The sun was setting on the final day of my final Homecoming weekend as a student member of my fraternity. After spending hours baking in the Florida heat I decided to head back into our chapter house to change and prepare to escort some alumni into town for drinks.
Just before entering the door to the house I heard an unfamiliar voice say, “So you’re the one taking my job.” I had announced during our joint meeting earlier that day that I would be working for our national fraternity. I could not tell if he was serious – he had stopped working there long before I had been hired – but he had a determined, kind of scary expression on his face. “I guess so,” I said.
“The only thing that you will learn is that AX [our chapter’s “designation”] is the only thing that matters. That national stuff is bullshit,” he said. I cannot remember how I replied, only that it involved a cautious smile, a half-hearted laugh, and something along the lines of, “sure,” before walking inside. In my four years as a student I had committed fully to the cause of “fraternity,” as they say, and I knew that the national organization was very important.
I attended every program I had the opportunity to attend, poured most of my free time into every element of our chapter life, and burned a bridge or two in what I hoped was the process of setting our chapter up to be better off once I had left. This guy was just another one of those men who blame the national fraternity for their problems, I thought, and the moment was out of my mind by the time I finished my first whiskey with pickle juice.
I have love for my brothers at Stetson and across the country – many of which I worked with to establish, re-establish, or propel their respective chapters – but I grew out of any sort of allegiance to “the fraternity” as I came to understand the history and trajectory of the fraternity experience and the political scaffolding behind our current governing organizations.
My fraternity consists of men like Dallas, who reluctantly joined at the request of his girlfriend, promised me that he would not be involved, then later became Chapter President and joined our national office staff. There is John, easily the most intimidating student I have ever tried to recruit, and there is Vince, who I kept running into at national events while we were students and later worked with for much of my early professional life.
I recently visited our chapters at IUPUI and The Ohio State University to present on our history and ritual. I helped establish those chapters in the 11-12 academic year and felt as if I were returning to my home chapter at Stetson. That feeling didn’t come from our wearing the same letters, but from knowing many of those men personally and the desire to spend time exploring our fraternity together.
The key to making the most of a fraternity membership is to build trusting relationships.
That simple understanding often gets lost in the world of fraternity checklists. It is easy to demand more policies, more lectures, and higher dues as a fraternity man today than to advocate for more on-the-ground support and conscious use of student dollars. It is far easier to promote a suspension of a fraternity community as a progressive, preventative step than to talk directly with the students and persuade them to pursue a different course.
It is too easy to confuse those who demand control with those who know how to lead, and too easy to suggest that students are incompetent without our intervention.
Each fraternity man or woman swears an oath identical to that of any other member of that same fraternity or sorority, but each oath means something entirely different to each initiating member.
When an oath becomes nothing more than a bully tactic because our we are too concerned with what others think of us then members will pull away. Fraternity is nothing without friendship, and too many of our leaders demand loyalty to their impression of their oath without putting in the work to persuade others of its value. It’s a shame, because the daily decisions of our students determine our fate – not the myriad of fraternity structures that alumni have created to try to manage said student.
A common dedication to one another is the national fraternity experience, not some incorporated, 501(c)(7) organization in a far away town. You did not join a fraternity to be a nameless contribution to someone else’s research project or to complete a checklist aimed at fixing you. You joined because you liked the people and you felt it a good use of your time to spend it with them.
To be clear – that member who accosted me as I walked into the chapter house was wrong. My national fraternity is not bull[corn] – it is a gateway to an even greater and more impactful fraternity experience for me and thousands of other men (of all ages). That being said, if that gateway is used to exert control, rather than to fortify friendships, its true value is corrupted and it will be abandoned.
My fraternity, like yours, was established without a national organization, a campus professional or the NIC, and it can continue on without those things. Understanding that is the key toward offering lifelong value to our members.
Growing out of elementary school does not mean you grow out of elementary habits. Adults can be crazy and selfish people, and we occasionally take pride in ridiculing others. It can feel good to make others feel bad about what typically makes them feel good (even if it makes them feel good because they make others feel bad).
With every publicized shooting comes a flurry of often-repeated tweets. Some call for gun control. Some call for culture control. Some offer thoughts and prayers…
Some ridicule those who tweet their demands for gun control into the server-sphere. Some ridicule those who defend the right to own and bear arms. Lately, many people have ridiculed those who offer “thoughts and prayers” in these trying times – often suggesting that thoughts and prayers do not result in progress. It is understandable to shame those who tweet, “thoughts & prayers,” and then go on snapping photos of their Ahi Tuna Supreme Salad, but it is a shame to ridicule “thoughts and prayers” themselves. Here’s why:
Every action stems from an intention. If you think about eating a sandwich you may very well make a sandwich and eat it and if you want to make lifelong friends in college you may join a fraternity.
