We are all told that our membership in our fraternity is lifelong, and most fraternity men swear an oath to maintain some sort of lifelong connection to their fraternity. In another article on Fraternity Man, I picked on Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) as it relates to this "lifelong" claim. I wrote:
A member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (for example) might imply that the 206,000+ living alumni members are some sort of network that you could tap into if you were to join their fraternity. But to call it a network would be a stretch. How many of those men volunteer or donate to the fraternity foundation? According to its website, 970 donors were recorded for the year 2020. Assuming all of those 970 members were alumni members of the fraternity, that means that fewer than 0.5% of SAE members donate to their fraternity after graduation. The other 205,030 members may pay nothing.
Many fraternities tout equally impressive numbers of "living alumni members." Pi Kappa Alpha (PIKE) claims more than 305,000 lifetime members. Sigma Phi Epsilon (SigEp) reports 360,000 lifetime members. Those are impressive numbers, but what do they mean? Ultimately, the number of lifelong or lifetime members a fraternity reports amounts to the number of people who were initiated and who have not yet been reported as deceased or expelled. The numbers may be technically correct, but they do not tell us much about what to expect from the fraternity experience.
In my time as a fraternity man, I've served as a highly-engaged student, volunteer, staff member, and independent contributor to my fraternity and the interfraternal community. In this article, I propose five types of "lifelong" fraternity members, and I have observed similar categories of membership in non-fraternity organizations (Rotary, Kiwanis, etc.). Which type of lifelong member are you?
DISCLAIMER: These categories are not exact, and some members (particularly those who get involved at higher levels) may be a part of many categories. Still, this concept may be relevant to fraternity leaders at all levels. Just as one set of standards does not fit every fraternity, one approach to alumni engagement will not appeal to all alumni members. If you have ideas, share them with me on Twitter, Instagram, or the Contact page.
The Lifelong Kin Class Member
I am using "kin class" as a catch-all term for people with overlapping undergraduate experiences, particularly those of a similar class year/pledge class. The Lifelong Kin Class Member maintains ties with a specific group of friends from their chapter. Just as members may join with their friends as a unit, so too might they stay engaged as a unit (or not at all) beyond their undergraduate years.
Their loyalty and connection to the fraternity stem primarily from a limited collection of lifelong friendships that were either created through the fraternity or enhanced through membership in the fraternity. They will participate in events as a group and will stay engaged with their group for life. In other words, the fraternity is not what keeps them connected to one another, but their connection to one another is the only thing that may keep them connected to the fraternity. I suspect that a significant number of otherwise "inactive" lifelong members fall into this category.
The Lifelong Chapter Member
Those who appreciate the chapter experience and who are generally dedicated to continuing that experience for future generations fall into the Lifelong Chapter Member category. Individuals in this group likely formed relationships with members outside of their undergraduate years either as students engaging with alumni or as alumni engaging with students. They may have held officer or chairperson positions in a chapter and are likely to attend one-off events (a golf tournament) or annual events (Homecoming).
Their loyalty and connection to the fraternity stem from their connection to the undergraduate chapter as a functional unit, and so they are also more likely to serve on an alumni board or donate to a chapter's various funds or projects. Some may dedicate time or money to the chapter even if they are not engaged regularly (i.e. offering occasional legal advice or irregular donations). The critical difference between a Lifelong Chapter Member and a Lifelong Kin Class Member is that the former will participate with or without their close friends. In contrast, the latter requires the participation of their close friends as a prerequisite for their participation.
The Lifelong Inter/National Member
Some members maintain ties with a variety of members from their own and other chapters of their fraternity. In many cases, they maintain stronger, more relevant connections with those from other chapters than from their home chapter. The Lifelong Inter/National Member likely had an impactful experience at a regional or inter/national program of their fraternity, and they seek ways to stay engaged with the fraternity beyond a commitment to their home chapter.
Their loyalty and connection to the fraternity are tied to a belief that the inter/national network is a relevant and necessary component of the fraternity experience, and they are dedicated to doing their part to maintain a strong inter/national reputation. Lifelong Inter/National Members may serve as volunteers at a local or national level or may limit participation to networking opportunities or regular donations to their respective fraternity's foundation.
The Lifelong Professional / Volunteer Member
Those who have taken a part or role in the operations of an inter/national fraternity are what we call Lifelong Professional/Volunteer Members. These initiates may [have] serve[d] in high-level volunteer positions or work[ed] for a fraternity's inter/national office. A subcategory of this group would be the Lifelong Interfraternal Member, who takes a special interest in the fraternity/sorority experience as a whole.
Their loyalty and connection to the fraternity are tied to the broader fraternity experience and the transformational potential of membership in any fraternity or sorority. If Greek Life had a "deep state" (lol), then its ranks comprise almost entirely of members from this category. They are the fewest in number but are often tasked with the most consequential decisions given their level of dedication. Lifelong Professional/Volunteer Members also include those who work with Greek Life on a college campus or who provide services to fraternity organizations (speakers, fundraising, catering, composites, consulting, etc.).
The Lifelong Casual Member
I might have put this first, as it is the most basic (and largest) category of "lifelong" fraternity member. It's the reason I occasionally use parenthesis around "lifelong." The Lifelong Casual Member is a lifelong member by technicality and is the most likely to say they "were" in a fraternity, even if they never formally quit or were expelled.
They acknowledge their fraternity membership as a component of their collegiate experience, but it has little relevance or importance in their life beyond college. They may not maintain connections with many members from their chapter, and they are unlikely to donate, volunteer, or update their contact information at a chapter or inter/national level. Many appreciate their fraternity experience but do not see it as an essential component of their identity or character. It was a fun time in college.
Perhaps most importantly, this is not something we should associate with shame. It is easy for those, particularly the hyper-involved in any of the above categories, to attempt to guilt members into being something more than a Lifelong Casual Member. But membership and participation in a fraternity is, like all other decisions, a result of a cost-benefit analysis. These members do not see the benefit of lifelong engagement, and that's probably because lifelong engagement in a fraternity often has little to do with life outside of the collegiate experience of a fraternity.
The Five Types of Lifelong Members
Allow me to gas myself up for a moment: I think I nailed it! People join fraternities for personal and different reasons, and those reasons often dictate how they participate as fraternity alumni. As for how to engage a wider variety of alumni members, my suggestions can be found in the Fraternity Manifesto.
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