How to Survey Your Fraternity

In the last post on this site, I advocated for officer teams to do an assessment of their chapter in order to get a well-rounded view of member attitudes and perspectives. One of the best tools to use for this purpose is a survey. With online tools like Survey Monkey, it’s easier than ever to build and conduct surveys. However, you need to be thoughtful with your approach and the questions you ask. You probably will only have one chance to get good data (most people don’t like receiving multiple surveys on the same subject). In this post, I’ve provided sample survey questions, but first, some tips:
  • Keep it short. 10-15 minutes is probably all you can expect someone to give to a survey like this.
  • Consider your questions carefully. For each question, ask yourself “would responses to this question on one extreme or the other cause us to change what we’re doing?” If the answer is no, then there is really no point in asking the question.
  • Likert-type scale questions are better than yes/no or true/false questions because they provide a wider range of responses. Likert-type scales are those that ask respondents to rank a response from 1 to 5 or 1 to 10 based on the degree of their opinion. See below for examples.
  • Allowing respondents to be anonymous will likely give you better and more honest results. 
  • You do not need 100% response rate or even close to consider the data useful.  I would suggest if you get a majority of members to respond, you are in a strong position to interpret the data as valid.  A good way to look at this is to ask yourself if the percentage that didn't respond had, would the the results be radically different? In most cases, they probably wouldn't be.
By the way, I’m a few years removed from my Masters degree, so I’m writing this as a practitioner who uses surveys for very practical purposes. A phD student might have more to say about design and methodology, but my advice to you is to not make this harder than it needs to be.  You aren't using the data for a white paper or a journal article, but rather to help your officer team make determinations on priorities for the year.

As an example, I've listed below a series of questions that on the whole, would give you some really good information by which to judge the current effectiveness of your chapter and help you make decisions for the future.  The first set of questions use a Likert-type scale.  This set of questions can be used to start conversations on the general health of the organization.  Say that a majority of respondents "disagree" that they are proud to call themselves members of the fraternity (question #6). That reveals a serious concern that should be addressed.  

The second  section includes open-ended questions that require a sentence or two. The best way to sort through these responses is to put them all on a single sheet, sorted by similar answers.  Read them through as an officer team and look for themes or ideas that really stand-out.

The final section provides an opportunity for the members to help prioritize the chapter's issues.  Reviewing these results should indicate a top-tier, middle-tier, and lower-tier of issues according to the membership. 

Choose your response to each statement below based on this scale:

1=Strongly Disagree    2=Disagree    3=No Opinion    4=Agree    5=Strongly Agree

1. This fraternity is having a positive impact on my academic performance.
2. I feel connected with the values and purpose of this fraternity.
3. This fraternity effectively deals with adversity.
4. I am pessimistic about the future of this fraternity.(NOTE - Mixing in a couple of negatively-framed questions keeps people from rushing through and choosing the same answer for each question)
5. This fraternity is a high-performing fraternity compared with others on this campus.
6. I am proud to call myself a member of this fraternity.
7. This fraternity receives strong support from alumni and campus advisors.
8. For the most part, this fraternity adheres to the values expressed in our Ritual and creed.
9. I am satisfied with my contributions to this fraternity.
10. I can freely share my opinions about the direction of this fraternity.
11. Members are held accountable for their actions if they violate our standards.
12. The officers are ignoring some significant challenges facing this fraternity.
13. My college experience has been better than it otherwise would have been without this fraternity.
14. My experience with this fraternity has met my expectations.

For the questions above, do you have any comments to more fully describe your answer?

If you had the opportunity to change one thing about this fraternity, what would it be?

In what aspect(s) do you feel this fraternity excels the most?

Complete this sentence -  If I were to give the officer team one piece of advice, it would be:

Identify at least one member of the chapter (not an officer) who you think deserves praise and recognition for their contributions to the chapter and the reasons why.

Which of the following issues should be top priorities for the officers and chapter to address this year (choose up to 5)?
  1. Recruitment
  2. Public Image 
  3. Effectiveness of Chapter Meetings
  4. Relationships with other Chapters
  5. New Member Education
  6. Athletic competitions
  7. Achieving Campus and/or National Awards
  8. Risk Management
  9. Chapter House 
  10. Cliques / Divisions in the Chapter
  11. Member and/or guest safety
  12. Alumni relations
  13. Academics / Chapter GPA
  14. Service and Philanthropy
  15. Camaraderie and Fellowship
  16. Social Life
  17. Member Apathy
  18. Drugs / Alcohol
  19. Other_________________
  20. Other_________________

There are plenty of other directions you can take with this kind of assessment.  And, we haven't even discussed focus groups or other methods of getting input.  Your campus Greek life office can help you with survey design and even analysis of the results.  No matter what, as long as you take the time to try and get member opinions into your planning process, you will see stronger results than if you go it alone.

