At one time in its 97-year history, Washington University's Thurtene Carnival was a circus. Later it was staged as a vaudeville show. World War II briefly interrrupted its run; 1943 marked the last Thurtene-less year. Over the decades, Thurtene has included a "freshman-powered Merry-Go-Round" and a rotten-egg toss.
In recent times the event, whose 2004 incarnation takes place April 17 and 18 in the parking lot of Wash. U.'s athletic complex just off Forsyth and Big Bend boulevards, has induced tens of thousands of students, alumni, local residents and children to assess their intestinal fortitude via the time-tested combination of midway food and carnival rides -- not to mention student-produced plays.
And it's for a good cause: For the past 30 years or so, the Thurtene Junior Honorary has made a donation to a charity. According to Thurtene's 2004 press release, "[a]n expected 120,000 people will share the spirit of the Thurtene Carnival, which benefits Youth In Need, a local St. Louis charity."
How much do local charities receive from Thurtene? The carnival's organizers refuse to say. And to some students involved with the event, that secrecy bears a taint reminiscent of the rotten-egg toss of days gone by.
"I think they don't disclose how much money they donate because I don't think it's a significant amount," speculates Emily Reinhart, a senior studying business and Spanish who has been involved with the carnival for much of her tenure at Washington U. "Thurtene advertises the event as a charity event, which I think is just false advertising to the campus community and the St. Louis community. They think [the carnival] is for charity."
Despite the verbiage of the group's press release, the Thurtene Junior Honorary begs to differ. Honorary president Kevin Rollag supplied a statement the organization prepared last year to address questions about fundraising and disclosure practices. "Thurtene does not want the success of the Carnival to be based solely on monetary terms," the statement reads. "The purpose of the Carnival is to bring together Washington University student organizations and open our campus to the surrounding communities. The fact that the net proceeds from the Carnival are donated to a local charity strengthens this objective but is not the primary purpose of the Carnival."
A century-old organization that comprises thirteen WU juniors, Thurtene was once a secret society along the lines of Yale's renowned Skull and Bones. The group now has something of a public profile -- complete with a Web site: www.thurtene.org -- but it continues to keep details of its membership-selection process and rituals under wraps. Because Thurtene receives no funding from Wash. U., the group is not obligated to open its books to university bureaucrats -- or, for that matter, to anyone else.
"It's a completely independent organization," says Judy Leicht, the school's associate vice chancellor for communications. "They have their own treasurer." Rollag confirms that the university doesn't charge Thurtene for use of the school's facilities for the carnival.
Judging by the advertised size of the expected throng, large sums of money -- well into the six figures -- are involved. The carnival is bankrolled in part by the participating student groups. Thurtene also enlists a corporate sponsor to help cover overhead -- Ackerman Toyota in 2004. According to the honorary, the sponsor's contribution is kept confidential. (Asked to disclose the amount of this year's sponsorship, Ackerman general sales manager Brian Hacay responds, "That's none of your business.")
When the receipts have been tallied, Thurtene makes a lump-sum donation to the designated charity. Again, Rollag says, the donation represents the proceeds generated by the carnival -- there's also a donation box at the carnival, where patrons are encouraged to make a contribution to the charity -- but the total amount is kept confidential.
Citing Thurtene's policy, Judy Ciapiak, director of administration for Friends of Kids with Cancer, declined to disclose the amount of Thurtene's donation last year. A spokeswoman for 2002's beneficiary, Epworth Youth and Family Services, says the group received a total of $14,500 from the carnival that year, $3,000 of which came directly from the fraternity Beta Theta Pi. The designated 2001 charity, Make a Difference Center, reports an overall donation of $8,500.
Given the large amounts of money that go into staging the event, Emily Reinhart thinks the charities ought to be getting more. According to Reinhart, her sorority required its 100-plus members to raise $50 apiece for the carnival effort last year. Pairing up with the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity (which also raised funds), the team invested $8,000 to build a booth and stage a play. They took in $7,000, which they opted to donate directly to 2003's designated charity, Friends of Kids with Cancer.
