Or, start doing it well.
Because the half-assed way by which we do it today is really serving no one, so to speak. It isn’t serving our communities and it isn’t serving the development of our members and organizations.
It might be serving us as great photo ops, fillers for award applications, and likable Facebook posts.
Service is often the first value spoken about by Greek organizations and the last one on the actual priority list.
Let me say this however…not making it an organizational priority is OKAY.
Service is something that every person should make time to do, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily right for every organization. Organizations exist for a purpose, and every single book, speaker, website, and ancient scroll that teaches organizational performance says that successful ones know their true purpose and stay faithful to it.
Perhaps it is not our true purpose to be community service organizations. Fine. The problem is, we try to be, we talk like we are, and most of us suck at it.
Here are three quick reasons why:
1. Most college students won’t live in their college towns long-term and thus don’t feel the emotional investment towards it that actual residents feel. Again – this is OKAY. It’s simply a fact that the college experience is designed to take us to a temporary location for a definite period of time. We go to “that place” for 4 years. It’s almost expected that we won’t stay. Because of this, our service efforts in those communities are viewed as a college activity and not as an investment in our hometown. Those two frames of reference create two very different kinds of volunteer experiences and motivations.
2. We think that service has to be a “T-Shirt” experience, meaning that it needs to be big and splashy enough for us to make commemorative T-shirts. You know, like your formal or theme party. That leads us to equate service with powderpuff football tournaments, polar bear plunges, Teeter-Totter Marathons, etc. These events are fine – they are social, fun, team-oriented, and more. But just because they result in a donation to some charity at the end doesn’t mean that service is a core principle. It’s just a nice gesture.
3. We’ve got too much going on. The big five core values of fraternities and sororities tend to be Academics, Brotherhood/Sisterhood, Character Development, Leadership, and Service. That’s a lot of stuff for an organization to take on. Can we be honest about something? Service is often included in order to improve our image. Truthfully, service (in most cases) was the last value to the party. We’re really good at the other things because we’ve been doing them longer. And, because they are more natural to our organizational DNA, they get more emphasis than service.
But wait, you might shout, isn’t any service good service? Yes, it’s going to help somebody. We should all maintain our service projects and philanthropic events, and maybe even add some more. But, unless we’re willing to be better at it, let’s take it out of our big five and let’s stop talking like service is a defining characteristic of fraternity/sorority life. It can be a nice experience for our members and something that gives them greater pride of membership, but it shouldn’t be sold as a critical piece.
Now – if you find this to be nonsense and think I’m full of it, I like your spirit. That means you WANT service to be in the big five. It means you TRULY believe it is important. Again, I think it’s okay to make it a minor aspect of who we are, but, if you REALLY want it to be major, then let’s play. Perhaps for a few of you, you’re already there. But for most, here is what you should do:
1. Find your service organizations on campus and start working with them. This could be Circle K or Alpha Phi Omega, or similar. Service is definitely their top priority and their training and education is built around that belief. They know where to find the needs in the community and how to take action. Offer up your members and your resources for a joint project. Your most service-minded members may want a dual membership in these groups as well, which can only help your chapter.
2. Replace half of your annual social events with hands-on service events. Whoah! Seriously? Yes – because working together on a service project can be one of the most social things you can do. Gentlemen, invite the ladies with you (and vice versa). You might surprise yourself with how much fun you have.
(If you’ve found #2 to be ridiculous, then it's a good chance you aren’t really serious about being an organization committed to service.)
3. Treat your community leaders like your campus leaders. You probably (or should) have ways to build relationships with your campus administrators, such as the Greek Advisor, Dean of Students, etc. This could involve annual meetings, including them on your newsletters, and more. Do the same with your town’s Mayor and other civic leaders. Invite the Director of your local United Way to dinner. Reach out to service clubs like Kiwanis and Rotary. If you truly want service to be front and center, then you need to get to know your community.
4. Roll up your sleeves. If we truly want our members to learn to be active citizens, then just writing checks to charities is not enough. Hands-on service projects are more intense experiences that more truly deliver on our promise of serving our communities.
5. Make your philanthropies feel more like a service project than a party. A good example is Dance Marathon. Those events are fun and social but there is no doubt that it’s for a cause. And most Dance Marathons work throughout the year to build awareness of child health issues. If you must do the T-Shirt events, be very explicit in why you are raising the money and incorporate educational aspects for your members and guests.
6. Expect more of your national office. If your national organization promotes service and asks that it be a priority for you, then request that resources be directed to help you (and your fellow chapters) grow those efforts. If there is a national philanthropy, is there a toolkit to help you build a local project that supports those efforts?
My preference is for us all to more properly embrace service as a core priority and let our actions and behaviors reflect that belief. Although if we choose otherwise, let’s be equally comfortable with that choice and stop pretending it really matters.