A Chapter President’s First 25 Days

As chapter president, you likely ran for your position with priorities and goals in mind. Thus, your term might be defined by how well you achieve these objectives. And with only a year, the clock is ticking.

During the recent U.S. presidential election and in the days hence, much has been made of what the new Commander in Chief will do in his first 100 days. This is a common talking point for candidates and an easy way to frame the most urgent priorities perceived by the soon-to-be president.

So, it’s a useful exercise to think about how you – as the new chapter president – will make use of the first few days of your “administration.”

For sake of discussion, let’s consider the first 25 days (since a chapter president has only 1/4th of the term of the U.S. President). What are you going to do in your first 25 days? Not considering holiday breaks, perhaps it could be mapped out this way:

Days 1-5: Assemble the officers and build trust within the group.
Your officer team is the team you have the most influence over, and who has the most influence over you in return. This is also the “management team” or “leadership team” for the chapter, and hence, its judgment and decisions require a high degree of trust and respect. If you pay attention to the early development of this team, and keep attention on this, the rest of your year will be smoother. Some best practices might include:

  • As soon as possible after the election, take the group to dinner to celebrate and immediately start to build some bonds.
  • Hold a 2-3 hour teambuilding retreat. Use a leadership styles assessment or tool like Strengthsfinder to increase awareness of each other’s leadership tendencies. Set some group expectations for how the officer team will work together.
  • At the retreat or a different setting, invite the officers to share with each other their campaign promises or goals, and which ones were most important to them. Lay them all out and begin discussions on how to prioritize the list.

Days 6-10: Assess the fraternity for needs and challenges.
In order to lead effectively, you need a better understanding of what your chapter needs. Who better to tell you than the members themselves? Plus, you can get feedback from other stakeholder groups, including advisors, campus and headquarters professionals, and council leaders. If you offer the opportunity for others to give voice to the direction of the chapter, they will likely get on board faster with your goals and priorities. Some best practices might include:

  • Do an online survey to members asking them to evaluate the current state of the fraternity, and to provide their assessment of where it needs to go. The consolidated report of this data becomes the perfect launching pad for your officer team to use for goal-setting.
  • Set up listening sessions. Ask each officer to set aside a time for members to give them verbal input into the state and direction of the chapter. Perhaps do this around meal times. Then, the officers can get together to share notes.
  • You as president should take on a special task – individual outreach to “lost members.” Choose five or so disengaged members who you think could offer value to the chapter and set up times for coffee or lunch to chat with each person individually. Find out why they disengaged and what the chapter should be doing to keep members involved.

Days 11-15: Officer team establishes the annual priorities for the chapter.
Now that you’ve done the assessment phase, it’s time to gather the officer team back together to download the information. Look for patterns and themes. Invite officers to each share the greatest insight they gained from their listening sessions and/or the survey data. It will all come together to reveal the biggest areas of need for the chapter. Combine these with the goals that the officers had as candidates and the priorities for the year should start to take shape. Best practices might include:

  • Use the following framework (Start-Stop-Continue) to help guide the discussion:
    • What things should we START doing, since adding them to our chapter would make a difference in its effectiveness and success.
    • What things should we STOP doing, since they no longer offer value to the chapter, the members don’t like them, or they are actively inhibiting our success.
    • What things should we CONTINUE doing, since they are positive aspects of the chapter, the members like them, and are contributing to our success.
  • Aim for a number to start with – say 5-8 priorities – to help you move the work along. It’s not a good idea to do more than that, since a year goes fast. It’s better to focus on a few big wins for the chapter and work harder to achieve those.
  • Under each priority, establish 3 goals that influence that priority. For example, if the priority is recruitment, 3 goals might include (1) grow the chapter by 10% this year, (2) challenge each member to introduce 5 potential new members to the chapter this year, and (3) redesign all marketing pieces to reflect our values and official brand.

Days 16-20: These priorities are tested by sharing them with the general membership, the chapter and campus advisors, and national office staff. They are then finalized.
A great way to gain buy-in is the initial assessment stage you already conducted. Another great way is to go back to those stakeholder groups with your list of priorities to make sure you heard them correctly. Share them at a chapter meeting and invite discussion. Send them to your national office and ask for feedback within a week’s time. Meet with your Greek advisor and review the priorities with him/her. After this is done, gather your officers back together and settle on a final list of priorities.


Days 21-25: Committees (including the officer team) are tasked with executing particular priorities.
So now you have your priorities and the goals that will achieve those priorities. It’s time for action. Determine as an officer team which priorities are most relevant for which committees in the chapter. Obviously the recruitment committee would take on any that deal with recruitment. The Ritual committee might be best for those that deal with the culture of the chapter and issues of values. Big new initiatives might be best held by the officer team itself, or a short-term task force can advance them forward. The first step for each committee is to add any goals they think are necessary for the priority they have been given. Next, they should add in up to 5 tasks underneath each goal that the committee can undertake to achieve it. The chapter president and vice president can sit in on these initial discussions to make sure the spirit and integrity of the priorities are upheld.