Student groups can simply make out checks directly to Thurtene, but Reinhart says her group chose the direct route because of Thurtene's insistence on secrecy. "There was a suspicion raised as to whether or not the money actually went to the charity," Reinhart says.
Adds Karin Johnes, director of Greek life at Washingon University: "[Student groups] have no way of knowing: 'Did Thurtene actually give that money to charity, or did Thurtene use that to pay for the Ferris wheel at the carnival?'"
Such questions are only natural, according to Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy. "That's strange that they want to be so secretive. That alone makes you wonder," says Borochoff, whose watchdog group is based in Chicago. "I don't know what they're teaching at Wash. U., but you want to be accountable if you can with something like this. Being accountable lessens the likelihood of wrongdoing being able to happen. They need to make an effort to show that they're above-board on this. They need to be clear as to what degree they're helping charity. They shouldn't try to hide that.
"What is wrong is if people have the perception that it's done primarily for charity," Borochoff adds. "If they give their charitable dollar thinking it's going to charity and only a small percentage of it is -- that's money that's not available to help somebody else."
Responds Rollag: "Everything we tell anyone goes to charity, goes to charity." He says Thurtene is able to cover its operating expenses through its corporate sponsorship, plus fees each student group must pay the honorary for space, ranging from about $300 to about $1,300 depending on the size of the booth. This year's carnival will feature 42 groups, some of which will share booths.
Rollag concedes that while some groups, such as Reinhart's, donate their gross proceeds, others reimburse themselves for costs and donate what, if anything, is left. "Some donate a lot," Rollag says. "Some groups don't donate anything at all." Thurtene does not oversee the individual groups' bookkeeping, according to Rollag.
The honorary's president disputes Reinhart's claim that student groups don't trust Thurtene, and he defends the group's nondisclosure policy: "We have made disclosure contracts available for each group to sign so that we have permission to publicly disclose the amount of their donation through us, to the charity," he says. "The only thing we don't disclose is the amount we donate from ourselves -- for all the reasons we already stated."
Reinhart counters that the carnival should stand by its perceived commitment to charity -- a perception buttressed by the media, such as a March 28, 2001 carnival preview in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch headlined: "Carnival for needy kids will kick off April 21 at WU." As president of the Women's Panhellenic Council, which governs Washington University's five sororities, in 2002 and 2003 Reinhart pushed for a joint Panhellenic and Interfraternity Council resolution that would require any frat or sorority participating in Thurtene to donate a minimum of $500 to the carnival's designated charity. Thurtene opposed the resolution. In its written statement, the group emphasized its view that the event is not only intended as a fundraiser for charity: "[D]ue to the fact that various groups may have different goals associated with their participation in the Carnival, we do not believe that mandatory donations are in the best interest of all participating Greek organizations." The resolution failed.
Karin Johnes says student groups could eliminate the entire issue by taking matters into their own hands: Work harder to raise money for charity, and spend less on overhead. "They spend a ridiculous amount of money to build the façades," Johnes says. "You want them to spend less on their construction, and to raise more that they can contribute."
Competition for the Burmeister Cup -- awarded for best overall participation in the carnival and a point of pride in the Greek system -- spurs groups to spend lavishly. According to Rollag, the Burmeister Cup rewards "creative competition." In an attempt to acknowledge the fundraising aspect of the carnival, Thurtene also instituted the Chancellor's Charity Cup, presented to the student group that makes the largest charitable donation. (Reinhart's group topped last year's contributors.)
Better, says Johnes, would be for Thurtene to simply open the carnival's books.
"If Thurtene were revealing how much they were spending to run the carnival compared to how much they donate to the charity organizations," she says, "that would give me a better argument to go back to the Greeks and say, 'Let's look at how much you're really spending on your façades. Do you really need to be spending that much?'"