Modern college fraternities are bigger, more diverse, and more standardized than they were 200 years ago, but they cling to 19th Century executive and operational models. The field of work dedicated to fraternities has grown along with the organizations, and the fraternity experience is more technical and complex as a result. Change for the sake of change does not make a wise strategy, but fraternities suffer from widely-publicized behavioral issues at all levels of operation. To make matters worse, the public does not seem to understand how fraternities work or why they exist. College fraternities need change.
Background: I was a highly engaged undergraduate member of my fraternity, Delta Sigma Phi, and worked on the national staff for about six years. I volunteer for my fraternity, have volunteered/facilitated for other fraternities, and have worked at companies that sell products and services to fraternities. I write with an understanding of how fraternity organizations work and how they do business and have been writing about Greek Life for the better part of 10 years.
My point of view has been consistent: Greek Life is too complex and too centralized. Fraternity leaders and professionals lack faith in the inherent value of fraternity organizations. We have employed a number of academic and legal fixes to address the problems facing fraternity organizations, but the problems persist. If anything, the solutions accomplish little beyond protecting inter/national corporations at the expense of student members.
The Fraternity Manifesto is a new way forward for fraternities. It keeps “fraternity” front-and-center and allows for organizations to focus on what is important: fraternity members and their relationships.
"Shared Values" - Why fraternities exist
“Fraternity” is the most shared value among Greek-letter organizations. It is part of almost every organization’s name (or its feminine equivalent - “sorority”). "Fraternity" is a common thread that offers a broadly applicable foundation for organizational reform. Any reform should aim to better align fraternities with their central purpose. What is the purpose of a fraternity? To figure that out, we just turn to the definitions of the words “fraternity” and “organization.”
a group of people associated or formally organized for a common purpose, interest, or pleasure, such as. . .
a fraternal order
a men’s student organization formed chiefly for social purposes having secret rites and a name consisting of Greek letters
a student organization for scholastic, professional, or extracurricular activities
the quality or state of being brothers - brotherliness
persons of the same class, profession, character, or tastes
organization (noun, adj.)
the act or process of organizing or being organized
an administrative and functional structure (such as a business or political party)
also: the personnel of such a structure
I pulled those definitions from Marriam-Webster, which exists to define and explain words. They are organized to produce dictionaries and people generally trust their work. A fraternity organization is a functional structure to facilitate fraternal relationships. That is what distinguishes a fraternity from the majority of extracurricular activities in college life.
For example, a community service club may be organized to accomplish any number of goals. Its members may take part in service together, or they might organize volunteer opportunities for members and non-members alike. One is bound to make new friends through membership in just about any club, but a community service club can produce zero friendships and still succeed as a community service club. If there were a “community service fraternity,” however, it would not successfully fulfill its purpose unless it developed fraternal relationships between its members. (Travis Walker and I explored this idea on his “How to Adult” podcast - attached to this article)
Three Truths of the Fraternity Experience
Identifying a purpose is the easy part. Sticking to one’s purpose in the face of external pressure is the challenge. We know that fraternity organizations exist to foster fraternal relationships, but how should they go about doing that? I identified three truths about the fraternity experience in my time working with and writing about Greek Life. They can serve to guide fraternity members, leaders, and professionals in their efforts to reform Greek Life.
Fraternities exist to form personal and productive relationships
Membership in a fraternity is a personal, individual experience
Membership in a fraternity is meant to be lifelong
We know the first truth because we understand the meaning of the words “fraternity” and “organization.” The second truth implies that the decision to join and participate in Greek Life is ultimately an individual and personal choice. Furthermore, because fraternities are essentially democratic federations, the activities of an organization require the consent of its members. Finally, just about every fraternity or sorority (if not “every” fraternity and sorority) promotes lifelong membership and works to recruit alumni members to take part in the organization.
The three truths offer a simple litmus test to determine if any proposal or reform enacted by an organization is in line with this manifesto. Just run the proposed reform through the following questions:
Does this contribute to the formation or strengthening of members' relationships?
Does this respect the individual backgrounds and interests (identities) of the members?
Does this appeal or apply to an inter-generational audience of lifelong members?
