I was lucky to be hired to my fraternity staff in the midst of a sort of renaissance for Delta Sigma Phi Fraternity, an experience which mimicked the conditions under which I joined my chapter. In both cases, I signed on after a period that others remember as somewhat chaotic. In both cases, I joined due to the inspiring visions of determined leaders with clear objectives.
Joining A “Fraternity of the Year”
I pledged to Delta Sig at Stetson University in the fall of 2007 – just months after they earned themselves a Pyramid of Excellence (our fraternity’s top award) and “Fraternity of the Year.” Just a couple years prior the chapter would have been considered an “unranked challenger” in any competitive match up of fraternities.
After being disbanded in 1998 due to movie-like misbehavior, the Fraternity re-established the chapter in 2002 and the group was re-charted in 2004. Those early years were tough: The chapter was relatively small, very few alumni returned to assist in its redevelopment, and there was little guidance from the national organization (a fact which remained true until my junior year).
The students were determined to improve their position, and so a series of leaders took it upon themselves to transform the struggling chapter into a top tier organization within the national fraternity. To do that, they didn’t pitch to potential members what was great about themselves; they sold what could be great with the addition of certain men at Stetson. From around 2005-2007, the chapter underwent a massive transformation.
Rather than talk about their trophies, the men of Delta Sig at Stetson at that time period set an ideal of what they wanted to be and they sold that ideal to incoming members. Still, success often comes with an ego-boost, and without teaching that process to the younger members the chapter would ebb and flow between success and failure in the years which followed.
The Fraternity Staff
The man who visited our chapter to take its charter in 1998 was a member from the early 90’s named Paul who had at the time worked at the national office, then left to serve as the Executive Director of Triangle Fraternity, and then was brought back to the national staff as the Assistant Executive Director for Delta Sig in the mid-2000’s.
The national fraternity was not in much of a better position than our chapter in the early 2000’s. Politics had overwhelmed the organization’s activity, changes to the member manual and an alcohol-free housing policy were extremely unpopular, and a search for a new CEO failed. . . twice.
The Fraternity then hired a young (24-25 years old) consultant to serve as its Executive Director under the guidance of the board. He – as I was told – spent his early years visiting chapters himself to collect dues that the national office had otherwise been unable or neglected to collect. I’ve met many of the people from this era, and I can assure you that the situation did not arise out of incompetence (they are all successful in their own right), but perhaps due to too many competing influences and the political games to which governing organizations often succumb.
In any case, Scott (the Executive Director) and Paul offered me a position to the fraternity staff in 2010. I was planning to pursue physical therapy, but the interview process alone sold me on the idea of traveling the country and helping other men find Delta Sig as I had three years prior. We recently initiated a partnership with Phired Up Productions, whose teachings I had successfully implemented in my chapter since Josh Orendi’s visit to Stetson in 2009.
I knew the tools were in place to succeed, and the idea of growing the fraternity and learning from some fantastic mentors excited me. We ended up putting together one of the most successful fraternity growth programs in the country.
Getting People To Pay For Something They Must Then Build
That is the challenge of recruiting founding fathers to a fraternity chapter. They will often have tepid alumni support, they may have tepid campus support (there are a lot of checklists fraternity professionals need to focus on), and the people who recruit them will within several weeks be hundreds or thousands of miles away and unable to help.
What encourages men to start a fraternity chapter then? Simply put it was whether or not we could inspire them to daydream about what their legacy could be in creating Delta Sigma Phi at ___________ college/university.
We would visit sorority chapters and ask whether or not the fraternity could use more and better men. The answer was almost always a resounding “YES PLEASE GOD YES!” We would then ask them to recommend high-caliber men to start such an experience. The rest of the recruitment process is quickly and neatly summarized in [here].
We would ask all kinds of students, including random strangers we met in cafeterias, what they felt was lacking from campus life or from the fraternity community. Students at Wittenberg spoke of bubbles and students at Loyola spoke of greater community engagement. It would become clear within the first week of an expansion campaign what we needed to focus on to carve out a unique message at any particular school or what was not being accomplished by the existing fraternity community.
Even the other fraternities/sororities would contribute: Texas State’s IFC asked us specifically to work to improve the overall fraternity GPA.