Not every intention turns into action, and not every action brings about the desired intention. Viagra was meant to be a heart medication, but a more desirable use was found for the drug. Fraternity men initially seek friendship and camaraderie, but are eventually required to take part in a curriculum of checklists to prove to the world that they are better than everyone else.
Still, the value of thoughts and prayers is that they imply that someone is taking time to set intentions and to frame their way of thinking around living or acting in a certain way. You may drive on the road and never notice that Jeep Wrangler owners wave to one another, but take a ride in a Wrangler and you will actively notice every other Wrangler on the road and whether or not the other driver offers the “Jeep Wave,” a kind of salute for. . . I don’t know. . . buying the same style of vehicle?
What I mean to say is that setting intentions frames the things you notice throughout your day. Praying to cure an illness may not present an immediate solution, but consistent thought and prayer toward that end may result in you taking notice of an article you would otherwise ignore. The concept of prayer, speaking to a God who may or may not be listening to what your saying, is valuable even in the case that you are merely talking to yourself before bed or dinner.
Whether you are religious or not, taking time in your day to set intentions or reflect upon your feelings and actions holds value. It may come in the form of journaling or taking an hour a week to study the internet to find solutions to the problems at the top of your mind. More importantly, thinking and praying about things which are important to you may help you uncover which of your actions are inhibiting your progress.
For example, at the start of 2018 I thought I would spend this year focusing more on my health, wealth and friendships. Those are wide-ranging topics (wealth includes a wealth of knowledge, for example). I began saying a quick prayer before bed (rituals are comforting) and would then repeat those three intentions before falling asleep. However; when my travel season picked up in June I started to skip my little ritual.
A domino-effect kicked in. Forgetting to exercise while on the road carried into my home life – as did eating out, forgetting to call my parents, and procrastinating on developing my career. In the final weeks of August I recalled what I had promised to do at the start of the year and set an intention one night to creep back on track – and I have gotten back into the habits and rituals I set out to do at the start of 2018.
So, do not dismiss thoughts and prayers – they are essential to action. Perhaps you do not believe that someone’s thoughts or prayers are resulting in effective solutions, and that makes sense, but why tarnish the value of thinking, journaling, meditating or praying for yourself? The way you speak influences the way in which you act, and not everyone is interested or willing to debate with strangers all of the time.
Maybe your thoughts or prayers will result in a solution no one had previously thought to suggest.
I’ll dedicate this post to Brother Manly, who is a great friend, was a great roommate, and remains an inspiring human. Additionally he is an advantageous Call of Duty co-op partner, though I was better at Mario Kart. Also I am fairly certain he misses his Wrangler and the friendly waves from strangers on the road.
Several fraternities at West Virginia University have severed ties with the university due to rules applied only to Greek-letter organizations. The President, Gordon Gee, sent a statement to parents advising that they steer their adult children away from rogue organizations. This is not an unusual event, and you will see more of it in the coming years.
I have posted before about these types of things, but the story of WVU is a response to increasingly limiting policies enacted by fraternity/sorority professionals, politicians, and college administrations. Last year a Sigma Phi Epsilon chapter disassociated from its national at the University of Chicago. Several chapters at Tufts University have disaffiliated from their national organization.
Several chapters at the University of Nevada, Reno disaffiliated with the university and established their own IFC, which is not too different than what may happen at WVU and what happened last decade at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Consider these the warning shots – and those of us who roll our eyes are very likely contributing to the division.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reactionA law of physics (data-driven)
Now we have two more bits of news. One out of Beta Theta Pi and another from the North American Inter-Fraternity Conference (NIC).
Beta Theta Pi Settles With Family of Deceased Member
Beta Theta Pi fraternity settled with the Piazza family for an undisclosed monetary amount and 17 new initiatives that Beta Theta Pi must carry out. Keep in mind, the Fraternity is now bound by law to ensure each of these 17 things happen. They are as follows:
- Immediately supporting the proposed Timothy J. Piazza Anti-hazing Law in Pennsylvania.
- Requiring all chapter houses to be alcohol-and substance-free by August of 2020.
- Including the Piazzas in any decision-making process involving the future use of the closed Beta chapter at Penn State if the property is retained by the local house corporation.
- Withdrawing recognition, a prerequisite to operating a chapter, in the event a host college or university withdraws recognition based on conduct violations that have been fully and finally adjudicated at the local level.
- Establishing and communicating — on the chapter’s website, along with other related conduct policies and procedures — to those throughout the organization that any “action causing injury” to another is grounds for expulsion.
