THE MACHINE OF MODEL UN
Uncovering the hours of dedication and untold stress that Model UN student leaders devote to the activity they become addicted to.
by Frank E. Pobutkiewicz
Feb. 14, 2018
I’ve been involved in every facet of Model United Nations over the past fifteen years. My Model UN journey started as a high school delegate. Now, I have the privilege to work with a dedicated core of high school delegates as their coach. In between, I served on my high school’s conference secretariat, competed on my college’s Model UN team, did time on multiple secretariats for high school and college conferences, acted as the Secretary General of Boston University’s first college conference, and oversaw the BU International Affairs Association as the organization’s president. I’ve seen the activity we all love eat, elevate, crush, and create people. And even though I didn’t mean “create” in a biblical sense, I know of at least two “MUN couples” who have married since college.
Everyone has a different attraction to Model UN. Many of my students and college friends embrace the travel team, but still loathe the internal politicking needed to get selected. Others get involved to chair conferences for high school students; those people sometimes stray up the leadership ladder into a USG or even SG role. Their motivation may be purely academic in nature– they truly want to design and operate an outstanding substantive program. A small number of people may even throw themselves into the deep end and participate in a number of ways, but they’re often driven by friendship and camaraderie rather than a quest for organizational development.
In the smallest bucket of people are the ones that fall in love with the big picture and the machinery that makes MUN function in the United States.
About a week or so after the conclusion of conferences, the behind-the-scenes work takes over. There are no more background guides to write. No more chairs to train. No more position papers to grade. No more teachers to coddle.
Only the financials are left…and questions. How much money did we make? And will it be enough to fund us for the next year?
The earliest roots of Model United Nations in the United States track back to simulated League of Nations hosted by Harvard in the 1920s. But the real League collapsed under the weight of inaction, hypocrisy, and the still unsatisfied craving for conquest, destruction, and nationalism after the First World War. Following the end of the Second World War, the United Nations Charter was signed on June 26, 1945. Soon after, many UN-themed debate conferences were hosted, which we affectionately call Model United Nations, or later by the abbreviation MUN.
Model UN interest grew modestly in the US over the first thirty years, but in the late 1980s, Model UN began its more exponential growth period. Conferences popped up at colleges and universities around the country. The activity quickly trickled down into high schools, and then even into middle schools. Now, estimates put the number of Model UN participants in the United States at between 400,000-500,000.
But strangely enough, the United Nations stayed out of Model United Nations until recently. Model UN evolved in a decentralized fashion in the United States. There is no central authority. No administrating body. No national rule setting or awards policy. No common standard. Realizing this point shines light on most of the frustration felt by Model UN participants.
With no governing authority, Model UN conferences are free to determine their own destiny. Conferences often vary in size, from 50-4,000 students; in style, from academic to cut-throat competitive; in type of committees simulated, from traditional General Assembly to the relatively new “crisis” committees; in price from free to hundreds of dollars; and in many other delineations.
“So, how much did the conference make this year?”
“After paying the hotel food & bev minimum, AV costs, the refund to that one school– that I still argue shouldn’t get one– paper, copiers, walkie-talkies, and the staff social, we should net around $30,000 after the account closes.”
Nervously, eyes dart around the table in the middle of the food court, as “normal” college students buzz around them, study for exams, write papers, and nurse hangovers. The conference made $4,000 more than last year but the goal set out by the board was crystal clear: the expected profit was $35,000.
“Well, that’s no longer my problem. We made more than last year, and frankly, my concern wasn’t the budget. The conference was awesome, the teachers were happy, and we set them up for next year. Who wants to celebrate?”
The majority of Model UN conferences hosted by colleges and some non-profits are giant fundraisers, the proceeds of which fund organizational operations for the year. Regardless of its educational and heuristic benefits, Model UN is a business in the United States.
Combined, three organizations have revenue over $1,640,000 and assets, largely in cash holdings, of $1,809,000…
Conferences, small and large, compete with one another to attract schools– who has the smallest staff to student ratio, who has the most creative committees, the best background guides, the largest attendance, the most experienced staff, the best student experience, the best perks for teachers. Once you attend enough conferences, you begin to pick-up on the factors that differentiate conferences and notice conference leaders pushing their narrative.
“Welcome to the largest high school Model United Nations conference in the United States!”
“Welcome to the ‘Championship’ conference!”
“Our 200-person staff has been working tirelessly over the past year to bring you the most creative committees yet!”
“With staff members from all of the best colleges throughout the country, our conference provides a truly unique experience.”
