Some time several dozen years ago, some group of men at some school decided that they liked one another and wanted to spend more time together.
Through a unique bond, strengthened through consistent rituals and values, the men emulated what they knew of religion, cultish and historic societies to create organizations with an unparalleled level of dedication among their memberships.
About a year ago, I attended a conference for association executives hosted by an association for association executives (woah), and I was one of the most popular guys there. I was a millennial, and I knew how to speak to millennials.
At their core, fraternities are associations, miniature religions and less exclusive rotary clubs. Unlike most associations, religions and rotary clubs, we are still considered appealing to a young adult and college demographic. That may soon fade, or not, due to one simple reality: bureaucracy.
In an earlier post, I gave a generalized commentary on the effects of bureaucracy within higher education and its effect on our organizations. That post links to other posts which hit on the same, although in a more targeted manner, concept.
That isn’t to suggest that national fraternity and sorority organizations are the best demonstration of efficient, pragmatic leadership. For the same reasons we often dislike bureaucracy within our government, and for the same reasons mentioned in this post about professionalization of fraternity life, there is all the reason to dislike and distrust bureaucracy within a national fraternity, sorority, or their respective “conferences,” the NIC, NPC, NPHC and so on.
To summarize the posts linked above, the founding moments and early days of each of our fraternities were simple in purpose and in product.
To summarize the effects of bureaucracy, as time went on, organizations became bigger, costing students more to pay for staff, incorporated more rules, costing students more to adhere to the rules, and joined forces to form trade associations, costing students more by costing their national organizations more.
One could argue on behalf of the benefit of each of these costs. I work for a national fraternity headquarters and obviously don’t consider these structures irrelevant.
It would be foolish of me; however, or any self-proclaimed leader within fraternity and sorority life, to refuse to take an introspective look as to where there is opportunity for reform and improvement. Let’s look at the often unintended consequences of bureaucracy.
Every rule, every regulation and every mandate comes with a cost. These costs are often not upfront or advertised (invisible), and some do not require dollars and cents, but time. If you believe that “time is money,” you recognize that time still costs dollars and cents.
Most national organizations have organizational requirements, positions, administrative services and a variety of fees. Chapters are typically considered failures below a certain membership threshold. Gone are the days when 15 men could run a book club, put on a play, do some service and call themselves “better.” We have the plan; you follow it.
Most national organizations require or recommend that chapters comply with certain restrictions on events, accounting practices and/or recruiting practices. These practices, such as hiring security, making a guest list & BYOB, are both designed to prevent opportunity for “oopsies” (a kind term for ruining someone’s life) and to increase the upfront time/money investment required to host a social event, thereby making them less attractive.
Consider these “sin taxes.” In the same way that most cities and states tax cigarettes in the hopes that fewer will consider the purchase to be worth the cost, our restrictions regarding alcohol and the such fit the same purpose. Perhaps they are necessary, but they seem to simply push the above-mentioned activities underground more often than not.
Chapters still close, students still go to the hospital, and no campus speaker or headquarters risk management person seems to have a silver bullet response, even though that may be how they are advertised.
Rules have value, but rules that are difficult to enforce have significantly less value. Complying requires an additional cost, as does dealing with those who refuse to comply and take their activity underground, where it’s harder to discover and more difficult to control.
Overall, our rules may have gotten to the point where we are entirely compliance oriented. As noted here, we are too easily distracted from our mission by every. little. thing.
Money & Influence
Most organizations have a foundation, even our umbrella organizations, such as the North-American Interfraternity Conference (NIC), have foundations. These foundations are designed to pay for educational programs and grant scholarships to students, in most cases, and are funded through donations.
As with most nonprofits, giving enough money allows me to put my name on a building, scholarship or program. That’s not bad, but these foundations are not too removed from the organizations themselves.
I have yet to observe an organization within which those who give, and give big, have a voice in the day-to-day affairs of the organization. If I pay enough, I get my calls to the CEO returned by the CEO. If I pay enough, I get to determine whether or not certain staff are effective, or whether certain rules apply to the chapter of my choice.
This isn’t abnormal, as I mentioned. Consider again politics. Republican, Democrat or Libertarian, we all seem to hate the idea of elected officials being “bought” or making decisions based not on their values or those who elected them, but by someone with enough money to make a deal. Sometimes it means a friend of a powerful person, whether ill-intentioned or not, gets a position without jumping through the “necessary” hoops – cronyism.
None of this may be intentional, but donating to an educational program or a scholarship is not of value when it comes to the national organization, plain and simple. Even in that case, we see organizations implementing educational programs without legitimate regard to whether they fit any particular purpose or without legitimate regard as to whether students are remotely interested.
As we note here, most fraternity/sorority constitutions and bylaws give chapters a vote to dictate that organization’s policies.
When we allow a small group of people to make wide-reaching decisions and ignore the value of students driving our organization’s priorities, we allow an even smaller, more affluent and significantly older group of individuals to influence those decisions. Unfortunately, many fraternities and sororities have further abdicated control to their umbrella organizations; the likelihood of students recovering influence here is . . . it’s not likely.
In summary, students are not as involved in their organization’s operations as they should be, and that is in part because they choose ignorance and in part because so few of our organizations give students the chance with a transparent look into our operations.
Your ritual is not secret. Have we learned nothing from Christianity and the Great Schism? People hiding things, while collecting money, and leaving some information to a privileged few pisses other people off.
Congratulations to Delta Upsilon, you have led the way here.
Your passwords, handshakes, titles, secret mottos, symbols and the like can and should be secret. That’s fun. It makes sense to have a simple, secret way to recognize brothers and sisters, that’s part of joining a
cult fraternity or sorority. But the teachings of your organizations should be obvious in our actions.
As we say with students, do your actions reflect your ritual? How the heck am I supposed to know? I don’t know your ritual! All I know are three to five very broad values, a motto, and perhaps the story of how your organization was founded.
These rules about our ritual are, like our rules with alcohol and drugs, simply driving the activity underground. We are no longer the rebellious upstarts we once were, I’ve accepted that, but the secrecy of our ritual seems to have made it more difficult to eliminate bureaucracy.
Many student members don’t seem to understand what is and isn’t a secret. Many consider random, regular operational processes to be secret, and refuse to discuss them. Many consider their hazing practices to be “ritual,” because some clown of an alumnus calls it that, and won’t discuss it with another student, let alone their national office.
On a national level, we are no different.
Sororities place chapters on “secret probation,” as if secretly punishing protects our self-proclaimed “leadership” title. In many cases, organizations are hostile to the media. There is good reason, we’ve been burned, but we are creating even more of a frustrating cloud of secrecy around our groups when we refuse to talk.
Trade organization, designed to protect our interests, contribute to this secrecy in many cases, reducing legitimate discussion both among our organizations and with the outside world about who we really are.
Is it hard to believe that the same level of secrecy doesn’t influence how our boards, headquarters and foundations operate? If our chapters work with a “best if they don’t know,” mantra, and our trade associations work with a “best if they don’t know,” mantra, who is to say that the very organizations we are members of think it “best if they don’t know.”
People do a lot to cover their tails. I don’t know of any specific situations, but there is plenty I don’t know about any organization, mine included.
How do you combat bureaucracy?
Choose leaders who are honest. An honest leader has nothing to hide, and shares his or her thoughts, processes, successes and failures with equal comfort and resilience.
If you are already a leader in your organization: admit when you make mistakes, publicly acknowledge the challenges. Stop focusing on compliance and start focusing on progress.