Even before COVID-19 turned our world upside down we all knew it was time for a new model for fraternities and sororities.
We knew that we needed to provide more value to alumni/ae, parents, undergraduates and the campuses we operate on. Now it’s more important than ever. We do not know if we will be returning to normal, continuing to operate in a virtual environment or have a new normal that creates a more hybrid experience.
I’ve held hundreds of conversations over the past few years with Executive Directors, campus Greek Life Staff, undergraduate officers, volunteers & staff in the trenches, and alumni/ae, parents & undergraduates in general. 100% agree we need change.
I’d like to also add that Universities need fraternities and sororities more than ever. More to follow on this later.
With this in mind I decided this would be a good time to write a blog and host a video interview with another volunteer and share some thoughts in hopes that it might help us make some much needed change.
For those that do not know me, I’m the President of Fraternity Management Group, a company that focuses on alumni/ae & parent relations, career networking, chapter & board advising, fundraising and strategic planning. In addition, I’ve been a fraternity chapter volunteer for over three decades, while also serving in many campus volunteer leadership positions.
Walt Shuler will be joining we in a Q and A discussion.
Walt works for HNS Sports Group LLC which is a professional golf management company. He has spent 23 years in pro golf event management. His career has also been spent publishing magazines and special products. He joined Kappa Sigma at The Ohio State University in 1975. During the years of 2003-07, he either assisted in helping reinstate Kappa Sigma at Ohio State or was the Alumnus Advisor overseeing the founding of Kappa Sigma at NOVA Southeast University in Davie, Florida (2005). He has been involved in Columbus since the summer of 2009.
Walt, why do you think a student should join a fraternity or sorority? Also, why should an alumnus stay involved?
Walt: I’ll begin by saying Greek organizations help a great many students. But a Greek system at a college or university is generally a very small component of total enrollment. So whether you choose to believe fraternities and sororities aren’t for everyone (and they’re not) or you believe the standards for becoming a member are too stringent (of course, they’re not), I am on the side of having friends from college. Fraternities and sororities offer that friendship so I’m always promoting a student take a look into Greek Life.
What an undergrad wants to get out of a fraternity or sorority should be beyond the friendship. Greek members have others who walked ahead of them in the major of their choice. Getting answers to some of the questions while in pursuit of a business, engineering, history pre-law or another degree should be a lock given another member has already been through the process. That’s priceless feedback and information.
There are also awards that can be won and many introductions to college or university service programs that help round out a student, too. And finally, there are social programs in the Greek system. These all roll into one. If and when done correctly, the experience creates some of a lifetime’s best friendships.
Matt: I’m going to start by saying we need to find better ways to recruit the right members; onboard our new members in a more effective way; provide value to our alumni & undergraduate members in the areas of career preparation & networking, leadership development, & life skills; find ways to engage more volunteers and alumni in general; and launch our graduates into successful careers and lives. We need to remember that we are here for our alumni and student members and not them there for us.
Walt: Alumni involvement is a more difficult explanation. In the end, those men who graduate with an understanding of friendship become the most giving volunteers. They learned there is no “I” in TEAM. They benefitted from spending highly important time studying. And socializing? They were socially interactive when appropriate under the rules. This helped to build confidence and an understanding of young adults. These are reasons alumni stay involved, serve and make the best volunteers.
Matt: Walt, as you know, our fraternity has a quote: “Kappa Sigma…not for a day…an hour…or a college term only…but for life.” If alumni are not staying engaged for a lifetime, we must not be providing enough value.
Any thoughts on how we might brand ourselves better?
Walt: It takes years to build a respected brand. Yet it takes but days, hours, minutes to tear it all down. Like first impressions. You only get one and if it’s seen as sub-part a lot of work has to go into turning that impression around.
Brand management to a fraternity should be an attention grabber. Great organizations start by teaching new members the building blocks of a small business. Finance, marketing, promotion, sales, human resources. Holding on to a successful brand means knowing, practicing and continued practice of all the fundamentals. Protecting what’s earned and learned is critical.
Matt: All of our fraternities and sororities have great mottos usually focused around academics, leadership and service. However, in most cases, our facilities, videos and programming does not reflect our brand, and certainly many of the members we recruit do not match this brand. A successful brand will also help our members find the internships and fulltime jobs they are looking for.
