What Our Founders Might Say – Take Greater Pride In The Existing Value of Fraternities; Ditch The Checklists

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What would your founders think of the way your fraternity or sorority operates today? We ask that to students, and I’d like more students to ask it of advisers and fraternity/sorority professionals. Here’s why:

Beyond the tens and thousands of volunteers across the fraternity spectrum, many organizations have grown dramatically since their undergraduate founding members created the first of their local societies.

We ask students to imagine what the founders of their fraternity would think if they saw what those students were doing – it is (admittedly and unfortunately) often a way of guilting them out of doing something bad and guilting them into doing something good. I’ve already written about this, but few if any organization’s founders would have imagined, for example, that fraternities would ever depend on university recognition for validity.

Few would have imagined professional staffs of dozens of people orchestrating intense public service campaigns around hazing and alcohol use. Few would imagine that any cause other than the fraternity itself were necessary to make fraternities a moral contribution to society. 

That last point was italicized – I’d like to focus on it.

Many if not most organizations rally around a national philanthropic partner for which their component chapters (well. . . their student component chapters) raise funds and volunteer time. But this was almost never an element of our founders’ respective visions. It seems to me that most fraternities were established with the expectation that they themselves were a service to the community.

Imagine if the American Red Cross were so unsure of its own charitable efforts (blood collection, disaster relief, fire prevention, etc.) that it diverted half of its energy, focus, and resources to a literacy nonprofit. While still noble, that diversion would take away from why people give to and volunteer for the Red Cross, would it not?

Whether it was putting on functions for campuses which had not yet developed an entire student affairs and programming industry or providing a home away from home for young men and women attempting to launch the next phase of their lives – fraternities themselves were crucially important to the founders of those organizations.

Perhaps that’s why they established national structures – meant to maintain a common set of standards and expectations across all chapters. Perhaps that is why alumni began giving back in advisory capacities, later to assume greater and greater responsibilities and power from the undergraduate chapter. Perhaps their belief in the existing value of what they were doing compelled them to establish umbrella organizations with the chartered expectations to promote the fraternity experience and protect members’ ability to associate freely.

Would our founders be ashamed if our chapters didn’t grow to 150+ people? Would they be ashamed if students spent their collegiate careers independently working with their talents so that they could be great contributors to the world in their professional lives? What if that meant they wouldn’t have time for a fundraiser for an unrelated nonprofit? What if it meant that only those who wanted to make community service a central element of their adult lives held themselves to volunteer hour requirements?

In the days of Doyle Carlton (future governor of Florida) fraternity membership was a way to diversify and explore one’s interests – not a systematic process to expose students to interests suggested by a professional team of advisers. (photo from Stetson University Digital Archives)

I recall a story I heard at my fraternity’s 2015 Convention.

An elderly member lived in a trailer, had lost his heat, and was suffering through the cold when he called the national office for help. After connecting with our leadership, local chapters were alerted, and one raised enough funds to get him a new home (with heat) and went to meet him. His voicemail, thanking the Fraternity, and re-pledging himself to it, was shared with the audience of ~600.

That story demonstrates the intrinsic value of fraternities. Generic checklists of things that good people do fail to make use of our rarest, most precious resource: the interests and talents of our members.

Were we to focus less on a highly choreographed checklist of programs to complete and statistics to collect then perhaps we could simply focus on building the confidence within each of our members to hone their skills and contribute to the world in the way which best suites them.

Making use of the comparative advantages of our members – the things where their individual talents are best put to use to the advantage of themselves and the world around them – is a natural, ethical way to continue to build on the value fraternities already offer to society: high achieving citizens.

Our founders would most certainly be proud of the story shared at my fraternity’s 2015 Convention. It represents something unique to the fraternity experience they created and worked so hard to grow, protect, and keep self-governing.