There you go. Now, you have 340 days left to make these priorities, goals, and tasks become real. If goals are achieved early, the officer team can revisit the priorities halfway through the year, and add a couple more

What you do in your first 25 days can set a powerful tone for your term. Whether you follow the framework above or develop your own, be intentional, focused, and driven. If you aren’t, you might blink and find yourself standing in your final 25 days, wondering how it all moved so fast.

It's Your Turn

All across the country, newly-elected chapter Presidents are busy getting prepared to start their terms.  It’s a great honor and privilege to serve as a chapter President – and it’s also a great challenge.  In fact, I still believe that serving as a fraternity or sorority chapter president is the most difficult leadership position on a college campus (with a residence hall RA coming in a close second).  You are leading those you are bonded to, which adds layers of emotion to the position.  I still look back at my year as a chapter president as the most defining leadership experience of my undergraduate years – and it wasn’t because of the joys of the job (of which there were many).  Frankly, I learned the most from the times when it just plain sucked.

For the purpose of analogy, please watch this short bit by comedian Louis CK.  Don’t worry, I muted out his colorful language:

I love this story as a metaphor for becoming chapter president.  You were once safely part of the group, sharing laughter and frustrations with others like you.  You were probably critical of those in leadership positions because we all tend to be.  But now, you are leaving that safety net and stepping forward to take your turn.  Just like a line at the post office, there will be whispers, catcalls, frustration, and anger coming from those behind you. 

And you are standing out there by yourself.

Being a chapter President can be a lonely position.  Whereas before you were a part of the group, now you will be seen as something separate from it.  You’ll be seen as the person who used to be crazy fun but is now boring; the person who always says no; the person who now wants to follow the risk management policy.  It’s like you left the back row of the classroom and are now the teacher.

And with that comes criticism.  And pressure.  You will feel the stares of those still in the line.  Their coercive sighs and grumblings will make you want to make faster decisions. But remember, it's your turn.  And probably the only one you'll get.

So, how can you manage your need to lead with your desire to remain the same fun person you were before?  To still be seen as one of the group?  The short answer is: you probably can’t.  But let me tell you why that’s something to celebrate.

The reason being a chapter President is a profound leadership experience is because it is one of the few places left on a college campus where individuals learn real leadership.  Your term will be full of all the stuff of real leadership: building a team, confronting a peer, demanding accountability, being decisive, setting priorities, and sharing power.  And it also means making people you care about mad – because you won’t let them slack, you demand their best, and you call them out for their failure to perform. 

You may have an advisor, but you are generally on your own.  And just like corporate or nonprofit CEOs have to answer to a board, you have to answer to your alumni or headquarters.  Things will be flying at you a million miles a minute.  You’ll be nervous a lot.  And you’ll make a lot of mistakes.  You are learning lessons as an undergraduate that many people don’t learn until their third job.

And I hate to break it to you – but before your term ends, you will have ended some friendships.  Just a like a parent prepares him/herself mentally to hear their child say “I hate you!” for the first time, you should prepare yourself for a version of the same.  This is not a position for those who want to be liked.  Popularity means little in real leadership – otherwise someone like Ashton Kutcher would be the leader of the free world.  Real leadership is about respect – something you may not earn until years after you’ve done your job.

Not all is dire, by the way.  There are ways for you to step forward from the line and still maintain your membership in the club.  

First, simply be honest with your friends.  Make sure they understand the position you are in as the chief steward of the fraternity.  Let them know the legal risks you have assumed.  Help them understand the reasons behind your decisions.  If they are real friends, they will listen to you.

Second, consider keeping a “kitchen cabinet.”  This term refers to a team of informal advisors that a leader surrounds him/herself with in order to stay aware of the pulse of his/her followers.  Get your friends' opinions on issues and decisions.  Come back into the line every once in a while.

Also, don't completely isolate yourself socially from your brothers/sisters.  You can still participate in responsible social activities and nights out.  Don't let your position paralyze you from having fun.  But remember, you can have just as much fun with low key events like a night of playing cards as you can with big parties, and the former carries fewer risks for you.

Something else to consider – you likely engaged in behaviors that you will now condemn.  Be ready to be called a hypocrite.  Chalk it up to wisdom and maturity, and move forward.  Admit your mistakes, but don’t let others use them as an excuse.

Finally, be humble.  The leaders that leave the line and become authoritarian or self-oriented are the ones that lose friends and followers alike.  Remember what it was like to stand in line, and treat your chance to step forward as a privilege.  Remember that the line is dependent on you to do good work, so that they can take their turn.  Don't treat them with disdain or disparage their feelings.  Because remember, once you're finished, you'll be joining them again.