Walt: What is a Greek organization’s product or brand? The newly minted graduate who starts working almost from Day One has an established strong network of friends that range in age from 19 to 50 years or older who are fraternity and sorority members. People make the brand. And if members have worked together and stayed active on campus and in their classes, keeping their small business in tip-top shape, the brand is built and is being successfully promoted.
This is being “BETTER”. Unfortunately, today’s times seem to be falling short of “better” and are being labeled worse, especially with fraternities. Reaching “better” means members are showing they’re willing to sacrifice and learn for those who are coming up through the ranks.
Any recommendations on how we might do a better job with recruitment? Also, how do you think we can do some of this virtually?
Walt: The author of “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Viktor Frankl, summed up a decision on ethical behavior this way. He wrote, “Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.” It’s truly ethical behavior.
Members need a statement of standard operating procedure along with a strong but short list of accomplishments to explain membership’s goals and objectives. A member does a huge disservice to their chapter and its members if there is any pretense of equating membership size to success. Especially true is a membership touting mostly or only social skills. Social has to be one of many areas of proven expertise.
Matt: I believe we need to start marketing a message way before they get to college. Our recruitment needs to be more similar to what it is like going to work for many companies: review a resume, a screening interview, some networking/social setting discussions, an interview panel of undergrads, and then in-person or virtual interviews with some alumni/ae focused on behavioral questioning. Also, I believe our websites should be full of alumni/ae interviews on what the fraternity or sorority means to them and how it has impacted their careers.
Walt: The use of virtual tools such as Google Hangouts, Zoom or other conferencing or chats using Slack or Messenger have more upside today than at any time in the college society. Right now alumni need to listen and learn more. “If you can’t beat ‘em then join ‘em.”
I believe a successful Greek membership will be the ones who have younger alumni/ae volunteers that use the Tech tools of today. Virtual meetings and live chat groups should be playing a much stronger role to make a nimble and successful organization on campus. It’s one of the answers to this question, “How does today’s college student introduce, meet and talk about themselves, their classes and their interests?”
Do you think we do a good enough job of knowing what our members needs are and developing plans for the chapter to help our undergraduate and alumni/ae members reach their goals?
Walt: There hasn’t been much time spent thinking about transition. There is much more work to do with a fraternity chapter than the sorority chapter in most cases. Sororities have a strong history of alumnae involvement. Sorority members knowingly pay higher dues than fraternity members. The reason goes directly to a National organization’s involvement. Like it or not, most sororities have layer after layer of advisor programs. They back them up with highly motivated volunteers. Paid staffing at sororities back-up the volunteers on campus.
Matt: I think we do a terrible job of this. We need to talk to each of our members right when they join and then continue this process and learn what their goals are and find ways our chapters can support this while still continuing a safe social environment. We also need to continue to ask our alumni/ae members their interests and needs.
Walt: Headquarters that are adopting new programs for staff, in support of undergraduate members, will win. Most fraternity headquarters still stand upon the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro. In other words, there is a long climb ahead. The tangible goodies are with the use of Tech and with adjustments to policy and construct. Policy on membership size as it relates to the Greek system at any given university seems a self-starter.
Stronger messaging on what happens when social misconduct occurs with one or more members is in need of an upgrade. The Code of Conduct needs to be explained thoroughly and with a focus on the damage a member delivers to themselves, family, chapter and friends. It can be costly. It can be life-altering. Or both.
How about the onboarding of new members? What do you think that experience should be like?
Walt: Make it fun. Why this isn’t used concerns me.
Being accused of HAZING is the worst condition any Greek organization can face. And there isn’t one innocent ask by a member of a new member/pledge outside of attending membership development meetings. There isn’t one because the action of asking means there is an underlying intent running right behind in the shadows.
The concepts for having fun would seem fundamentally simple. You don’t make a prospect play intramural football if his or her interests are in music or reading. The motivation has to be having fun at the urging of members who are also participating in the activity.
Here’s an example. Why not identify a prospect’s top two interests. Pair those with a member or members having equal interests. Integrate those groups so they can go off and do something together. You then reconvene the prospects to discuss their activities with member so they can describe the fun they had or lack of.
