National consultants visiting chapters every year would have been a foreign concept to our respective founding members. The earliest fraternity "staff" were national secretaries whose primary responsibility was to maintain records. They would work with local volunteers to determine if chapters were meeting the standards set by governing boards.
You can see the remnants of these early systems in your fraternity or sorority governing documents. The Executive Director/CEO is in many cases the only professional hired full time by the governing board. Many organizations allow for stipends to be paid to volunteers, even if most have abandoned the practice.
The question: Which is the best system for the technological reality of today? Are traveling consultants an effective use of member dues? Could we re-invest the money spent on full-time consultants into digital infrastructure, volunteer training, or comprehensive resources?
Technology Diminishes The Need For Consultant Staff
Centrally-organized traveling consultants were essential at a time when text and video could not be sent instantaneously. Phone once meant a phone ringing in a booth and not in a member's pocket. Full-time consultants made sense when landlines and snail mail were the common ways to communicate. We live in an instantaneous era of technology, but consulting has remained largely the same.
Modern students establish many of their relationships exclusively through the internet. There is no reason for fraternities - the supposed experts of social relationships - to be so far behind on the curve.
Resources and workshops which can be facilitated in-person by alumni or self-facilitated by students can be distributed instantaneously. Much of what we teach can be provided through video, social media, and blog content. Every fraternity can establish a wiki page as a low-cost way to provide greater access to historical information.
A medium-sized fraternity will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a consultant program. What do the students get out of it? Some members get helpful resources and a few more see consultants once or twice a year. Chapters still hide plenty from those staff, and the roles rarely lend themselves to what most students study. Any serious issue with a chapter is typically elevated to staff above the consultant level.
What Could We Do Instead?
Some things cannot be accomplished via technology. Fraternity expansion, for example, is difficult to conduct without staff visiting a college campus. That's assuming fraternity leaders still daydream about the rapid growth of the early 2000s.
Rather than hiring a team of 3-12 consultants, a Fraternity could hire a few traveling educators to provide relevant workshops across the country. It could grow its communication team, and pool resources built at local levels. A fraternity could provide an infrastructure for leaders to share and learn. We worry that they may focus on t-shirt designs or something trivial. Who cares? New processes take time to take hold.
The amount of information a consultant is expected to relay to chapter leaders is ridiculous. That's due in part to the expansive checklists each chapter is required to complete. Let us reinvest into regional positions and our volunteers. Most fraternity consultants will stick around for 1-3 years. Chapter officers will be in a position for 1-2 years. It makes the most practical sense to invest in training longer-term alumni officers.
Investing Money Back Into Local Areas
Having more regular contact with well-trained and local members may improve many areas of chapter operations. Greater trust can be established between a chapter and regional volunteers. One alumnus in Atlanta can visit 3-4 chapters as many times as a consultant can in a year. They can more easily organize with chapters to attend regional or national programs.
Providing volunteers with high-quality resources to assist in their efforts is a crucial investment. Many organizations have identified it as necessary, but few have been willing to invest. These are people who live among students. They can more effectively earn student trust than a 22-year old from a "good chapter" some 500 miles away.
What's Holding Us Back?
Simply put - tradition. Fraternity professionals complain that students haze, binge drink, and sexually harass one another due to outdated traditions. We fail to make meaningful reform at the inter/national level for that same reason. No model is perfect, but the existing traveling consultant model is an ineffective use of student dues. I believe our entry-level staff can be better prepared for the workforce by hiring them into more specialized roles. I loved my time doing consultant work. But, our volunteers would better fit the role and our students may be better served and represented.
Update: This article was written before the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdowns. As a result, many fraternities had to adopt similar practices to those outlined in this article. Some may permanently adopt their COVID-19 consulting model as a way to diversify and improve their overall services. One example to watch in this area is Alpha Sigma Phi Fraternity. There may be others, but their staff and leadership have not confirmed with me directly that they'll move to a more specialized and distance-oriented model. Here's hoping!
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