Mergers, The Internet & Monetization: Fraternity Survival in the 2000’s

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Fraternities have been merging forever; your fraternity is likely one composed of many formerly local chapters. Through most of the 20th Century, local organizations requested to affiliate with regional or national organizations for a few simple reasons:

  • Their institutions preferred the additional financial and educational stability that a national organization could provide.
  • The chapter members sought wider networking opportunities
  • Administrative needs and expenses are simpler to manage when cooperating with many other chapters

As we rocket through the 21st Century, change will soon be required to address a changing, questionable, higher education landscape. As we described here, there will likely come a point where the number of national fraternities will decrease along with the number of traditional brick-and-mortar college students.

The change in student demographics initially seems like a bad thing; for some slow-moving organizations, it will be. That being said, the 21st Century will likely be one in which fraternities thrive, as new technologies will create opportunities to exploit new tactics that work in growing other fields of business.

I recently made a post encouraging achievement systems that was met with some skepticism: The cost would be too high, we would need to find a person to manage it and, it’s been tried before. All of that may be true, and that is why the fraternity or sorority that takes it seriously and does it right will benefit immensely.

An online institution recently connected with me to inquire about establishing an “online chapter.” Many I have spoken with, from a variety of fraternities and professions, have expressed doubt that such an experience could rival an in-person experience, and yet no one has made the move to develop a worthwhile online membership; we just choose to listen to the naysayers and say we gave it the old college try.

Our issue with progress is that we believe that our better practices are best practices, and so we blind ourselves to exploring what are literally infinite opportunities. So here are some bigger scale changes that would diversify the fraternity community, offering enticing, though risky, opportunities for growth.

THE BIG BRO/LITTLE BRO MERGER

As mentioned in the introduction, your fraternity or sorority is likely the result of one or hundreds of mergers. Small, local organizations dominated the college landscape in the 19th and 20th Centuries, but most eventually chose a national organization to partner with. Many regional or national organizations also merged throughout the 20th Century, producing larger, more capable versions of themselves.

Although there hasn’t been a high-profile merger in quite a while, changes in enrollment will soon present a problem. There are more than 70 men’s groups affiliated with the North American Inter-Fraternity Conference (NIC), and some are already too small to survive a few chapter losses in one year.

The mergers of the 21st Century; however, could be entirely different than those of the 20th.

Imagine if a large national fraternity absorbed a regional fraternity, or a smaller national organization, but maintained that organization’s name and ritual as a high-end or low-end version of itself. Think T-Mobile owning and operating MetroPCS; they rely on different business models, but T-Mobile likely benefits more from MetroPCS’s appeal to a certain demographic of customer.

A big fraternity could operate a smaller or older fraternity at institutions that are closed to expansion or where that organization has considerable history.

For example, it’s nearly impossible to successfully develop a chapter at an Ivy League school using current “best practices” of expansion; I say this after witnessing many organizations achieve sub-par results. But what if an organization with chapters at all ivy-leagues merged with a more widespread fraternity? Administrative costs would be reduced, benefiting students’ wallets, and volunteers could maintain the “ivy league” brand and ritual, satisfying its members.

 

THE “INTERNET OPTION” SPIN OFF

Now imagine that the internet could offer a membership experience. Members would have access to a network, fraternity events, online education platforms, discounts at major brands and who knows what else!?

We often get caught up in the idea that an e-membership would be less valuable than an in-person membership, and maybe it would, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t provide something fulfilling for a lower price.

Imagine if a fraternity, or many fraternities, with their membership networks and solid brand loyalty developed a unique opportunity for any individual or online college attendee to access a Ted-like experience merged with networking opportunities, volunteer opportunities and local meet-up conferences?

Members may not pay $200-$400 per academic term for national membership, they may only pay $10 a month for access to the network and programming, but it would be a unique opportunity for organizations to use their assets for the benefit of society and as a revenue source to improve those assets and its full-membership benefits.

 

THE NON-MERGER MERGER

For organizations that send staff around the nation, and occasionally to other nations, most fraternities rely on anemic budgets derived from their poorest members (it’s just like government!). It’s actually pretty impressive, but many organizations increase dues every few years to manage what are, in effect, non-essential roles.

No one should take offense to this, but there are some positions at a fraternity or sorority headquarters that need not be fraternity-specific, and the idea that two organizations could jointly manage a 6-person communications team, as opposed to each managing 3-4 person communications teams isn’t entirely crazy.

Some basic administrative needs could likely be combined, with each fraternity taking part in the partnership covering a chunk of the bill. We already do this for some of our needs.

There are fraternities that pay other fraternities to use their consultants, most campuses and fraternities choose to hire speakers rather than incubate teams of speakers in-house, and many already borrow or pay for curriculum for educational programs. We all essentially use the same lawyers because they specialize in helping fraternities; why not work together to hire and share top risk management/harm reduction talent?

Specialization is an evolutionary development that humans have mastered. Just as some people make books and some make cars, so too can fraternities combine some universal needs. Many fraternities pitching in may also improve the quality of talent hired, meaning better consultants, programs, communications, budgeting, etc. It’s a win for everyone, except dinosaurs trapped in the past.

 

MONETIZATION MADNESS

We touched on this when discussing internet memberships, but in order to refrain from raising dues, many organizations will turn to monetizing their assets: the brains, products and talents of their memberships.

So far, we’ve seen a relatively pathetic level of this. Fraternities sell name-branded swag and some have partnerships for discounts with many major companies, but not many have not connected monetization with an overall improvement in the membership experience.

We already mentioned using assets to create a smaller, less expensive online “membership” and the value of many organizations pitching in for expert content, but what if we took some of what is currently external and brought it in-house?

What if six fraternities picked their greatest minds and started a non-profit speaking group? The speakers would each collect bigger paychecks, encouraging them to work on behalf of the fraternities, and the commission collected by the non-profit would be distributed among the foundations of each fraternity.

If a chapter is responsible for its school hiring a speaker, the national organization could provide specialized scholarships or foundation support for that chapter.

Perhaps a fraternity will start a book club and distribute materials written by its members for a small fee. Perhaps we’ll expand beyond the “let’s slap our name on a t-shirt” era of online stores and instead work to promote the new businesses our members are starting, the films they make and the knowledge they can share. Members get a boost to their business, fraternities get a boost to their offerings and value with limited cost to the undergraduate membership.

These are just a few cost-cutting options that fraternities can explore in the 21st Century. Perhaps old-school mergers and fights over who gets to keep their letters can truly be a thing of the past. What is more brotherly than cooperating to improve the experience for our current members, our future internet members and/or even the general public?