The same holds true for the members. The membership committee chair and all members who are involved with prospects rally to discuss the men seeking membership and their personalities and abilities to get involved. It sounds a lot like fun to me anyway. And it is productive.
Matt: My experience is too many of our chapters do not do a good job with their new member/pledge programs and even if they do, there is very limited ongoing programming aimed at making our members better men and women. Some organizations do pretty good jobs here but not enough. We need to understand our freshmen & sophomores have different needs than our juniors and seniors. Also, even our members in each class have different needs so we need to at least find a way to meet what most are interested in and need. Our programming and fees should reflect this. The process should be roughly help them succeed academically; help them get engaged on campus and in our chapters; provide them health & wellness support; and get them career-ready all the while having fun along the way.
What do you think are the most important areas we should be focusing on with our undergraduate members and alumni/ae?
Walt: Filling the hours of the day with studies, service hours, raising money for the chapter’s next project, that’s fine. But without an understanding of what is called “my brother’s keeper” and the willful commitment to its calling means there will be failure sooner or later. That component has to be secured. Protection from committing harm or being harm is Job One.
Many things differ from person to person. My outlet, for example, was always intramurals. It was my valve to let off steam. It’s never the same for each person. Going back to brand and fundamentals, the member is attending college for one primary reason. That reason is to learn and to graduate. A system that fails the member in this area has a membership development shortfall.
Alumni/ae should be willing to listen, learn and suggest ideas to practice and improve methods for business operations. SUGGEST has always been my watchword. Placing demands got tossed out a long time ago and has been replaced by empathy. The hope is always that a foundation for success exists or is being tweaked, on a regular basis, so nothing is forgotten, only reintroduced and reinforced. Start by listening which leads to suggestions for improvement and practice.
Matt: To me this this is easy: academic, career and health & wellness support; teaching the importance of service & spending lots of hours supporting our communities; creating an environment for leadership development; encouraging campus & chapter involvement; and having enough fun that members choose to remain committed to our chapters for a lifetime.
How do you think we can take advantage of Zoom or other video conferencing to keep our alumni/ae and undergraduate members engaged?
Walt: Youth has been fluent in diversity and inclusivity for a long time now. Those two topics are at or near the top of every college administrator’s list of a college organization’s guiding principals. Many alumni/ae have almost knee jerk reactions to those topics. Yet when alumni/ae want to be included in conversations ranging from sports to the stock market, they perk right up. Interests are, in fact, diversity. Getting invited to meet and discuss topics explains the importance of diversity.
My age makes me a candidate for retirement in 3-5 years. That hopefully translates to experience. Given the opportunity to talk using Zoom means seldom or never having to make trips to the chapter house. I love a visit there but conferencing on topics that seek solutions, explore new ideas or build upon good programs to make them better? I’m all in and I believe there are hundreds of alumni all across the US and the world who either feel or think the way I do. Programming at the undergraduate level is one key. It’s not easily constructed. But I believe and think its construction creates a nimble and outstanding organization using this kind of teamwork.
Matt: I already have many chapters that have pivoted to using Zoom for weekly, bi-weekly and monthly alumni/ae speaker series; 1 on 1 and small group career networking; delivering academic, career and leadership content; volunteer board meetings; and ways to allow alumni/ae to serve as mentors to undergrads.
Not saying that this would happen, but what if our chapters were really limited in what type of social activity we could have? Consider no events with more than 25 people in attendance. Can we as organizations be more than social outlets?
Walt: Sororities seem to operate under a system that gives them immunity in Greek Life. PHC will not allow a sorority to share in the risk of a pre-game event. Now, if it’s a properly planned fundraiser or service event then risk is shared. But socials purely for socializing? Not today and likely not ever.
Limiting attendance at a social event, if legal, further weakens the appeal of joining a Greek organization. I would approach it from a different route.
Greek organizations, mostly fraternities, need to scale back on membership. Their members would be like-minded, in a manner of speaking. That might narrow the field of new prospects but selfishly speaking, the fraternity gains by becoming successful as a small business with members who are engaged, top to bottom. They cannot be huge conglomerate of men used for social practice.
I do believe an organization can become socially operative by planning small group events. Whether it’s going to see movies, visit a science center or art museum, bowling, paintball gaming, there’s room for what you suggest Matt.