A reformer's efforts will embody the spirit of our organizations’ respective founding members if they keep these truths and questions in mind. The three truths transcend gender, council, and tradition - things we occasionally allow to get in the way of meaningful or universal fraternity reform. They emphasize the most important assets of a fraternity organization: its people and their relationships. This is our blue ocean.
Fraternity Manifesto Strategic Concepts: People, Projects & Portfolios
Our vision is to create a more accessible, adaptable, and appealing fraternity experience. To do this, we must be mindful of the scope and cost burden of membership in a fraternity. We must restructure our leadership and management models to easily adapt to new technologies and to changes in membership. Finally, we must tailor the fraternity experience to the individual.
With that in mind, I offer three strategic concepts to reform and revitalize the American college fraternity. They align with the three truths and are broad enough that they can be adapted and personalized for any fraternity organization. Best of all, they can simplify fraternity organizations without sacrificing standards or the member experience.
People - From Standards of Excellence to The Standard
A fraternity’s members, their interests, their talents, and their relationships are what makes the organization special. These are how we determine the value of fraternity organizations.
A fraternity’s values, along with its ceremonies, explain how members should form relationships. The relationships one forms outside of their fraternity organization are just as important as those formed within a chapter. A member can demonstrate that they have learned from their fraternity experience by developing positive and productive relationships.
The fraternity's standards and awards should emphasize relationships, not hours volunteered, dollars donated, written plans, or meeting agendas. Those can help to explain the productive qualities of a relationship, but they do not imply that a fraternity organization is succeeding as it relates to fostering fraternity. If we understand the relationships formed by a chapter and its members over the course of a year, we understand its connection to the outside world, its recruitment potential, and its objective contributions to its campus community. We also learn how a member's relationships help them improve as a person.
Recap (PEOPLE): Focus on quantifying and tracking members' productive relationships. Celebrate members who demonstrate that they can form, strengthen, and maintain relationships within the fraternity and/or with the outside world. Encourage members to see relationships as the vehicle to improve themselves, their future, and their chapter's connection with the surrounding community.
Projects - A consensual, personal way to engage members and encourage collaboration between them
What are the expectations of a man or woman who joins a fraternity? How does a member or chapter determine what it should do throughout the year? How can our management model better contribute to the fostering of productive relationships? It might be hard to imagine reframing our idea of success if we stick with a static organizational leadership and management model.
There is no single executive board, chairman, or committee model suited for all chapters of an organization. They vary in size, membership, and location. If we wish to prioritize our people and their relationships, fraternities must pay serious attention to Decision Rights (see second attachment). Well-balanced decision rights empower those who are best suited to make quick and effective decisions so that organizations can make better use of distributed (local) knowledge. One way to simply and quickly balance decision rights is to embrace a project-based approach to programming. Rather than require that a chapter organize a specific type and number of events, a fraternity sets a standard expectation for individual participation. These take the form of “projects.”
For example, a fraternity may require that each member take part in two group projects and two individual projects per academic year. Members propose group projects to the chapter which, if approved, result in the formation of teams or committees. The size of a chapter determines the number of teams it can or should field in a given academic term. Leaders from these teams or committees may serve as directors on a chapter’s executive board, and the "static" positions on an executive board are no more complex than the board of an inter/national fraternity (President, Vice President, Secretary, and Treasurer - the latter two occasionally combined into one role).
This approach offers a number of benefits compared to today’s executive and chairperson models.
It clarifies the expectations of members and chapters. Members can better explain the time commitment to potential members with a “project” as the standard measure of activity. The expectation that each member participates in a number of projects throughout the year creates consistency compared to chapter-based programming expectations. A new member and a senior member know what is expected of them, and it is equal, even if the type of project differs. . .
A project model promotes and emphasizes the talents and interests of each member. A 4th-year student, for example, may initiate or take part in projects associated with professional development, such as an internship or senior research project. The new members of a fraternity may be required to complete one individual and one group project (of their choosing) to qualify for initiation - thereby teaching them exactly what is expected of all members.