“This year, we have fully embraced technology, making our conference the most tech-savvy conference in the country.”
Like universities, conferences fight to differentiate themselves and attract the best schools as participants without drawing direct comparisons to other conferences.
“Hey man, how’d your conference go last week? I can’t believe you decided to compete the weekend after being SG. I was wiped for at least two weeks after our conference.”
“Haha, I was barely able to make it through committee today. I hate Thursday committee session anyway. Yea, conference went well, thanks. We had the most delegates ever this year, so it was a ton of extra work.”
“No shit, good for you, congrats, man. How’d you fit more people into that hotel? I thought you guys were maxed out.”
“I did, too, when I took over last year. Turns out we could increase our committee sizes by taking out the tables and just doing rows of chair. Got an extra 300 seats in that way.”
“Dude, I told you that last year. How do you think we fit 2,000 in our conference? You gotta go with the rows of chairs. It sucks, but you have to do it.”
One of the best parts of Model UN, and the main motivation for why I’ve spent so much of my life involved in Model UN, is the people. Sure, I went to BU but some of my best friends while I was in college went to Harvard, Yale, McGill, Georgetown, and elsewhere. Being on a college travel team, you see the same cast at almost every conference. For me, that was eight weekends every year.
Part of what makes the business of Model UN compelling to investigate are the relationships between people, between travel teams, and sometimes between entire schools. While your high school conference may be vying to attract the same schools– ILMUNC, hosted by Penn, and HMUN, hosted by Harvard, famously land on the same weekend– your Model UN travel team may be attending the college conference hosted by that same school– Penn competes at HNMUN three weeks after their high school conferences conclude.
On its face, conflict seems obvious, but having gone through this system myself, it’s rarely an issue.
First, Model UN participation is growing. That allows for giant conferences like ILMUNC (3,000 delegates) and HMUN (3,300 delegates) to co-exist on the same weekend. While there may be feigned quarrels over which conference had which high schools attend, it would be surprising to see Penn and Harvard directly square-off against one another like in a cowboy movie.
Conflict is bad for business, but it is worse for relationships.
The second reason conflict rarely appears is because of the tight-knit community that binds collegiate Model United Nations. In addition to competing with one another in committee and then later judging one another as chairs of conferences, college ‘MUNers’ also party with one another after committee ends.
“Hey, can we not talk about committee? I’m done with Model UN for the night.”
“Yea, that’s perfectly fine by me. My chair was being such a jerk anyway. Do you know that guy? I don’t think I’ve ever seen him on the circuit.”
“What’s his name? Oh, you’re in the Libyan Civil War, right? Yea, he doesn’t compete. Probably why he’s such a bad chair.”
“Wait, didn’t we say that we weren’t going to talk about Model UN?”
“Yea, let’s go get another drink….hey, do you know where Sam is? I want to ask her about what happened at ChoMUN.”
For the people that fall in love with Model UN the machine, it can become an obsession; a time-devouring behemoth. Travel team practices, staff training session, conference weekends– explaining to your professors why, again, you won’t be in seminar this week– secretariat meetings, board meetings, phone calls with hotel reps, meetings with university administration– explaining why the college needs to sign a 7-year contract with a hotel– and, oh yea, class.
Not many can deal with the stress and time management. For those who do, their social lives become inexorably tied to Model UN. For those who can’t, they shed responsibilities, leadership roles and Model UN commitments until they find the appropriate level, which for some means casting Model UN out of their lives entirely.
My best friends in college were the people who shared the same Model UN addiction that trapped me. We shared a common vision and shared goals for various parts of the organization, and we put our commitment to whatever secretariat, travel team, or board we happened to be a part of at that time ahead of practically everything else. It was on these teams that after years of loathing “team-based” class projects, I came to understand the unstoppable momentum of a high-powered, unified team. It’s what I miss the most.
I’ve also lost friends to silly issues that led to fights, or even screaming matches, in four-hour board meetings.
“Ok, next item on the agenda is reviewing the high school conference’s end of year budget. Eric, you’re up.”
“So, we’re still working on finalizing a few things, I th-”
“I’m going to stop you there. Why isn’t it finished? You knew we were having an Eboard meeting tonight and this was the main item on the agenda.”
“I know, but if you let me fin-”
“I knew this was going to be a disaster. This is why we wanted you to hire Liz as your DG. But you had to go with Jonathan. Where is Jonathan, by the way? Shouldn’t he be here for a budget review?”
“Jon has a 45-page paper due tomorrow and he couldn’t work on it last week because of the conference. Let’s not get into it right now. Can we just go over what I have?”