With these ideals in mind, we would ask potential members whether or not they were up to the challenge. Without a house, without big recruitment events, and without a bunch of trophies we were able to establish chapters of 25-90+ men (though we found that setting up a new chapter with more than 70 people is overkill).
Look at which chapters are dominating Delta Sig’s awards and there are often two consistent variables: The chapter either has phenomenal advisory support AND/OR the chapter was established within the past 10 years. The reasons are simple: Great advisers keep chapters on track through member transitions and the newer chapters were still hungry for success and recruiting members based on the ideals of what they wished to accomplish.
A member of that Texas State chapter just became one of the two undergraduate members of our Grand Council, for example.
In that same logic, new chapter would often plateau or fall into trouble shortly after they focused their attention on fitting in with the other fraternities at their institution. This would occur either because the recruiters or early members failed to instill a shared vision into subsequent classes of new members.
A Specific Example
I focused all of my efforts as a staff member on promoting niche development within chapters even after I stopped serving as a recruiter. It works in business, it works in politics, and it works in fraternity. Defining what you want to be and how you want to get there is the key toward attracting talent interested in working toward those aims. That is common sense, but it is not how fraternity chapters are compelled to recruit.
Part of that is due to the formal recruitment model, which turns the membership process into an assembly-line-style, mass produced mess of frills. The other part is due to our checklist standards. Both of which promote the idea of growth at all costs, and both of which give fraternities little incentive or space to define what makes them unique (“Best Brotherhood On Campus!” is so common because personalities are the only unique trait about most fraternity chapters – which is why big personalities are prized possessions).
At Oglethorpe University our expansion campaign was hampered from the moment our recruiters stepped on to campus. A change in the professional fraternity adviser meant that things we had agreed to in the spring were no longer the case in the fall. What was meant to be 4 weeks of recruitment turned into 1 day when the IFC jealously determined that we could only invite members to join on the final day of those 4 weeks of getting to know people.
The result was a chapter of about 12 men, which declined to 7 within a year. It was at this point that I was assigned to the chapter as their national consultant. That was never my full-time job, but I would often be asked to work with chapters who would benefit from additional tender love and care. I ignored our national playbook and the chapters were better off for it.
We started by reflecting on what the members were: hungry for success, leaders/athletes, and many were international students. Oglethorpe is a tiny school, about 1,000 students, and it has an oversized representation of international students. The men determined that what was lacking in the fraternity community were committed campus leaders and diversity, and so the chapter focused its efforts on building itself into the diverse, high-achieving fraternity.
Within a year the chapter’s size climbed to 20+ men, all by limiting what they are about. It is a common theme: focusing and reducing the clutter around your purpose will enable you to achieve exceptional growth. By the next year they hit 30 men, their members were leaders in a wide variety of student organizations, and many came from outside of the United States.
In terms of our fraternity’s values of Culture, Harmony, and Friendship: the Oglethorpe chapter was an ideal representation.
This didn’t come about because of my advice or because the chapter picked some core values to plaster all over everything. It occurred because defining who they were, pursuing those types of men, pitching the idea of what their chapter could be, and catering all of their events (read: not just rush events) to the type of men they wanted to recruit was more beneficial than the other fraternities’ trophies, chapter houses, or reputations.
Build your niche based on who your members are and what they want to be. It is okay if the men you have today are not a representation of what you would like to be in 2 years as long as they are committed to getting there.
Developing consistent recruitment pipelines (a service-oriented chapter recruiting from service organizations, for example) is the key toward long term success. Even if your chapter revisits or adjusts its niche every 2-3 years, the value is having a clear, decisive direction. You want men to be able to picture themselves as a part of your chapter, so paint a picture of the type of experience they can expect when joining.
I’m reminded of the video below. A chapter brother made it for our IFC, and it is applicable well beyond that particular year. Although these weren’t necessarily the niches of each fraternity at our school, it does get to the heart of why men join a chapter: potential members need to be able to envision themselves as a part of your fraternity, and that’s easier to do when they know exactly what your fraternity is about.
This is why we created the “Elevation” section of our accreditation when I had the chance to reform it as a staff member. The goal was to encourage chapters to let us know what they wanted to be known for, and to receive credit for better defining their niche.