Congratulations on your election.  You have answered the call and should spend some time enjoying the feeling that comes from your brothers/sisters giving you their trust.  It's an awesome thing.  But once the work begins, don't expect it to be effortless.  You shouldn't want it to be either.  Nothing worth doing is easy.

Have the courage to step forward.

Mr. or Ms. President, it's your turn.

(This post was published originally on December 7, 2010 and has been updated)

First Graduate, Then Initiate

I am an advocate for eliminating pledging from the fraternity experience - an idea that gets a lot of opposition whenever it gets raised.  Undergraduates and alumni alike seem to really like the idea of pledging, and most seem to consider it a critical element of fraternity life.  I still don’t like it, but if we need to have it, let’s make the most of it.

What if, instead, we doubled-down on pledging?  If it is truly a critical piece - the preparatory period for a young adult to learn how to live the values of the fraternity/sorority - then let’s not leave it to just 4, 6, or 8 weeks.  What about 4 years instead?  I’m not joking.

What if fraternity and sorority members weren’t officially initiated into their fraternity or sorority until the day after they graduated from college?  That’s right - undergraduate students would be “pledging” their organization for the length of their undergraduate years (or at least from whatever point as an undergrad they accept their bid for membership).

Graduating seniors would go to commencement, walk across the stage, flip the tassel, have a nice lunch with family and friends, and then head over to the chapter house for the initiation Ritual.

Here are some intriguing benefits of such an idea:
  • If everyone in the undergraduate chapter is a “new member” or “pledge,” then the power dynamic of pledge vs. active is removed.  All are striving towards the same goal: initiation.
  • Undergraduate members would learn the values and expectations of the organization, and their initiation could be contingent on how well they lived those values during their college years.  Perhaps someone could not be initiated unless their peers and advisors vouched for their character.  The deadbeat Seniors would drift away and would never be allowed into full membership.
  • Fraternities and Sororities could set a GPA requirement for initiation that takes the entire 4-5 undergraduate years into account.
  • Once initiated, the recent graduates would receive information on getting involved in a young professionals chapter of their organization in the city/town to which they relocate.  And, the excitement of initiation could mean they are more inspired to be involved as a recent alum.
  • If it turns out a particular fraternity isn’t a good fit - there is more flexibility to change one’s mind.  If I accept a bid to one sorority as a freshman, but then discover as a sophomore that another sorority is more congruent with my values, then I move on.  No letter to the headquarters promising that I won’t divulge secrets would be required.  Does that make you nervous that people would be jumping from org to org in a chaotic fashion?  What are you afraid of?  Shouldn’t we embrace the goal of matching personal values with organizational values, no matter how long it takes to figure that out?
  • Because of that same flexibility, national fraternities/sororities would be more accountable for providing a quality experience.  In a way, they would need to make the case to the undergrads for four years that the fraternity or sorority is something to be proud of.
Of course the idea isn't perfect.  Would uninitiated men and women be interested in operating an organization they aren't fully members of?  Maybe the friendship and fellowship would still be enough of a draw to make that happen.  Many other issues would need to be worked out.  However, member apathy, hazing, and alumni engagement are perpetual problems we have no bold answers for.  Maybe there is a solution to be found in waiting until a young person experiences one of the proudest moments of their life - graduation - before they receive an experience equally as profound - their fraternity initiation.

(This post has been updated since its original post date of 10/11/2011)

A Fraternity Life at Forty

Here I stand.
Brothers in 1998

Brothers in 2016
A man at 40.

Check that – a fraternity man at 40.

My brotherhood now is a cluster of three whimsical, invincible boys. And my wife is my lifelong sweetheart.

A fraternity man at 40.

How did I get here so quickly? How did I reach this age that when I was in college, was the age of mentors and advisors and coaches and teachers? How can I possibly have reached a halfway point of the typical American male life?

And do I deserve to be here?

(And where did those gray hairs come from?)

No matter what, there is no escaping this point in my life. 40 years in. And hopefully at least those many yet to come.

Of those 40 years, one-tenth of them were spent as an undergraduate member of Theta Chi fraternity at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

For a lot – maybe most – of the men who join a fraternity, that one-tenth is what they will consider their fraternity years. Not for me.

My fraternity years started in January 1995, and are still going. I took to heart what my Ritual told me about lifelong commitments and obligations. In addition, I’ve come to understand that a fraternity life is actually better understood outside of the walls of the undergraduate house, or beyond the lush landscape of the college campus.

Fraternity is like most complex endeavors in life in that it takes on new and more profound meaning when it is studied and reflected upon. It was Socrates who said that the “unexamined life is not worth living.” Well, the unexamined fraternity is a profound experience wasted.