- Requiring that the college or university’s police and/or public safety department be immediately notified of any reported student conduct violations that result in serious bodily injury or death of a member, new member or third-party guest.
- Requiring enhanced education and training — including on a semester rather than annual basis — regarding social event planning, bystander engagement and prevention of hazing, alcohol/substance abuse, sexual assault and other abuses that could result in personal injury.
- Requiring chapters to publicly list online all chapter events and dates within their new member education programs as a part of Beta’s standardized new member education program and annual certification process.
- Requiring all chapters to complete annual safe event planning education prior to holding social events.
- Encouraging local house corporations to have a policy of a live-in house advisor as a best practice.
- Using reasonable efforts to implement a standardized new member education program limited to four weeks in length prior to initiation of new members.
- Encouraging chapters to have security cameras installed at all chapter housing.
- Establishing a relationship statement between Beta and members, including prospective members, in Fall 2018.
- Publishing notice on the Beta Theta Pi website regarding chapter status changes that result from violations of fraternity policies, including fraternity policies on alcohol and hazing.
- Encouraging open and full access to all chapter housing common areas to third-parties who are authorized by Beta Theta Pi or the host institution to visit during social events as a best practice.
- Requiring all chapters to have a chapter faculty advisor on their advising roster at the beginning of each academic year as part of Beta’s chapter recognition requirements.
- Including bystander intervention training in Beta’s risk management education each semester and continue to provide anonymous reporting options for students and parents.
Within the first four points, Beta Theta Phi has surrendered its ability to govern itself by tying its recognition of chapters to that of the college or university at which the chapter is located, endorsing irrelevant red-tape legislation, and preventing students from associating under the name of “Beta Theta Phi” at Penn State without permission from a family (does that pass on to any other relatives when the parents eventually pass?).
I am not opposed to all of the measures – for example, when I was Chapter President I shortened the new member period of our chapter to 4 weeks because the 8 week process delayed our new members’ ability to take part in the life of the chapter and learn how things work.
Still, that these are mandated at the national level, that many will require the investment of student funds (from chapters without such issues) and that these are now bound by law is reason enough to understand why chapters of Beta Theta Pi may choose to disaffiliate (or re-affiliate with another fraternity or as a new fraternity) rather than comply.
That might be because the chapter is full of terrible people who just don’t like rules or it might be because a chapter is excellent and doesn’t want to be penalized for another’s stupid mistakes. It might not happen at all, but these are the types of actions which inspire the reactions we are seeing at WVU, Tufts and UIC.
Expect more fraternities to follow in Beta Theta Pi’s footsteps and more chapters to disaffiliate and go local in the coming years. Hell, this may inspire the next big, amazing NIC policy. . . speaking of which:
NIC Takes More “Decisive Action” In The Form Of A New Policy
The NIC (the United Nations for fraternities) has enacted a new “hard alcohol-free” policy for fraternity chapters. In reality the policy is not too different than what many (if not most) fraternities or colleges/universities already have in place. I don’t care about the policy, but it certainly doesn’t fall in line with the NIC’s desire to make “data-driven decisions” (See here) and NIC’s’ methods are a cause for concern.
The issue, and why several fraternities have already left the NIC, is that once again a high power with exceptional intentions has ignored several million people in its decision-making process – one which happens out in the open and yet entirely behind closed doors.
I ask you (and posed some of these questions to the NIC via email): Did you know this was being voted on? Were you given a chance to share your thoughts or the data which disproves the validity of such policies? Do you feel this falls in the realm of NIC activity (“advocate | collaborate | educate”)? Do you know how many votes your fraternity purchases or how your fraternity voted?
Perhaps in 2019 they should consider signing on to The Amethyst Initiative along with 136 college/university presidents in favor of lowering the national drinking age to 18. At least that would signal that NIC fraternities consider their members adults – even if alcohol is banished from actual fraternity functions.
In summary we see two extremes: one which pushes for greater centralization and regulation (codeword: standards) and another which seeks to decentralize and personalize the fraternity experience. Each responds to the other and neither is perfect in its purest form. That being said – the efforts to centralize and regulate fraternities have been in motion for decades, and we are just now starting to see legitimate pushback.
As those organizations respond with tough, “decisive” action, expect component organizations (local chapters, nat’l orgs, IFCs – depending on which central authority we are speaking of) to seek greater self-government to focus on the core interests of their organization (whether that is partying or providing a life-improving experience for young men and/or women).