“Is it worth going over? We set the profit goal at $35,000. Did you make that?”
“First, you set the profit goal at $35,000 despite that I told you that it would be a stretch. No, we didn’t quite get to -”
“You KNEW what the goal was. We need the conference to make that much after the university said they were going to limit our funding. How are we supposed to pay for NINE conferences next year? We’re going to have to stop sending large delegations– which will hurt us in the rankings– or go to less conferences– which will piss off the travel team members.”
“The travel team isn’t my concern, Akansh. I’m responsible for the conference. I don’t even travel after you guys blackballed me last year.”
“Whatever. How much did the conference make?”
As organizations grow, so, too, does everything in the organization. The membership, the hierarchy, the bureaucracy, the revenue, the profit (hopefully), the number of conferences, the number of leadership positions, and the liabilities.
The liabilities attract the most attention from the university administration.
Despite the impressive, or ridiculous, amount of time that college students devote to Model UN, it is still just a club. An after school, co-curricular activity. Possibly a line item on your CV, if you can translate what Model UN is to your potential employer.
Until it isn’t. Once you have personal accountability, legal responsibility, and financial liability, the machine cranks to a new gear.
When I was elected President of the Boston University International Affairs Association (BUIAA– pronounced boo-‘ya), the Student Activities Office (SAO) at the university made me sign a document. In summary, to become the President of this student “club,” I had to sign a document personally guaranteeing a positive budget at year end or BU would withhold my diploma.
BUIAA, in 2010, was the largest organization at Boston University, measured by revenue and account balance, with transactions well over $500,000 per year. That budget, an SAO director told me, was used to fund several other groups throughout the year. As a student group, we were forbidden from owning or operating an outside bank account. Therefore, BU used our high account balance as working capital. If BUIAA ran a large enough deficit for the year to create a negative balance, the student activities budget would be ruined for the entire university. And I wouldn’t be allowed to graduate from college.
As Model UN evolved in US colleges, clubs morphed into “umbrella organizations,” a sort of holding corporations for everything international relations-focused. I happened to be at BU when the organized made this transition, from the “Model UN club,” which consisted of a high school conference and travel team, into the “International Affairs Association,” which housed a high school conference, a college conference, a sub-conference hosted in China, an inter-collegiate travel team, an academic journal, and on-campus programs and events.
This structure isn’t uncommon at other large programs, though each school tends to have its own twist and personality.
Dealing with a university administration can be tiring and perplexing. Working through a student organization’s internal bureaucracy can be frustrating and revolting. Either or a combination of both can lead to an entirely new legal entity.
Enter the independent non-profit.
You may have noticed that at some conference, the hosting organization is not the university itself, but an independent non-profit that may borrow, or imply, the university’s name. Examples of organizations that operate outside the boundaries of their respective universities include:
- International Relations Council Incorporated Harvard University (IRC), 501(c)3 Massachusetts non-profit corporation;
- Yale International Relations Association Inc (YIRA), 501(c)3 Connecticut non-profit corporation;
- Georgetown International Relations Association, Inc. (GIRA), 501(c)3 Washington DC. non-profit corporation;
I chose to highlight these three organizations, in particular, because of their impressive reach, organizational complexity, and leadership in the Model UN community. Combined, these three organizations have revenue over $1,640,000 and assets, largely in cash holdings, of $1,809,000, according to their publicly available 2016 990 Forms, which all 501(c)3 nonprofits must file.
An adage says, “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.” And Model UN is experiencing global growth at a scale previously unseen.
Take, for example, Harvard’s IRC, Yale’s YIRA, and Georgetown’s GIRA operate no less than 14 conferences across the globe every year, supplying opportunities for over 25,000 students around the world to participate in Model UN activities. It should be noted these three organizations also provide over $250,000 in combined financial assistance to students and that exactly zero students draw any income from these organizations. And while their assets may seem unnecessarily inflated, those balances are needed to hedge against a variety of liabilities that face any organization.
To explain to family, friends, and employers that Model UN, for the students who run such expansive organizations, is “just a student club,” is a disservice and an insult.
“Hey Eric, I wanted to apologize about the Eboard meeting.”
“The board’s been under a lot of stress after we found out the University wasn’t going to provide funding anymore. It’s hard to lose $10,000 of support all at once. Anyway, we actually received a refund check from the hotel because we overpaid on the deposit. So we hit our profit goal in the end. We won’t have to scale back on anything next year.”
“Any chance you’re interested in being SG for a new conference in Dubai?”
After a long inhale and pregnant pause, “What exactly do I need to do?”