At 40, life has taught me a few things. For example, if you love someone, don’t wait to tell them. Listening is the greatest gift you can give another person. Vulnerability is as important a leadership skill as public speaking. Brussels sprouts can actually be good when cooked with bacon. And the list goes on.

In regards to fraternity, I now look upon that experience much differently than when I was a young undergraduate member. I’ve determined the ten inalienable truths of the fraternity experience (at least until I’m 50 and change my mind). In no particular order…

1: Initiation into a fraternity is the starting gate, and not the finish line. When we see it as the opposite, then we limit the true lifelong nature of this experience. Don't tell me that when pledging was over I reached my destination. I'm still going.

2: The values in the fraternity Ritual can be life-directing. There is wisdom and guidance and roadmaps in those words but we too often treat them as only pretty ceremonies. Understand, adsorb, and live these teachings. I use them in my life today as a parent, husband, nonprofit executive, community volunteer, etc.

3: The undergraduate fraternity experience is one of the last bastions of preparation for real life leadership. I’m recalling more of the things I learned in my undergrad fraternity years in my leadership experiences right now than anything else. Leadership in so many places on campus these days is over-coached and over-structured. For me, the experience of leading my brothers was messy, difficult, and emotionally exhausting. It was real.

4: The party/entertainment aspect of a fraternity matters and can be a fondly-remembered aspect. However, it is but one branch of the fraternity tree, and not the root.

5: Hazing is absolutely unnecessary to experience fraternity. I experienced it, it did nothing for me as a fraternity member then or now, and it is actually a scar on the original vision of the fraternity movement

6: Brotherhood is much greater than friendship and is built upon fidelity to shared values. On this blog, I have defined brotherhood as
the bonding of men of various backgrounds, beliefs, places, and eras around a singular set of life-directing commitments. I have many friends in this world, but very few true brothers.

7: In order for the undergraduate fraternity experience to be profound, it needs to be self-governed. And there may be no greater self-imposed threat to our future than our desires to manage and control this feature away.I wouldn't be the fraternity man I am today if my Greek advisor hadn't let me lead.

8: Relationships take work. Fraternity didn’t just instantly make my chapter-mates and I lifelong friends. Fraternity created brotherhood, which created the opportunity for lifelong friendship to thrive. But the real honest work of relationship-building was needed and still is to this day.

9: Fraternity is a truly powerful experience if we accept that it can be, and treat it that way.

10: I am a fraternity man because at age 40, I still believe in it, practice it, fight for it, and adhere to its teachings. And you can too, no matter how many gray hairs you have.
This is a fraternal life at forty, and the road ahead is looking pretty good. Another year older, and another year deeper into the richness of fraternity. I can't wait to learn more.

The Time for Finger Wagging is Now

From the warm-up room, Lilly King watched her fellow competitor, Yulia Efimova,  win a qualifying heat.  Efimova had been busted for doping months before and almost excluded from the games.  But she wasn’t, and she won her heat, and in her celebration, wagged her finger in confidence.

The culturally-acceptable response to this gesture would have been for King to silently ignore it, quietly prepare for the finals, defeat her opponent in battle, and then calmly accept the win with unspoken pride.  That would have been satisfying.

But her response instead was to wag her finger back at that screen, call out the competitor for this brazen act that disgraced her sport, keep the pressure on for a whole day, beat her solidly in the race, and wag her finger in victory as a sign to the world that we needn’t worry: cheaters weren’t going to win on her watch.  It was bold, raised eyebrows, and may have crossed over the edge of good sportsmanship.  But it was even more satisfying.

In fraternity life, we have silent warriors ethically leading their fraternities without any boasting.  Meanwhile, arrogant organizations that are disgracing the movement with their acceptance of hazing, binge drinking, and other damaging behaviors run rampant like poster children for Total Frat Move.  In essence, cheating their way through and wagging their finger as if they accomplished something profound.  

And the good fraternities – those that are trying to live their values – know they are there.  They know the “cheating” that’s taking place.  But what’s valued is to stoically fight wrong behaviors with right ones, and to politely ignore the cheaters.  Just go about our business and take care of our own house.

Perhaps the time to be stoic has passed.  Maybe the choice to stay silent is the wrong one. Perhaps King  upended our notions that it should all just be solved in the field of play.
Perhaps it’s time to answer their wagging fingers with our own. For those men and women who are doing it right to step forward, and essentially tell those that aim to disgrace the institution we hold dear to eff off. 

When will enough be enough?  All of the talk, education, and planning done by national offices and campus staff means nothing if the undergraduates don’t step forward and own the future of their fraternities. 

And that can be done quietly or with swagger.  Quietly doesn’t seem to be working for the most part. Maybe we should give swagger a fighting chance.