I’m very much in favor of greater decision rights at the student level (#DemocratizeFraternities) – no need to point that out any further. . . I am aware – but the push and pull relationship described above is real. As with everything in the news, it will appear tumultuous, but this is merely a growing pain as fraternities adapt to the times.
We may get to a place where every fraternity is the same and intensely regulated at the federal, state and collegiate level and we may get to a place with a more locally-oriented fraternity community. There may be other options or in-betweens which I have not yet considered.
All that said: The more that college students are treated as a source of funding, a research project, or manpower for positive-publicity events which have nothing to do with why they joined in the first place, the more likely they are to take their money, talent and time elsewhere.
This might be a great post for those who are advising for the first time, who want to switch up their practices for a little while, and for student leaders – particularly chapter officers – as they navigate the space between formal responsibility.
I focus most of my attention on maximizing self government and niche development in fraternity chapters. Those are two general ideals I found through my time as a student leader, fraternity professional and volunteer adviser to be the most essential to a chapter’s long term stability. Everything I teach, from recruitment to budgeting, is shaped by those ideals. We can call these an Advisory Compass; they define the direction you wish for things to move.
This is no different than what I teach chapters in terms of managing their operations. There are so many different functions of an advisory position or a chapter leader that it is helpful to select some guiding themes (values) to align with. Just offer advice that heads in the direction of your guiding principles.
Choose Your Direction In 2-3 Words
When offered the position of an adviser take time to define 2-3 key ideals to focus on. As I mentioned I chose self-government and niche development. They aren’t exclusively mine. . . please take them, but you can choose those which fit your experiences. What have you noticed as necessary to the success your students are looking for?
These ideals will serve as your directional compass; they are things that you ultimately want to move toward even if progress is minimal. Whenever you make a decision, consider first the limitations of your role and then what you can do to keep things moving toward one or more of those ideals.
Establish Trust – You Might Change Nothing
Students might ignore your advice. Sometimes it happens on accident and sometimes whatever you say didn’t connect at the right time. Respecting that the decisions to be made are ultimately those of the students is the first step toward establishing real, persuasive trust – an essential tool for any leader or adviser.
There is an old saying that if you presume someone to be a thief that you will be more perceptive to those qualities which confirm your bias. Be mindful to build your own relationships with those you advise. If you walk into a meeting or conversation with a preconceived idea of where your conversational partner is coming from then you are going to be ineffective when you try to offer advice. Accept that your students might differ from you philosophically.
Communicate Your Direction
Being open and honest with the direction in which you wish for things to move is an important step in furthering the trust you establish. You might feel as if it puts you in a box, but as long as students see that you are willing to meet them where they are at, they don’t mind – and might reach out to you specifically because of – the values that go in to making your decisions. You will notice if your ideals are getting in the way, and that means a re-calibration of those ideals or your role might be helpful.
Students spend less time wondering whether you are delivering a canned response handed down from someone higher up on the ladder when you are upfront with your intentions. If I visited a chapter with a strained relationship to our national office I would always begin with some ritual, how students shaped our fraternity, and then would answer their questions as candidly as possible. You don’t need to drop f-bombs and Billboard Top 40 songs to connect with advisees; just respect them.
Ask, “Is That Workable?”
Sometimes people will nod without understanding or agreeing with what you are saying. This might be because they are embarrassed to admit that they do not understand what you are talking about (something many of us experience when visiting a doctor’s office) or because they do not take your advice seriously.
A great workaround is asking whether or not something you suggest or offer is “workable,” and the reason I choose that word is because it requires that a student (or prospective customer) considers what you are saying to be within the realm of possibility. If there is too much hesitation, ask what could make something “more workable.” If there is an outright denial then ask what would be workable.
Gossip Kills Trust. Do Not Do It.
Be who you are no matter who is in the room. Change your delivery to fit your audience, not your Advisory Compass. Sometimes we act a certain way in a student’s or another adviser’s company, but speak ill of them to other students or advisers. All this does is create doubt about whether or not you are trustworthy.
Just as you need to form your own judgement of students based on your personal experiences with them, you should give them the opportunity to form their own opinions of others rather than fanning the flames.
Acknowledge When You Are Not Breaking Through
There will be one or many students/colleagues who do not agree with the direction in which you would like to move or who just do not like you. It happens. If you are meeting lots of resistance then you might need to find a worthy substitute, move to a different role or adjust how you word your advisory compass.
It is best to work where you can find common ground then to exhaust yourself trying to convince someone to change lifelong habits and beliefs. They may one day come to appreciate your way of thinking. . . or you might one day come to appreciate their way of thinking.
