansive vision for the math circle. Dreaming big and planning for a flourishing circle often precipitates greater success. One of the most appealing methods for raising money is to simply ask families to make donations as they are able. So that this process runs smoothly, clearly communicate a suggested amount per year, invite more affluent parents to contribute above this amount, and welcome any family to forego a donation if they wish. In this way all interested students feel welcome to attend and a partnership naturally develops between parents and the coordinator to provide an excellent mathematical opportunity for their children. Since the level of funding will be somewhat unpredictable in general and non-existent at the outset, the coordinator may need to ante up a starting balance or solicit a zero-interest loan from another individual, to be returned once the circle has reached a more stable financial situation.
Fortunately, there is a third alternative to securing funds for the purpose of beginning a new math circle. In May 2006 the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) announced a mini-grant program that makes awards in the amount of $1000 per year, renewable for up to three years in total. The funds may be used for books, room rental fees, honoraria, transportation expenses, or administrative costs. The grantee, in turn, is requested to report on the activities of the math circle, host a visit by a representative from MSRI to one session of the math circle, and document at least one presentation to be posted at the national math circle web site and shared with other math circle organizers. This program has evolved into the NAMC Math Circle Grants Program.
Any organization funded by donations from participants will obviously want their supporters to feel confident in their investment. For this reason an independent bank account, well documented, is important. This can pose a challenge for smaller organizations, such as a math circle. Ideally, the accounts could be managed by a non-profit organization which supports endeavors in mathematics, such as MSRI or The Art of Problem Solving Foundation. Donations then become tax deductible and parents would feel more secure in making substantial contributions. Receipts for parents should include a statement of the approximate value of the services they have received in return for their gifts. The host institution may also be able to handle accounts for a math circle, but expect significantly higher overhead rates. Alternatively, a parent could act as a third party, receiving and disbursing funds from a personal or corporate bank account. Regardless of the arrangement, the coordinator should be sure to keep a careful record of amounts received and spent which will be made available to all supporters on a regular basis, i.e. every three months.
If the parents of participating students tend to be well off financially, a coordinator should also consider charging tuition to raise funds. For example, the Boston Math Circle has found this solution to be the most effective recourse given their audience. The tuition model is straightforward and may be particularly attractive to circles that emphasize competition training. It has the added advantage that, having invested financially in the math circle, parents are much more likely to encourage their children to attend on a regular basis, thus combating attrition. Affluent parents are accustomed to paying fees for after-school musical, athletic, and other academic enrichment activities. There is a hidden price to pay, however, with tuition-funded circles. The relationship between the parents and the coordinator takes on a very different dynamic than with circles supported by donations. Expect more suggestions, complaints, and even demands from the parents in the circle with tuition funding. This may not be productive if the parents are less than fully knowledgeable about the objectives and processes of the circle, and may not be worth the extra time and energy expended. And yet, parents are often the most ardent of supporters, since they tend to care deeply about their child’s mathematical education.
Whenever a tuition model is chosen, it is recommended that the amount charged be set high enough to cover more than the cost of operating the circle. It is then possible to make available scholarship assistance to students who would benefit greatly from but cannot afford to pay for the math circle. For the most part, there is no need to advertise specifics for scholarship qualifications; simply make clear that assistance is available and that students in need should contact the coordinator for more details. Except in cases of profound need coupled with interest in coming to the math circle, it is preferable to offer much reduced tuition as opposed to full scholarships. A similar effect can be achieved by combining a grant that covers a quarter to a third of the circle cost with tuition or contributions. This model is desirable because it provides a nice diversity of funding, reducing the circle’s vulnerability to a financial setback. Grant makers, even as they are willing to support a math circle, will often want to know that the parents and “service recipients” are contributing a share. The process of securing grants is an entire subject in its own right, to which we now turn.