This means that IFC meetings shouldn’t just be polite passings of updates and announcements, but rather, poignant and free discussions on the challenges facing the greater community. And thus, uncomfortable for the cheaters.

It means that when you see something, say something.  Not with a whisper, but with a wham.  No great movements ever whispered their way to victory.

Now, tact does matter.  Lilly King didn’t storm up to her competitor and fill her face full of expletives and spittle.  But her opinion was made clear nonetheless and with force.  If you believe in fraternity and the sanctity of this movement, and you are aware that there are those attempting to dismantle it through their words and deeds, then ask yourself if your feelings are apparent to others.  And if not, why are you hiding them?

It’s the launch of the Fall semester, and there is no better time to take back our fraternity movement.  Let’s do it with attitude.  The time for finger-wagging is now.

The Fraternity Movement's Innovation Gap

I recently learned a new framework by which to judge innovation, and it left me with this conclusion: the fraternity/sorority industry is not as innovative as we like to think we are.  And when we are, it’s mostly low-level, incremental innovations.

There is a strong argument to say that this is just fine! After all, we’ve been around for almost two centuries and so why radically change something that has been this sustainable?

On the other side, over those two centuries, we’ve been afflicted by longstanding and persevering problems that we can’t seem to solve with incremental changes.

Let me share the model with you, and then you can help me judge our industry on innovation.  I also encourage you to use this chart and this essay at your next strategic planning meeting to help you think about what’s needed to advance your organization.

To explain:
Efforts to improve existing offerings for existing users is referred to as incremental innovation - perhaps a fancier term for tweaks or another way to frame continuous improvement.  Existing offerings could include the traditional fraternity experience itself, or elements within the fraternity experience, such as pledging, formals, or national convention.  Existing users would of course include current members, but I would also include the “always/likely joiners” in our potential member base.  Overall, draw a circle around the typical fraternity experience and those who desire and benefit from the typical fraternity experience and there you have existing offerings and existing users.  

Examples of incremental innovation include re-configuring your convention agenda or theme.  This isn’t a major innovation because you still have the convention to begin with; all you are doing is changing some of its aspects.
Consider how much of your “innovations” really fit into this category. What percentage of your board meetings at the national level are stuck here and here alone?  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but recognize that you could be innovating more deeply.

If we take our existing offerings (the typical fraternity experience and all within it) and try to bring it to new users, then you're attempting evolutionary innovation.  In the fraternity context, I think “new users” in this case have to be those that have sworn off fraternity membership or those for whom engaging with the fraternity is highly unusual (such as elementary school students, for example).  The short version is that you are trying to bring traditional fraternity to places it normally doesn’t go.

Perhaps someday a fraternity tries to set up junior chapters at the high school level.  These are new users, but a slightly different version of the traditional fraternity experience, so it would be considered evolutionary innovation.  Expanding into new nations, such as China, could fall into this category as well.  Historically, fraternities for distinct populations (race, ethnicity, sexual orientation) are an example of evolutionary innovation.

Evolutionary innovation is also called for if you are trying to develop a new offering for your existing users.  A new offering is a new way to experience or engage with your fraternity.  This is where examples can get a bit debatable.  For instance, I wouldn’t consider a new undergraduate leadership program to be automatically an evolutionary innovation - although it is technically something new for your current users.  Leadership programs in the fraternity world essentially follow the same formulas, even when they are located outside of the country, on a boat, at a camp, in the wilderness, on Capitol Hill, etc.  Yet, I’m sure some of you reading this consider our most innovative work to be in the leadership development space.  I just don’t agree.

An example of evolutionary leadership that brings a new offering to current users would be a robust curriculum for retirees.  Finding a way to bring the values and essence of the fraternity experience to members age 60 and over would be a wonderfully evolutionary innovation.

The final category is revolutionary innovation.  This is when you try to develop a new offering for a new set of users.  This is where membership organizations almost NEVER reside, because it feels so uncomfortable.  This would be taking the core of the fraternity experience, dispensing with the structure of it, and offering it to an audience that’s brand new.

Here is a somewhat crazy example (although revolutionary evolution is almost always crazy): what if the fraternity industry positioned itself as leaders in building values-based camaraderie (i.e., brotherhood or sisterhood) and consulted with businesses, nonprofits, government, etc. to bring those lessons into the modern American workplace.  That’s a revolutionary offering.
So now that I’ve framed these types of innovation, let’s assess where we stand as a movement.

My beliefs:
  • We have an overabundance of incremental innovation, to the point that we tinker and tweak just because we feel we have to.
  • We are lacking in the evolutionary innovation that brings new offerings to our existing users. For example, does a senior member experience fraternity much differently from a freshman member?  
  • We are almost non-existent in innovations that being existing offerings to new users. This explains why fraternity continues to have a very narrow imprint in terms of membership and influence.
  • There is no standing example of revolutionary innovation in our movement, which could explain why our generational challenges persist.
Everyone wants to be innovative - and everyone wants to claim to have the next big thing in fraternity and sorority life.  However, let’s start to pay more attention to (and reward more) of the innovations in our industry that are evolutionary or revolutionary.  