It is nice to talk to and vent with other fraternity/sorority advisers or leaders, but there are exceptional ideas and tools to build your advising capabilities outside of the limited scope of fraternity work. Try to read one book or complete one personal-development task aligned with your ideals throughout the year to keep your mind sharp and the ideas flowing.
Also – take a break every once in a while. It is good for the soul. Find a substitute if you don’t want to leave your students or chapter without an adviser or officer for too long.
Turn Your Students Into Educators
If you are a Chapter President, for example, teach some members to teach your newest members how chapter meetings work. Pair them up with an initiated member and follow up when all is done to see how things went and if anything else should be done to help the new members feel comfortable and confident during meetings (They’ve only got 3.5 years, don’t waste time).
If you are an adviser then invite students to help you plan your personal goals and objectives. Ask them to hold you accountable to your ideals and to come up with ideas for things you can do. None of this needs to be related to those you advise – it could be your career or educational goals. This gives them practice in developing and using ideals to guide decisions and is an easy thing to recall when advising them to do so.
You want students to trust your advice. You must follow your advice and demonstrate that it is not only workable, but helpful. Keep your word – Do What You Say You Will Do.
What advice do you have to share?
Do you remember when Hewlett-Packard announced in 2004 that it would sell HP-branded iPods and pre-install iTunes on each of its computers?
It is okay if not; that deal collapsed within 2 years. The reason for the collapse was simple: Despite promises of better profit and better business, the relationship created more hurdles than it did progress.
HP iPods could only be fixed through HP’s customer service (even though they were identical to Apple’s iPods), and the iPod itself improved sales of Apple’s computers and facilitated the download of iTunes onto PCs. Apple’s brand was stronger and better without the agreement and it did little to improve HP’s profits or standing among competitors.
Fraternities, like Apple, must reconsider their desire for university recognition at the expense of their brand and freedom of association.
Ask any fraternity official and they will tell you that the freedom of association is an essential priority. I’ve seen staff from the NIC present at a variety of fraternity educational programs and national meetings on their current initiatives. University recognition and free association both claim status as “priorities,” but they do not work well together – and the time is coming when we must choose one or the other.
Why Is Recognition Valuable?
Fraternities were established as experiences tied to education but operating adjacent to the structure of the university. This is in part because colleges and universities had not yet established a student affairs industry complete with mandatory “fees” to pay for on-campus entertainment. For a time, fraternities provided all of the extra-curricular activities a student could want with the people they wanted to do those activities with.
As the fraternity experience grew, national structures were established and expanded in the name of protecting members’ freedom of association. Fraternities have always been a nuisance to university administrations (who were at one point in history focused on providing quality education to qualified students), but they also helped keep students in school and resulted in alumni who were better committed to the college. One of the basic expectations of my fraternity, for example, is to support our nation’s constitution and educational systems.
What could schools gain by recognizing fraternities and spending school resources on them? Bringing fraternity operations in-house meant that colleges and universities could invest directly in fraternities or sororities to ensure that they captivated students, kept students around (tuition $), and then kept them engaged as donor alumni. This “in-house” process began with some hired advisers to work with fraternity and sorority chapters on any given campus.
Now; however, many schools have separate staff, fees, standards and expectations for fraternity chapters. I have written about this since I began writing fraternity blogs, because the result of university recognition is that students have another layer of authority to which they report. Modern fraternity chapters are not so much about “fraternity” as they are training grounds for careers in regulatory compliance.
Recognition in the 2010’s
What are the results of recognition? Fraternities and sororities have grown, they have become increasingly accessible and an entire industry has been established around catering to fraternity and sorority chapters’ needs due in part to the investments from colleges/universities. Unfortunately, recognition can come with many strings resulting in some unfortunate side effects – including:
- Common visions, expectations, recruitment practices and standards for all chapters are typically worked out at the campus/council level in addition to what’s required of a national organization. No other student group faces the level of micro-management that fraternity chapters face. They are the least self-governing student groups on college campuses today (besides NCAA athletics – another casualty of obsessive alumni professionals).
- Colleges and Universities have, in the name of recognition, assumed the role of gatekeeper to the establishment of fraternities, the disbanding of fraternity chapters, and the suspension of entire fraternity/sorority communities. Remember, these are self-governing, “student” organizations.
- Fraternity expansion to new campuses costs more than ever as advisers and councils encourage national organizations throw favors to campus professionals in order to win the right to establish a chapter. It’s the equivalent of Dunkin Donuts asking for Starbucks’ permission to open a new store.
- Conflicting policies result in confusion among students (who typically choose to follow the priorities or policies which result in the greatest freedom – hence the case of a student death at a school with a lax alcohol policy as a member of a fraternity with a zero-tolerance alcohol policy)
It is time that people who love fraternities advocate for “mutually beneficial collaboration” instead of “university recognition.” There is no need for a college or university to approve of a fraternity chapter or to monitor its activities; it is a costly burden faced by no other student organization.
