If your fraternity relies on an administrative staff for most of its functions, then that probably extends to education. Their time is probably stretched thin. The best programs put on by your fraternity probably reach a few dozen members, and it does not make sense to have one or two people creating learning content for thousands (or tens of thousands) of learners. Our approach to learning - like our approach to fraternity management in general - could benefit from some controlled decentralization. So what would it look like if a fraternity took a member-centric approach to learning?
In this post, I'll explore an idea to "democratize fraternity education." The objectives are simple:
Reach a greater number of members with higher quality, more engaging educational opportunities
Increase member buy-in to the learning objectives of a fraternity organization
Improve a foundation's ability to raise funds for fraternity educational programs
Focus on learning objectives. Let members choose the delivery.
What if we flew fewer members to a central location to sit through lectures on Kouzes & Posner's "5 Exemplary Practices of Leadership" or some centrally-planned series of lectures? Depending on the program, a fraternity organization would save tens of thousands of dollars. What might they do with that money? Surely we are all tired of Zoom conferences, right? It is simple, bring education to members, not the other way around.
Coaching and consulting talent is everywhere. Fraternities should empower chapters to make use of it and subsidize the cost. An inter/national fraternity can still set educational objectives. For example, say a fraternity wants each chapter to organize a leadership program. A chapter at a school that utilizes CliftonStrengths may hire a Gallup-certified consultant to work with them throughout the year. Another chapter may choose to utilize resources from the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. A third may purchase a few books for each of its members to read and discuss using materials from Reading is Fundamental or Teachers Pay Teachers. Or, they might recruit an adviser to set up reading assignments and lead weekly meetings to discuss each book. Some chapters may choose to fly a fraternity staff member to their school to run a leadership retreat (I did that for our chapter at North Texas). Just give them the financial and decision-making power to do it.
This can work for almost any fraternity learning objective. It gives members a greater say in how they learn and keeps things professional. Better yet, it allows chapters to test different and innovative ideas and to stretch those dollars over the course of a year (not just a weekend). By requiring the consent of local members, we can increase "buy-in." Your annual assessment (accreditation, standards, whatever...) can simply ask what a chapter did, what worked well, and what they need to change. The very act of organizing their learning programs lets members practice a form of leadership.
Fundraise for chapters
Kappa Sigma Fraternity recently set a fundraising record, collecting almost $550,000 during their 2020 "weekend of giving." One interesting fact was that all of the funds raised went into individual chapter funds.
"100% of funds raised during SAJ Weekend of Giving go towards designated Chapter Scholarship Funds. Scholarship-Leadership Awards are given to qualifying Kappa Sigma undergraduate members each year on Kappa Sigma’s Founders Day (December 10)."Kappa Sigma
This is different from most fraternity foundations, which prioritize their "general funds" and big, inter/national programs. That is understandable because most nonprofits prioritize general funds. General funds allow the leaders of an organization discretion in how to use funds. The benefit is that money may not be set aside for a pet project with little value. But a fraternity that relies on its staff and the general fund may spend hundreds of thousands on programs that reach just a few hundred members.
Beyond that, there is an appetite among members for localized efforts and control. Kappa Sigma's fundraising record helps prove it. I would argue a significant majority of fraternity alumni members are more committed to their chapter than their inter/national affiliation. The good news is that most fraternity foundations will allow you to earmark your donation to one chapter or program. My donations to the Delta Sigma Phi Foundation, for example, are set for my chapter's "Leadership Fund" (A portion - some 10-20% - still goes to the general fund in many cases).
Still, it might benefit a fraternity to prioritize and build educational initiatives around chapter funds. A foundation could still raise money for its "general fund," then divide the money evenly among chapter accounts. This would benefit newer chapters without an established alumni base donating to their chapter account. I spent years learning how to swoon Inter-Fraternity Council leaders and campus professionals to accept new chapters of my fraternity at their school. Giving new chapters an account to use to pay for educational scholarships and programs is a winning scenario.
This approach simplifies authority, makes more efficient use of educational dollars, frees up staff time, and will probably result in members more content with the education they receive through their fraternity.
Do not fire your education staff or team
This is not to say that big fraternity events should disappear. Some programs are great. Those should stick around. Members might even wish to re-create them at the chapter level since the best programs are almost always limited to 40-70 people. Focus your education staff's attention on connecting chapters with learning opportunities and resources. Serve as the "education experts" members can trust to help them bring their dreams to life. Identify high-quality consultants, facilitators, and speakers in a chapter's area or provide them with material that can be self-facilitated.
Emphasize the value of networking - literally "fraternity" - so that members can learn from one another. Establish a TED Talks-like series to crowdsource learning material from alumni members. Award more scholarships to the most indebted generation of students in recorded history. Our staffs' and volunteers' time - and our members' money - can go to better, more effective use if we do not focus all of their attention on 3-20 learning programs throughout the year.
As for your actual programs - focus on networking and ritual. Ritual elements are almost always the highlight of an educational program. Surveys from every leadership program I have attended or managed (including non-fraternity ones) as for more networking time. But for some reason, these elements are rarely more than 10% of any single fraternity program. So, focus on translating those abstract values and stories into accessible resources and seminars. How can we expect members to use their ritual ceremonies as instructional tools if we do not model the way? We brush off demands for more "social" time because we need to fit a year's worth of content into a weekend program. Focus more attention on helping members learn at home and spend the time you have together being together.
Some fraternities are closer to this ideal than others, but almost every fraternity has the mechanisms in place to make it work. Granting students more choice in how they get to an objective is important. It is real-world decision-making with real-world consequences. That's leadership. They are called practices of leadership because they must be practiced.
That said, this isn't entirely about the student. Focusing inter/national efforts on networking, ritual, and resources is simply a better use of staff time and effort. Let staff and/or volunteer educators be experts in how to learn. Let staff be a resource to members. Give alumni members more opportunities to present, to serve as "deans" of programs, and to help chapters meet learning objectives at the local or regional level. That too is a form of experiential learning and it will reinforce the volunteer capacity of your fraternity.
Educational programs should be an easy component of the fraternity experience to decentralize and reform. Doing so will better integrate leadership and relationship development into the fraternity experience. It may also endear more members to an inter/national organization and establish real trust between students and fraternity staff.
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