It allows the leadership/management structure of a chapter to adapt to its size. Small chapters will not be pressured to grow for the sake of growth and can expand their scope of operations as they add more members. Conversely, a large chapter can engage more of its members with what amounts to limitless leadership potential. Different fraternities and chapters may organize project teams/committees differently: around family trees, major, class year, or a mixture of factors.
The standard expectation of each member might require that they produce a brief report at the end of each year detailing their chosen projects and the relationships they formed or strengthened through those projects. The best individual or team/committee reports may be submitted for recognition or awards.
Examples of project-based approaches can be observed in the University of Pittsburgh’s student government model and Stetson University's “cultural credit” system. At Pitt, students run for election to the student government board by proposing projects to improve the campus. Once elected, they organize committees to complete those projects (some run to continue past projects). At Stetson, students receive credit for taking part in extracurricular learning activities (such as visiting a museum or attending a vistor's lecture). Greek Life, as an extracurricular activity, should embrace these member-oriented programming models. A third example, from outside of the higher education world, are smartphone app stores. Apple and Google offer a basic set of rules and a programming language and leave it open for just about anyone to develop applications to fit consumer needs or interests.
Recap (PROJECTS): Simplify and clarify the expectations of membership in terms of individual participation in group and personal projects. Use projects as an adaptable way to form committees, executive boards, and chapter programming schedules. Encourage members to tailor their fraternity participation to their interests and talents.
Portfolios - Realizing the promise of lifelong membership
A project-based fraternity may require members to complete a minimum number of group and individual projects to obtain “alumni status.” If each member records and reports on their project involvement (as described in the "Projects" section), then those can be assembled into a project portfolio. This can serve as a helpful tool for undergraduate members when applying for work, applying for graduate school, or in an entrepreneurial capacity. A high-quality portfolio can improve their chances of success after college, so members are incentivized to take their project participation seriously.
Some fraternities might allow those who fail to complete the required number of projects to obtain “alumni status” to finish their portfolio after graduation. In this case, “alumni status” is no longer automatically tied to one's graduation date, but their completion of a standard set of expectations in the fraternity. With alumni status, a member can serve in an advisory capacity or take on higher positions of leadership in the inter/national fraternity. An alumnus' work continues to be recorded and added to their project portfolio (at their discretion), which will continue to aid them in their personal or professional pursuits. In this way, alumni membership is a natural progression from the project-based work of undergraduate membership. The fraternity continues to serve as a tool for personal and relationship development in a personalized way.
He may choose to collaborate with a student or a group of students on their project, perhaps as an advisor. Or, he might focus on an annual brotherhood retreat for members of his pledge/new member class. Maybe he serves as a traditional advisor to a chapter, a facilitator at a national program, or as a fundraiser/bundler for the fraternity’s foundation. Recording these efforts into a member’s project portfolio makes it easier for the fraternity to measure lifelong engagement, even if one never engages beyond his home chapter. It may even influence projects, initiatives, or programs at the inter/national level.
Organizing a portfolio of work is an important skill in and of itself. A chapter might teach each member the basic coding skills necessary to create simple, personal, and free websites featuring their projects and personal accomplishments (a few days of HTML training). Some chapters might focus on members' LinkedIn profiles, which can operate as a living resumé. Or, a chapter or inter/national fraternity may contract a third party to manage a tailored portfolio service.
Recap (PORTFOLIOS): Encourage members to maintain a portfolio of their projects related to their fraternity experience. Teach undergraduate and alumni members the value of a well-managed portfolio of work. Allow alumni members to establish group or personal projects which appeal to their personal and professional interests to encourage lifelong participation.
People, Projects, and Portfolios are three simple concepts that could create a more accessible, adaptable, and appealing fraternity experience. Together, they can help fraternities make better use of their most important assets: fraternity members and their relationships. The world of Greek Life is already changing. The Fraternity Manifesto is a framework for independently-minded chapters and inter/national organizations to break through the bureaucratic clutter and to embrace the values and technology of the 21st Century.
Ideas to implement these reforms at a tactical level will be shared on FraternityMan.com and through future Fraternity Man publications. We will organize free calls and workshops to help members align their chapter or inter/national fraternity with this manifesto. Use the Contact form on this site to express your interest or subscribe to the Fraternity Man email newsletter to learn when events are taking place and how to take part.
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