Finally – An Example Of Some Spine
Now, I had been planning to write something to this extent for some time but it’s a touchy subject among fraternity/sorority professionals. Many readers of this blog and fraternity friends have expressed a feeling that we are receiving a lot of lip-service about our organizations’ willingness to protect our right to association. The legislation endorsed by fraternities in lock-step with university administrations often seems to undermine our independence. But then, today, something glorious happened.
I saw the following on my Twitter feed:
This is not a typical fraternity press release – you know those apologetic, long-winded, wandering scripts which ultimately say nothing and do nothing but condemn students. This is a tactful defense of the chapter’s first amendment rights and the fraternity’s value to society. Every Kappa Alpha man should be proud of their fraternity in this moment. Even though this is part of why we established national fraternities, I can say that this is not the norm:
Update: to learn more about what’s happening at WVU, where at least 2 fraternity chapters (with support form their national organizations) renounced their university recognition, click here. As they say and as I’ve said on this blog for many years: He Who Pays The Piper Calls The Tune.
I remember a call a colleague and I took while I worked at my fraternity’s national office. Some students from a high-performing chapter claimed that a university vice president was aggressively targeting them. I suggested that they take notes during meetings with the VP and that they otherwise communicate via email so we could reach out to the VP if necessary. My suggestion was walked back and overruled by my counterpart, who suggested the students simply lay low and respect the authority.
After ending the call I said, “I feel like they asked for our help and that we didn’t help them.” The response was a shrug and, “What can you do?” Students who paid my salary were asking for help and advice and the most I could do was tell them to “deal with it.” That’s not right.
This is not just within my organization. Attend a meeting of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisers (AFA) or the Fraternity Executives Association (FEA) and you will quickly pick up that any mention of an “unrecognized” chapter is met with eye rolls and condemnation. Fraternities which choose to operate some or many chapters without university recognition are the punching bags of the fraternity/sorority professional world (almost as much as local fraternity chapters).
At places like the University of Colorado, where fraternity students hire their own IFC advocate (after a split with the school in 2005), many assume without any first-hand experience that things are worse off than if those chapters had university recognition. In reality, the only thing they can’t do is access university meeting spaces. They have managed to make do and were recognized for a collaborative (read: not mandated) sexual assault prevention programming relationship with the University and have established strong ties to the local police department.
Recognition is nice, and positive, collaborative relationships with colleges and universities are preferred to antagonistic ones. At some point; however, alumni who love the fraternity and sorority experience must acknowledge that many university administrations (in addition to fraternity/sorority professionals) can be antagonistic to fraternity students. We must recognize that in those moments, free association is of greater value than university recognition.
It is not okay to tell students to “deal with it” because doing so would make things simpler for fraternity alumni leaders. We fail our student members if we continue with that approach.
Getting On Track: Overcoming Our Fraternity Chapter’s $18,000 Debt
In the fall of 2010 I was elected to the position of Chapter President. I was elected via tie-breaker against another brother (who happened to be my little). It was an embarrassing display of a lack of confidence.
Within the first few days of my presidential term I learned that we were $18,000 in debt to our national office. It turns out that our chapter’s desire to have a semi-formal a year prior set us on a path of collecting dues early from some members and not collecting them at all from others. Long story short we ended up with an $18,000 hole in our budget, a bunch of members who had paid their semester dues in advance, and a bunch of members who were hundreds or thousands of dollars in debt to the chapter.
The newly elected treasurer and I set out to make sure the debt was paid, and we managed to close that $18,000 hole in four months. The basics of our approach were simple: Spend less, collect more. Our chapter collected a little more than double what we owed to our national office, and we needed to pay off the balance within a few months to be eligible for our Fraternity’s top award. Here’s what we did:
- Out-Of-Pocket Semester: Any expense which wasn’t absolutely necessary was converted to an “out-of-pocket” expense. Our spring formal, our big brotherhood retreat, our philanthropy events and our social functions. Nothing for any of those was paid with chapter dues. We found a free space to use for the retreat, our formal was more or less a well-coordinated weekend getaway, and our social events required some creative recycling as decor. In eliminating these expenses we freed up enough of our dues to make serious payments toward our debt.
- Eliminate Unnecessary Expenses: It can be difficult to overcome a debt when your chapter is paying for services which do more harm than help. We collected internally to avoid credit card fees through a payment processor, downsized our composite, and cut off our group voice message app in order to avoid spending money where it wasn’t needed.
