Lifelong Commitment Vs. Lifelong Membership: Why Many Fraternities/Sororities Struggle To Keep Alumni Around

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Almost every alumnus will be called upon to give their time or to give financially to their fraternity or sorority – bound by an oath many made before they were able to drink (legally).

We regularly plug said oaths and with a passive-aggressive reminder that fraternity membership is “lifelong.” So why aren’t more fraternity men and women involved in that lifelong membership? Why do as few as 1/100 members volunteer or donate in some cases?

That’s A Lot Of Sorority Women! A Story:

I was wearing my “Delta Sigma Phi” shirt at the Atlanta Airport while traveling back home from a fraternity program.

An older woman stopped me:

“Where did you get those letters?” – she asked. 

“It’s a shirt from my fraternity,” I replied. 

“Oh, goodness, I’m sorry! I thought you were wearing my sorority’s letters!”

She was a Delta Sigma Theta – I am a Delta Sigma Phi. Our letters look similar.

I looked around and noticed hundreds of post-graduate women in Delta Sigma Theta letters and colors making their way through TSA. There were more woman here for some morning flights than at my fraternity’s entire 2017 Convention (our most well-attended ever, mind you).

This is a recurring theme when comparing NPHC (historically black) fraternities and sororities to their once exclusively-white counterparts. Perhaps due in part to their continuing mission to support the development of black communities and individuals, many members maintain a strong and lifelong bond to their organizations.

Many of us fraternity/sorority professionals simply note that “NPHC organizations are different,” and leave it at that, but that might close folks off from trying to teach and learn best practices.

There are millions of fraternity alumni out there. So why are so few of us involved beyond our four years of college? And why are the ones “involved for life” limited to dedicated volunteers or dedicated donors?

Here are some thoughts:

1. [Inter]National Fraternity, Governing Boards, [Inter]National Office

These are three different things, but we often tie them together.

A [inter]national fraternity or sorority is its membership. That membership elects a board to manage the organization between legislative sessions which take place every 1-2 years. The board then hires an executive director/CEO, who then hires a staff to fill the [Inter]National Office, which theoretically provides services for dues paying members (students).

Most people associate a national office with a national fraternity. That means that the interests and initiatives of the national office are imposed on the entire membership – even though our governing structures are meant to work in the opposite direction.

2. “Stereotypes” & Our Response To Them

Fraternities are friend clubs. Most members join for a family away from home. Friend clubs are valuable.

I say everything else, including but not limited to. . .

  • Service Hour requirements
  • “Leadership Education”
  • Philanthropic Partners
  • Risk Management Education

. . . are peripheral to the core of the fraternity experience.

Here’s a great quote: “What gets measured gets managed.”

Our national offices and boards are focused on these peripheral initiatives because they are good for publicity, because “facilitating lifelong friendships” is apparently not a valuable proposition on its own, and because everyone focuses on these.

Are those peripheral initiatives effective at making people “better” or relevant to our central purpose as friend clubs? Not really, but because they are the focus of our national offices they are the focus of our national membership (See: previous point, also: I read and liked Beta’s new and focused strategic plan).

3. We see alumni the same way we see students: Raw Material

Student members of our organizations join for the brotherhood or sisterhood. Once they are initiated; however, they provide the funding and statistics we need to promote our organization to more students who can then provide us with more funding and statistics.

It’s impossible for an office of 10-40 people to micromanage thousands of students to the extent that our statements and the opinions of the media would imply, and so we need volunteer support (like any non-profit).

That’s where alumni come in: Due to our focus on “positive-publicity initiatives,” a national office’s greatest need for alumni members is to advise students to meet their expectations or to provide supplemental revenue for related programming.

[ P.S. Colleges and universities are not different: Many say Greek Life is valuable because it improves retention, donations, and because members are easy to coerce into doing good deeds or boosting turnout to programs and athletic events. Fraternity & sorority offices are more than willing to share those talking points.]

4. There is little return on investment – Some alumni get medals or a shout out.

66 fraternities in the NIC and almost all of them paint themselves as premiere leadership experiences building better men, and that means tons of leadership programming fraternities.

We place on a pedestal the alumni willing to volunteer the most time or willing to give the most cash. Knowing that, it should be obvious why a vast majority of our members lack an interest in the greater dog and pony show of fraternity and sorority life – one which appears to offer little in return.

If lifelong membership means a specific yet generic set of initiatives then what is the selling point for alumni members? Exhaustive work? Maybe that’s why fewer than 5% or 10% of a fraternity’s alumni are volunteering and donating – the causes are irrelevant, too generic, and too focused on things other than why students join: lifelong friendships.

What Would Be The Alternative?

If we wish to have greater student and alumni engagement, we must expand beyond the workforce value of our members and donors. We must develop a powerful and worldwide community of friends.

Many organizations are now focusing on getting seniors jobs as a way to encourage lifelong engagement. Any transition experience is yet another limited focus likely to cost too much money or absorb too much time. We are banking on the same tired premise: fondly remember something you gained from your membership experience to dedicate a chunk of your time or money to said organization. It’s a poor strategy and has already plateaued.

We can provide exceptional value to our student and alumni members without breaking the bank and by simply focusing on friendships, not statistics. Here are some thoughts as to how:

  • Educational Programming: Make use of our vast networks. Thousands of our alumni have something to teach. Cut the generic leadership curriculums and focus on building out platforms for members to share and teach one another. It’ll be more affordable, allow alumni and students to build their brands, and diversify your portfolio of educational programming.
  • Merchandise & Entrepreneurship: Fraternity stores are a shell of what they could be. Your organization should be selling products created by your alumni and featuring them through regular spotlights to promote their company, products or career. Any entrepreneur would love a passionate audience like that of a fraternity with which they have an existing connection to help build their career. (Bonus: royalties)
  • Communication: To put it simply – your website should be a living version of your magazine, and your social media should provide something of real-world value to your members – not just serve as a platform to brag about stats and push educational programs. Share topical articles, promote members’ work, and allow students/alumni interested in writing/production to build their portfolio through your communication platforms.
  • Networking: Life is more than one’s career, and we should serve as hubs for members to turn to when they need to connect with others on parenting, mental health, employment, and beyond. This happens spontaneously (many organizations have internal military or LGBTQ associations, for example), so why not promote members to create interest or topic-based communities.
  • Benefits of Membership: Offer daily value to members. Create a discount program for businesses run by alumni – or businesses in general, a book club, whatever you can to add daily value to your members’ lives. That’ll keep the fraternity in their mind, in their good graces, and will make members more likely to consider offering help when it’s requested.
  • Lifelong Education: Our organizations exist because of our right to associate and because of the liberal arts education system of American colleges and universities. We must cater our foundations and their fundraising abilities to:
    • helping students afford an education
    • student loan debt relief
    • graduate student scholarships/grants
    • job skills training for members of any age
    • supporting costs absorbed by teachers