In most medium-to-large, historically-white fraternities, the Executive Director/CEO (ED) is employed by an inter/national board.
The ED is generally responsible for the maintenance of membership records and for managing communications between the various components of the fraternity. This makes sense, because most ED positions are evolutions of a respective fraternity’s secretary position (or equivalent). As fraternities grew in size, so too did the need for a full-time professional to manage the member records.
Modern ED’s and administrative offices are not limited to record-keeping. That’s another commonality among college fraternities. Look through the governing documents of an organization and take note. In most cases, duties reserved for members of the board or volunteers may be delegated to an ED. Such responsibilities are occasionally listed in detail. (even if they are still all-encompassing) Other times they are as vague as “other duties as assigned.”
“Oh, you know… ‘other duties as assigned'”
That phrase, “other duties as assigned,” is kind of a “wink, wink, nudge” joke in the professional world. We who are assigned the duties laugh off our overlord’s demands for total subservience. It helps us maintain some shred of white-collar dignity.
Unfortunately, a fraternity’s elected leaders are seldom familiar with the workings of the fraternity/sorority world. Who could blame them? The rules and challenges are endless and ever-evolving. Plus, most elected leaders have full-time commitments which have nothing to do with their fraternity. So, fraternity leaders have, over many decades, delegated the majority of their responsibilities to the ED and fraternity staff.
Today, just about every function of a “fraternity” is an official or delegated responsibility of the ED position. (Fun fact: almost every fraternity describes the “fraternity” as its collegiate and alumni chapters – the administrative office is the equivalent of a President’s Cabinet.) Volunteer appointments, the enforcement of policies/standards, the establishment of new chapters, management of educational programs, and more are all centralized to these full-time, paid staff.
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Professionalization of Friend Clubs
As a result, the expertise of a professional fraternity staff becomes necessary for the organization to function at all.
Volunteers up and down the organizational ladder become little more than helping hands with disposable opinions. The more a group relies on a central office, the easier it is for a fraternity’s volunteer structure to decay. A “national treasurer,” for example, may have once appointed and trained a team of regional volunteers to help him accomplish his tasks. Now, he can assign it all to the finance professionals at the administrative office.
This is the big-picture problem for those fraternities and sororities with an administrative staff. Few recognize or challenge it, because anyone who recognizes it as a problem is either a part of this reality or yearns for something like it.
What happens when a fraternity relies on one, tiny component of the organization – the administrative office staff – to handle all of the work? That component becomes the most important, indispensable part of the fraternity. Closing a chapter means lost revenue and some angry members. (who no longer have a vote, anyway) Try getting rid of all, or even half, of your fraternity’s central office staff. The idea is unthinkable.
The bottleneck . . .
A fraternity’s inter/national board, volunteers, and members come to rely on the ED and staff for all information related to the organization. So, every consequential decision or question funnels through just one or two people. In bad cases, this creates a “closed communication circuit” between an ED and the fraternity’s board. (Throw in a COO or relatively harmless “Director” for good measure.)
This is why special interests – think billing companies, speakers, software developers, and donors – target the administrative office and, ultimately, the ED. They know that almost everyone in the organization relies on the expertise of the ED to make decisions. So, most vendors have learned that creating and marketing products which reduce the burden or enhance the work of the fraternity staff is the key ingredient to getting a fraternity to sign more lucrative, inter/national contracts.
(It applies equally at the campus level. Sell the product to the person who oversees all of the councils. They’ll get the money together and require that every chapter to take part.)
Checks & Balances
You might say – as I would say when working for my fraternity’s central office – that checks and balances exist, and you are technically right. The voting delegates of most fraternities are technically responsible for electing their board and enacting the policies and programs carried out by the board or delegated to the ED.
Students are repeatedly told by Fraternity/Sorority professionals and leaders that they “have a vote.” But which organization focuses even a fraction of its resources teaching members to make use of their vote as they do teaching them the ever-evolving alcohol policies?
Furthermore, we whittle down the options for a vote well before the members are aware that a vote is happening. A committee sets the slate for next year’s inter/national board. Guess who identified and appointed the members of the nominating committee… This billing software is the best, so we should either use it or use nothing. Guess who reviewed the options and made the recommendation.
Like all things in nature, people follow the path of least resistance. It may not be the best option for students, but “best,” for most fraternities, tends to be whatever makes the ED’s and staff’s job a little easier. That is not a dig, just the opinion of an experienced salesman. A standard Health & Safety policy for all NIC fraternities? That makes things easier!
Too much power in too few hands drives everyone crazy.
To sum everything up. The biggest challenge and threat to college fraternities is not issues like hazing, sexual assault, substance misuse, or elitism. Those are problems of society; we should expect them to exist in “social” organizations.
No, the biggest challenge facing college fraternities, and the reason why almost none of our attempts to combat the aforementioned issues are successful, is that our organizations are federations, not oligarchies or dictatorships. Fraternities are not structured to funnel every decision through 1-2 people, regardless of their expertise.
None of this is to say that your Executive Director or your administrative staff or your inter/national board is corrupt. The vast majority of fraternity leaders and professionals are earnest in their desire to help. This process of centralization is typical of democratic organizations. The question is, will reformers intervene and re-balance decision rights before our top-heavy fraternities collapse on themselves?
Those who suggest that lasting change at the top will come from the top have either spent too much time there or not enough. Lasting change must come about through an organization’s democratic processes. Anything else is at the mercy of the next man or woman in line.
P.S. You might now realize that your fraternity’s administrative office is not technically the “headquarters.” The most consequential decisions must involve a vote of the members.