- New Legislation: Among those who owed debts to the chapter were several members who had graduated and many who were going to graduate at the end of the term. These members had no reason to pay and so we passed new legislation which barred members from receiving alumni status, receiving an alumni jersey and participating in our alumni ceremony (more here) if they owed any sum to the chapter a few weeks prior to graduation.
- Alumni Board: In my fraternity the alumni corporation board has the power to expel undergraduate members, and Stetson’s Homecoming was (at the time) held in the spring term and just a week before our payment deadline. Our alumni members were, of course, caught off guard by the debt, and so we worked out a deal where they would hold expulsion hearings for any members with more than a $400 balance come alumni weekend. This prompted payment from many brothers, particularly when we warned them that the alumni didn’t care much about their feelings.
- Honesty Is The Best Policy: Part of our problem was that this $18,000 debt was not explained to the chapter back when it was a $10,000 or $4,000 debt. We had never before discussed it in a meeting. Our alumni, too, seemed mostly unaware. The only way we could get our chapter to take this seriously was to speak honestly about the situation and what we needed to do to avoid a suspension. People appreciate knowing what is going on.
Having debt as a chapter is not fun. You are constantly receiving notices from alumni, your national office and perhaps your school. It’s important to get the debt cleared early, as it can easily grow out of control (just a year later the chapter was back in debt for another 3 years!). It may seem difficult, but cutting your budget and sticking to your guns are the most effective ways to clearing bad debt as quickly as possible.
Although we paid off our debt, we were 1 day late on our final payment after that Homecoming weekend. That single day suspension (basically the time it took the money to transfer) prevented us from winning our Fraternity’s top honor even though we scored a 98% on the accreditation packet. . . That was basically the day I realized that fraternity/campus standards of excellence programs are faulty measurements of success or excellence.
Staying On Track: The Power Of Responsibility & Incentives
Fast forward to 2015 and I am promoted to the Director of Fraternity Growth & Services. In that role at our fraternity’s national office I oversaw 15 staff (approximately half of our national staff and just about everyone under 25 years of age) and managed the budget for two departments responsible for approximately 50% of our Fraternity’s strategic plan. It was awesome.
I received many suggestions regarding the budget of our department, and given an increase in risk incidents all of our budgets were tightened during my first year. Still, my liberty-loving self wasn’t going to give up on my principles, and so I managed my budget by managing less of it. At the end of the year my departments were the only ones to come in under budget (that’s not a slight on any of my former colleagues, there were other circumstances which caused their budgets to bend such as aforementioned risk incidents). Here’s how I maintained our strong budget performance:
- Look At Previous Years: Some items on our budget had been there for quite some time, and many of the expenditure items of our budget didn’t match with the way our departments operated or were structured. I was able to eliminate a few line items which didn’t fit or within which we didn’t spend money in previous years. Looking at past budgets helped me find some early breathing room.
- Responsibility: I left the budget for one department entirely up to my Associate Director to manage. We would check in quarterly or so. For our traveling consultants, I took the budget I had allotted for their use, divided it amongst the chapters of the Fraternity, and then gave them each set amounts based on the number of chapters they worked with. It was then their goal to remain within those budget constraints while planning their trips. Staff could notify the assistant director of that department if they needed to go over.
- Cushion: From those unnecessary expenditures I had built in a little cushion room just in case either department went over its budget, this was ultimately where our savings came from.
- Incentives: I restructured our bonus metrics to include budget management. The team would get a bonus if we all came in under budget and each individual would be graded on their budget management performance. We included in our summer training the best practices to budgeting for trips and distributed worksheets to help staff track the cost as they booked travel.
- Decision Rights: Who has the right to make what decisions? In previous years a supervisor might have to take note of whether individual expenses (hotel rooms, flights, car rentals) went over established caps. I decided that the only decision I would make was the total budget allotted to each staff member. He would then have control of how the money was spent so long as he remained within his overall budget. We provided guidelines, and so the staff largely stayed on track without my having to monitor how much everyone spent on every hotel room. Time is money, and wasting time on the nitty gritty of money didn’t matter to me. We did set some triggers. . . if a flight was over $500, for example, approval would be needed, but this ultimately freed up the number of questions I received to go over the hotel limit in big, expensive cities.
- Defined Expenditures: I had done the work of allotting a certain amount of money per staff member, per chapter, and so it was important that I shared how I came to that figure. We set up some standardized expectations of the length and cost of a chapter visit to serve as a template when staff planned their own travel.
