5 Signs Your Fraternity is a Thick Organization

"Some organizations are thick, and some are thin. Some leave a mark on you, and some you pass through with scarcely a memory."
- David Brooks

It seems to be all the rage right now for campuses to ban, either by administrative fiat or IFC resolution, fraternity activities. The common reason given is for the Greek community to have time and space for soul-searching. So allow me to suggest a framework by which fraternities and sororities can adequately search their souls. 

A fraternity mentor of mine, John Bloom, shared with me an outstanding column by David Brooks of the New York Times. In this article, Brooks defines what it means to be a "thick" organization, mostly as one that leaves a mark on you. He adds other criteria, such as:
  • An organization that "becomes a part of the person's identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart, and soul."
  • One with a set of rituals.
  • One with shared tasks, that often involve members looking out for one another.
  • Organizations that "tell and retell a sacred origin story about themselves."
  • One with a common ideal.
  • Possession of an "idiosyncratic local culture" that differentiates them from other organizations.
As I read through his criteria, the idea of fraternity emerged in my mind. Fraternal organizations are ripe to become thick experiences for their members because they inherently have all of those traits listed above. One could say that the longevity of the fraternity movement in this country can be attributed to how "thick" these organizations can be. University administrators certainly know that when they contemplate the future of fraternities on their campuses, they are dealing with very significant entities that can offer thick experiences.

And yet, so many of our members have thin experiences instead. Fraternity becomes something they did for a short while, and their memories get packed away in some box they store in their attic. Fraternity for many is only about the few friendships they've held on to, instead of a deep and holistic values-based and life-directing experience. And because of that, they are less willing to care for these organizations as they experience them and thus are more willing to participate in damaging them.

Why should you care to make your fraternity a thick organization? There would likely be some strong tangible benefits such as stronger alumni engagement and more members inspired to contribute more. The intangibles, such as a richer and more fulfilling experience, would almost definitely show up as well.

Overall, if we can make our fraternities be the thick organizations they are destined to be, then many of the problems that lead to all-university bans and suspensions will go away.

So, take Brooks' criteria as the base for a thick organization, what would be evidence that this base was maximized to build a truly special fraternity? Here might be some indicators that your fraternity is thick:
  1. Members discuss the fraternity in terms of how it has become a part of their identity, and not just something they are involved with. The values of the fraternity become a regular part of jargon used when members talk about what fraternity means to them. And, the ideals of the fraternity become included in how members describe their own aspirations for the kinds of individuals they hope to be.
  2. Alumni engagement is substantial, meaning their involvement is directed towards ensuring a strong future for the chapter, and not just based in reliving the good old days. Alumni who have experienced a thick fraternity will likely donate more time and money to the organization and see themselves in a mentoring role for the current undergraduates.
  3. Involvement of Juniors is strong. I've become convinced that we will never get the devoted attention of Seniors because they are in a period of life transition that focuses their energy elsewhere. I would judge a thick organization by what its Juniors are doing. Are they filling important leadership roles, attending events and activities, strongly involved in recruitment, and finding ways to represent their chapter elsewhere on campus. If interest starts to wane in the Junior year, it shows that the organization is only thick for a short period of time, which means it really isn't thick at all.
  4. An observer would label your recruitment efforts are relational. Thin organizations master the art of the sales pitch and the show, since that's all they can rely upon. Thick organizations build their ranks through conversation and authentic relationships. Hardly any training or preparation is needed because members of thick organizations can speak from the heart. When this happens, only those seeking thick experiences will want to join and that benefits us all.
  5. Thick organizations are not cyclical. Many fraternities and sororities have peaks and valleys over time - in membership and campus influence. Being so turbulent in success means that the chapter is defined by who members are in specific periods of time, and not by the strength of its rituals and common ideals. Sure, thick organizations can struggle and they are not immune to downturns. However, those downturns are often episodic and mended fairly quickly. While thin chapter A is on-again, off-again over the period of 20 years, thick chapter B is almost always on, with only a few blips along the way.
There are many different ways you can judge the value and strength of your fraternity, especially in its undergraduate form. I really like Brooks' terminology and definitions because you can really feel them - thick versus thin.

Just like a thick sheet of ice can withstand a lot of pressure and weight, thick organizations will remain solid and standing, even when all the bans and suspensions go away.