The Million Dollar Decision

    photo by David Zhang

    Even for late May, it was a notably beautiful morning when Weinberg senior Anna Radoff and SESP senior Josh Parish invited the newly-chosen executive board of Northwestern University Dance Marathon 2014 to take their seats in McCormick Tribune 3-107.

    The sprawling, ceiling-high windows filled the room with light from the sun rising over Lake Michigan, waking up anyone still trying to shake off their Saturday morning cobwebs. Looking out the massive windows, you could just make out the students and townies sunbathing and throwing frisbees on South Beach. But for the 22 people around the long U-shaped conference table who were about to whip out their laptops and lock themselves in the room, there’d be no opportunity to enjoy the rare weather. They would stay here well into the evening, and possibly into the next day, to collectively make the most influential decision of their college careers: which organization, in 10 months time, would receive a check for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    The confetti had barely settled over Dance Marathon 2013 when Matt Larsen and Katie Amys, the event’s executive co-chairs, chose Parish and Radoff as their successors. In the months leading up to that year’s 30-hour philanthropic frenzy, while Larsen and Amys were helping their exec team put together the final details of the event, they also began collecting applications for the next year’s beneficiary. When Parish and Radoff officially took the reins in early April, Larsen and Amys handed them hard copies of nearly 80 applications, in duplicate, from prospective beneficiaries for DM 2014. Radoff joked that it was a “suitcase” full of information, but the hundreds upon hundreds of pages—comprising essays, photos, financial statements, letters of recommendation, videos edited onto CDs—probably wouldn’t have fit into one handheld bag.

    The pair began by judging the applications separately, grading them based on a common rubric. Together they would narrow down the applications for a round of phone interviews, and again for another round where representatives of the beneficiaries would come, sometimes by plane, to McTrib for an in-person interview. Being full-time students with busy schedules, Parish and Radoff both described the experience as mentally and emotionally taxing. At that time Parish was on his SESP practicum, spending his days working at a company in downtown Evanston while devoting his nights to reading applications, in a routine he says got him “more than too tired.” To pile on, while they were shaving applications from one round to the next, they were also interviewing students to fill the 20 positions on their executive board. By the end of April their executive board was chosen, and they had narrowed the number of contending beneficiaries into the single digits. It was all leading to that day in McTrib 3-107, when the decision would be out of Parish and Radoff’s hands.

    A Big Day Ahead

    When McCormick junior Monisha Appalaraju stepped into the brightly-lit conference room, she knew only a handful of the 21 people surrounding her. Having been a photographer and member of the technology resources committee for DM 2013, she was now one of two technology co-chairs responsible for running and updating DM’s website. Appalaraju may have been new to the executive board, but she knew what would be expected of her on that day. She’d been sent copies of three long applications, and she, like everyone else sitting around the table, was told to study them all back and front. Other advice followed: Be ready for a long day. Come prepared to think critically and collaborate. Bring snacks.

    “It was really humbling, and kind of terrifying, especially after reading these three amazing applications,” Appalaraju says. “It’s like, I’m a computer science major—what makes me qualified to make a decision like this?”

    Appalaraju and the other exec members—with the exception of Parish and Radoff, who would more or less sit back and watch—would spend the day going through each application, envisioning an entire year working with each beneficiary, bringing up points from the perspective of each co-chair and the committee they’d soon be leading. The deliberation wouldn’t end until all 20 members came to a unanimous decision in a heads-down vote.

    As they sat down that morning and opened their laptops to get started, returning members of last year’s exec board noticed a familiar application in front of them, titled “Dance for the Kids who Can’t.” At the same meeting one year earlier, which had ended in a decision to pair with Chicago-based Danny Did Foundation, this application had been in the running, too. It came from a small philanthropy started by a suburban mother in Michigan, whose son was battling a fatal but little-known form of muscular dystrophy.

    For the full story, pick up a copy of North by Northwestern Magazine this Thursday.

    Editor's note: This article orginally stated that the incoming Dance Marathon executive board would decide "which organization, in 10 months time, would receive a check for more than $1.2 million." This $1.2 million figure represents an approximation of the total amount of money that was raised toward both the primary beneficiary (the Danny Did Foundation) and secondary beneficiary (The Evanston Community Foundation), as well as product donations, for Dance Marathon 2013. The figure does not accurately approximate the amount of money that will be presented specifically to Team Joseph at the end of Dance Marathon 2014. North by Northwestern apologizes for the error.


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