Simply put, I gave my team budgets to work within and a little more freedom in terms of which purchases needed approval and we managed our budget pretty effectively. Not only did our consultants visit more chapters than in years prior (consistent with the trend of the Fraternity), but we ended up shaving off about 10% of our expenses from the previous year.
Whether you are dealing with $18,000 or almost $500,000, the vision and direction of ones work does not need to be complicated. Focusing on a direction (greater freedom, fewer expenses, personal responsibility) frees one up to try more tactics – all of which can lead to needed progress.
If you are facing a large debt or if you are in charge of managing or downsizing a budget, try some of the tactics mentioned above. That said, always focus your efforts on getting more bang for each buck and try to stay in the black. It is okay to go over-budget from time to time, particularly if there are unexpected but necessary expenditures, but you might actually do yourself a favor by not stressing out, setting some simple ground rules, and sticking to them.
Even when our chapter was $18,000 in debt we managed to put together about $2,500 to pay for recruitment, our homecoming weekend, a composite and our senior wills space. Beyond that the semester went particularly well for us.
Do you have questions about managing your chapter or professional budget? Tweet them to @FraternityNik.
Also, check out this post about my experience running Stetson’s biggest philanthropy event, Greenfeather, and cutting it from 14 days to 3 days, all while increasing our fundraising by 50%!
I was at The Ohio State University working to re-establish a chapter of my fraternity in the spring of 2012. It was an interesting recruitment campaign as it was one of the rare instances where our entire team of five worked together to set up one chapter.
In our 2nd or 3rd week of the campaign, Woody Woodcock from Phired Up visited to offer coaching support to our team. Our recruiters were trained in part by Woody and his colleagues, and we had built a fraternal bond with one another over the course of our fall term – Phired Up staff would visit twice during each of our expansion campaigns.
Woody noticed some disorganization and distractions among the members of our team, so one evening he asked us to meet in one of our temporary apartments. We entered into a dark room, the only light coming from candles set on a table in the shape of our letters. The six of us stood around the table while Woody spoke. Some of what he said was written on a piece of paper, some of it may have been improvised, but the purpose of it was to reconnect us to why we were setting up a new chapter and the bond we all shared as fraternity men.
We repeated that ritual with new members over the following years as a sort of mini-initiation to the team. It helped us build on the unique bond one forms with fraternity brothers who work together at a fraternity national office.
As we alumni seek to standardize much of what students are taught as well as much of what they are meant to accomplish during their four-ish years of college, I wonder if team-building, healthy, occasionally silly rituals are too easily dismissed as distractions from our wide range of fraternity community goals.
A tradition of we who advise fraternity men is to warn them of the consequences of tradition. We may like the tradition we are hearing of, but our response is typically measured with some far off warning of how things could “go bad.”
Still, small moments like that shared within our expansion team boosted our morale and faith in one another and our mission. Something as simple as sitting all of the brothers in a room and taking turns to acknowledge what each brother has going for him or offering advice to problems can have a profound impact on chapter morale and connectivity. Perhaps a tradition is as simple as shaking hands when passing a brother (or softly bumping fists in the case of our . . . quirky team).
I would like to see more chapters of my fraternity (and fraternities in general) implement more “ritual” into their day to day life. I would like to see more brothers exchange secret grips during intramural competitions or sitting in formation for a meeting, even if the meeting consists of just an executive board or a random group of six brothers after dinner.
I would like to see more brothers gathering spontaneously when they see a brother is struggling with school or a relationship, turn off the phones, light a few candles, hear him out and help walk through his problems. I would be elated if advisers – members or not – took the opportunity to identify when a little ritual would be best for the good of a group as Woody had done with ours.
Creating a better, stronger connection among members doesn’t require a major retreat (though that’ll help) and doesn’t require mega-ceremonies (though they will help). It requires regular interactions with meaning attached to them.
As our senior class graduated from my chapter at Stetson University we did what many chapters do: we hold a willing ceremony. Here the senior members will down their fraternity belongings to members in the chapter, often explaining why certain items would go to certain brothers.
New initiates into our chapter are given their “letters” ( a cotton football jersey with raised letters on the front) by their big brother, who also chooses the nickname and design on the back of the jersey. After a graduating member has willed his belongings, his little brothers or those he’s closest with present him with a new set of black letters and a new nickname. Only alumni members wear the black jerseys, and the new nicknames often represent how they may be remembered by the chapter.
It’s small; it’s simply organized; it can get silly, but it is a place where all of our members gather to show love for one another, and that’s important. Sometimes a member makes a video and other times there is an impromptu rap battle. Those are the moments I remember from my undergraduate fraternity experience – the ones that felt special and uniquely our own.
Little, local rituals are important. Dinner with 3-XX brothers is a great place to start.