Democratize Fraternity Education

posted in: Nik Koulogeoge | 0

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If your fraternity relies on an administrative staff for most of its functions, then that probably extends to education. Our approach to learning – like our approach to fraternity management in general – could benefit from some 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:

  1. Give regional and local leaders greater ownership over their learning experience
  2. Reach a greater number of members with higher quality, more engaging educational opportunities
  3. Improve a foundation’s ability to raise funds for fraternity educational programs

Like most functions of a fraternity, education is funneled through the Executive Director. There are likely one or a few staff at an office who put together programs. The best programs often reach the fewest number of students. Those programs which apply to all members are almost always lower quality. It is, frankly, a poor use of student and/or donor money.

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 fraternities, which prioritize their “general funds” and big, inter/national programs. It 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 which relies on its staff and general fund may spend hundreds of thousands on programs which reach just a few hundred members. Either way is a waste, so we are on a mission to find balance.

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 no one has to wait for a campaign like that of Kappa Sig. 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 most foundations)

All we are suggesting is that fraternities learn 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 many established alumni to give to their account. As someone who spent years learning how to swoon IFCs and campus professionals, showing an investment in new chapters is a winning scenario.

This plan would simplify authority, make more efficient use of educational dollars, free up staff time, and will probably make most of us less stressed and more content.

Focus on learning objectives. Let members choose the delivery.

Consider the cost savings of fewer members flying to a central location to sit through lectures on Kouzes & Posner’s “5 Exemplary Practices of Leadership” or some personality test. That money can be invested into local opportunities. Coaching and consulting talent is everywhere, so we should make good, affordable use of it.

An inter/national fraternity can still set educational objectives. Say, for example, a fraternity wants each chapter to organize leadership program. A chapter at a school which utilizes CliftonStrengths may hire a 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. (Maybe from my reading list!) They could recruit their adviser to set up reading assignments and lead weekly meetings to discuss each book. Some chapters would certainly pay to fly a fraternity staff member to their school to run a leadership retreat. Just give them the financial and decision-making power to do it.

This can work for almost any fraternity learning objective. It gives members greater say in how they learn, but keeps things professional. Better yet, it allows chapters to test different and innovative ideas. It requires the consent of local members, which will almost certainly 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 a learning program lets members practice a form of leadership.

Still room for fraternity events

This isn’t to say that big fraternity events should disappear. Some programs are truly great. Those should stick around. Members might even 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.

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. Create appealing resources and self-facilitated content for members to use at the chapter level. Our staffs’ and volunteers’ time – and our members’ money – can go to better, more effective use.

As for your actual programs – focus on ritual. Ritual elements are almost always the highlight of an educational program. (along with “networking time”) Still, such elements are rarely more than 10% of any one program. So, focus on translating those abstract values and stories into accessible resources and seminars. Make each fraternity event a quasi-religious experience, one which teaches members to build relationships according to the unique values of a given fraternity.

That’s all that leaders and staff at the inter/national level need to do. It is also what students typically ask for: check your post-event surveys. We brush off demands for more “social” time because we need to fit a year’s worth of content into a weekend. Focus your attention on how to help them learn at home, and spend the time we have together being together.

Conclusion

Some fraternities are closer to this ideal than others, but almost all fraternities have 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.

Still, 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. Giving alumni opportunities to present, to serve as “deans” of programs, and to help chapters meet learning objectives at the local level reinforces the broader volunteer structure of an organization.

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 educational staff.

Questions or Thoughts?