Our tendency these days is to applaud those who have incrementally innovated an accepted practice or process, but not those who create a whole new practice or process (maybe because there are just too few to find).

We’re not entirely free of needed innovations. We’ve seen some really significant ones over the last couple of decades. To that point, I’ve developed a list of five fairly-recent evolutionary innovations that are examples. I know there are mixed opinions on these, and I only highlight them to acknowledge the courage they took to move beyond the typical incremental innovations we see.  I’m sure there are others that I am less familiar with too.
  • Alcohol-free housing (new offering, existing users) - This initiative that many fraternities have tried (and to which Phi Delta Theta is given credit for starting) is a sincere attempt to change the culture of alcohol misuse and abuse that a great number of fraternities struggle with.  Advocates might say this is a revolutionary innovation in that it also aimed to make fraternity appealing to those who avoided it because of alcohol.  I’m not sure much evidence bears this out.
  • The Undergraduate Interfraternity Institute (new offering, existing users) - UIFI is probably the standard-bearer of fraternity/sorority leadership education.  It's been around from a few decades now so it's not a recent development.  While it’s model isn’t too innovative (much was borrowed from other institute-style programs), it’s entry into the marketplace changed the way we view education for fraternity members, including the process (trust the process) and the focus on paradigm-shifting and values alignment. It was also unique in its emphasis on interfraternalism and bringing together members from multiple organizations to discuss shared challenges.  (Note the writer’s bias - I managed the program for 3 years).
  • Member Education Programs (new offering, existing users) - Whether it’s the well-known “Balanced Man” of Sigma Phi Epsilon, or the newer “Road” of Delta Tau Delta, member development programs are an innovative attempt to stretch the value of the member experience further and broaden the idea of fraternity as an educational vehicle beyond the pledging process.
  • The 5-step recruitment model/ Moving away from Formal Rush (existing offering, new users) - The 5-step model that the NIC promoted over a decade ago is still reflected in many of the frameworks by which companies, consultants, and speakers teach modern-day recruitment.  The 5-step model (meet him, make him a friend, introduce him to your friends, introduce him to your fraternity, ask him to join) was developed in opposition to formal rush, and is a return to our roots.  But sometimes innovation can be that way.
  • Pledging-free fraternities (existing offering, new users) - Here is an attempt to de-emphasize the value of pledging, emphasize the value of thoughtful and intentional recruitment, and make fraternity attractive to those who think pledging will result in hazing. I call it an “existing offering” since pledging is not something that has always been a part of the fraternity experience.  In a way, it’s an old incremental innovation that some are starting to believe that we can do without.
I could not determine a standing example of revolutionary innovation in the fraternity/ sorority movement.  Can you?

Is the next era of fraternity more likely to be ushered in by tinkering, tweaks, and small increments?  Or by evolutions and revolutions?  Which fraternity, sorority, campus, council, or chapter is ready to evolve or revolutionize this movement?  You are more needed, and more rare, than you might believe.

Who Owns the Future of Fraternity?

The recent issue at Harvard, with the university essentially choosing to sanction any student that affiliates with a single-gender organization, has revealed a truth about modern Greek life that cannot be ignored by fraternity supporters: colleges and universities still own our future.

For as large as the fraternity and sorority industry has become, for as big as the education industry for fraternity and sorority members has become, for all the talk about trade associations, freedom of association, and all the rest, it’s still up to colleges and universities as to whether or not we exist.

And that’s becoming an increasingly precarious position to be in.

Yet it seems to be one that we’re embracing more and more.  And we’re preparing less and less for any result other than what we getting from the likes of Harvard.  In this day and age, national fraternities and sororities are trying to outrace each other in terms of who most nicely and neatly fits within the mission of higher education.  We each want to be the one they love the best. We work hard to “speak their language” with learning outcomes that sound like they fell out of a masters thesis. Our educator and consultant class (me included) comes from higher education and tends to only know how to help Greek organizations within that realm.

In a way, we have sold out to the idea that for us to be relevant and consequential, we need our friends in higher education to tell us that we are. 

For a long time, we’ve been focused on the idea of relevance. We want to ensure that Greek life continues to be a relevant force today and into the future.  The problem is that we usually think about relevance only in terms of our host institutions.  This means that we judge our success only by if colleges and universities think we’re okay.

But to be a relevant organization, we first need to answer the question: relevant to whom?  Yes, host institutions are one of those answers, but are they the only one?  Are they even the most important one?  In my opinion, it is more important to be relevant to two other audiences: our members, and society at large.

If we determine that we are no longer relevant to host institutions, or if they determine it for us (more likely), then is it over?  I don’t think it should be.  We may still be VERY relevant to the lives of our individual members who will achieve great things because of their involvement.  Greek-letter organizations may still be VERY relevant to the growth of our society – particularly American society and its need for values-based leaders and organizers.

If tomorrow, all host institutions decided to cut their ties with Greek-letter organizations, what would we do?   We could adapt.  For instance, we might transform into more community-oriented organizations, much like Kiwanis or Freemasons.  We could find a way to carry on and still focus on instilling values in young men and women.

Just because we were founded at institutions of higher education doesn’t mean our destinies need to be intertwined.  But the sense I’m getting is that this is a very minority opinion.

I’m not making the case that we ignore our relationship with our host institutions as it stands today.  In all possible ways, we need to nurture that relationship, because it’s the business model we’ve chosen.  We should be actively concerned with how we impact the academic success of our members.  If we house students on a particular campus, we should ensure that we are creating safe and secure living environments.  Overall, we should act as good partners to these institutions, because partners are what we are.

We should pay attention to our present reality, but at the same time, imagine a future where a college or university isn’t the foundation of our existence, so that we’re ready if that day comes.  Whether or not we exist for our grandchildren relies more on innovative rather than subservient thinking.

Which fraternity or sorority out there will figure this out?  Wait – maybe NPHC groups already have.  NPHC alumni chapters, which you can join without being an undergraduate member, are often larger than their campus groups. 

I understand the need to play nice with our “hosts.”  But, I fear that in philosophical and tangible ways, we are handing over our right to exist to institutions of higher education – most of which never really wanted us to exist in the first place. And some, like Harvard, are finding creative ways to get rid of us.

The frenzy over trying to assert that we are relevant to colleges and universities has to be tempered with the following question: were we ever meant to be?  Were we ever really meant to compliment the mission of the campuses where our founders happened to meet up?  I admit that I am not a “Bairds Manual” aficionado that can speak to fraternity history with precision.  However, my understanding of the founding of our movement is that individuals were looking for something that wasn’t provided in their college experience.  They wanted shared values, camaraderie, spirited debate, and fun.  I doubt they took much time wondering how these new organizations fit into the missions of their college or university.  My interpretation of our beginnings is that we were borne out of defiance to the host institutions, not in seamless companionship with them.  So while we should care about that relationship now, should it really define our right to exist?

Constantly kowtowing to higher education also puts us on the defensive.  We are always stuck responding to someone else’s needs.  We are always reacting by issuing statements about why actions by Harvard or Princeton or Dartmouth or Colorado are wrong.  But the actions continue.  In the end, it’s a one-way relationship, with colleges and universities holding all the cards.  We fool ourselves into thinking we’re on equal footing.  Is it finally time to worry about that, and respond in a substantive and innovative way?

Until that time, have your statements ready.  Who knows what’s coming next.


The Day He Wore a Fraternity T-Shirt

“Ladies and gentlemen, we regret to inform you that due to mechanical problems, flight 1856 with service to Miami has been cancelled.” 

Rory looked up with disbelief.  There had been no warning of this – no delays or anything.  He looked around and noticed that everyone else in the gate area was surprised as well, holding emotions on their faces that ranged from frustration to instant rage.

“Please proceed to the service counter near gate 39 to be re-booked on the next available flight.” 

The crowd at the gate stood, most with a huff of annoyance.  They began to walk towards the service counter and the anger grew with every step.  The day would surely be ruined for everyone.  Plans would be cancelled.  Long stays at the airport or possibly at a hotel would be necessary.  

And Rory was angry too.  He was on his way to meet his fraternity brothers for a spring break cruise, and if he didn’t get to Miami soon he’d miss the departure.  

They formed a long line at the service counter, which added insult to injury for those who had not sprinted there to be first.  As the crowd stood, frustration grew and was shared and spread by the mass of people with the same intensity as a whispered rumor.

One by one the passengers approached the counter.  The women working behind the computer stations were the targets of pent-up anger and were greeted by most passengers with stern and harsh voices.  Not one person seemed satisfied with their re-booking, and each argued vehemently until it was clear there were no other options before sulking away.

The gate agents looked worn and beaten after every attack. They were trying to keep calm but slowly, they felt the urge to fight back.  It was a caustic scene.

Rory was getting closer to the counter, and preparing his own arguments and ideas.  A different airline perhaps, or routing through a different city.  He would be firm and stand his ground. Like others, his irritation had grown to fury and he was ready to fight the hapless gate agent as needed.

And then, by chance, he happened to look down.

And he was reminded that the shirt he had chosen to wear to the airport that day was one from his fraternity.  Large Greek letters were stamped to his chest.