Matt: I think our chapters have continued to adapt through the years and this will just be another time like that. I do not think we will ever remove the interest in social gatherings, but we might start seeing some smaller gatherings at least in the immediate future. However, I do think this new virtual environment will lead more of us to return to our values and focus more programming in these areas.
Do you think the current situation with COVID-19 will impact chapters fundraising?
Walt: If you’re speaking of the organizations at college, yes. It already has. Campuses are shut down in many cities and states. With no end in sight, planning today or over summer becomes boring especially without any end in sight.
Alumni/ae see this pause in activity and will most certainly be prone to focus their attention on family and business. Small businesses are bearing a huge brunt of inactivity. The company I work in is the business of bringing people together for events, not distancing people from each other. Fundraising or sales is really getting hit hard.
Matt: My company, FMG, was helping managing capital campaigns for house renovations and new construction back in 2008 when we had the financial meltdown. We saw donors retracted from giving to 5-7 charities to 3-4. Chapters and other non-profits that stayed in contact with their constituent base gained their financial support back but those that stopped communicating saw a major drop in giving and volunteerism moving forward. It took 12-15 months to start seeing donors engaged back at the rates they were before and the size of the major gifts was smaller for several years.
Do you think we might need to look at our internal budgets and how we prioritize dollars?
Walt: It depends on what is being reviewed. In 2016 there were four operating groups with my chapter. They were the house company, alumni association, education foundation and the chapter along with advisors. The alumni association has been absorbed into the house company. The foundation is leaning more towards assisting the chapter and its advisors. And the foundation has almost no budget to use for programming since it has a primary role that remains being obligated to a fulfilling a grant with the house company while annually selecting students for scholarship awards.
The three operating groups all interact with others but revenue flows between and among the groups, revenue not controlled by a general vote from all groups. I don’t have answer about prioritizing dollars. Dollars are scarce. Fundraising is iffy at best right now. But using Tech could grow the open discussion on scarcity and prioritization.
Matt: I think we will know much more by June and July but I’m certain we will need to be nimble enough to adjust as needed. Universities are multi-billion-dollar businesses that overnight are having to remake themselves. Our undergraduates will need to adjust their budgets to meet the new reality for our chapters. Our House Corporations will need to look at more efficient ways to manage our facilities, finances, kitchens and purchasing.
Do you think our recent issues will impact volunteerism?
Walt: Individuals become volunteers because they strongly believe in giving their “Time and Treasure” to a worthy cause. Volunteers know both time and treasure to any cause will subtract from their personal lives.
Men’s Greek organizations seem to be getting mostly bad press. There is a lot of good going but bad news attracts eyeballs. Media want ratings or print sold. If probation, suspension, closure or even the mere mention of bad publicity comes calling, volunteers start stepping away. Then brand management comes calling. An organization or cause cannot survive for very long if their brand’s reputation is one of starting, stopping, starting and stopping each calendar year.
Matt: I actually already think we had seen this. People were working harder to meet their needs and what time they have left is of course spent with their families. Now, probably under the best of circumstances it might take several years for people to get back to where they were financially, if ever. Chapters will need to use tools like Zoom to make it easier for volunteers to help and need to look at how they can use professionals to support some of their time-consuming needs.
Last question. What would be your recommendations to campuses, headquarters and local chapters in moving forward under what is probably some kind of new normal.
Walt: I would start by saying, “Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, did you enjoy the play?” I see for maybe the first time in the last 3-4 years, organizations needing your, “…new normal”. I know everyone loves history and tradition. But as time goes by even the most staunch traditions end. The Daytona 500 isn’t run on the beach any longer. And the Big Ten? There are 14 teams in its football conference. Label, yes. Tradition? Hardly.
Greek organizations place high expectations on themselves to be the slickest small businesses in operation on any campus. The sooner members and their national headquarters adopt this position and move beyond some of the pomp and circumstance of weekly in-person meetings, formal dinners and the secret society act and actions, the better off everyone might be.
Matt: Our campuses, headquarters and universities have flirted with working better together but most often it is not been a strong marriage. If we all can agree it is about creating a great experience for our young members and lifetime organization for our alumni/ae, we need a working group of undergraduates, alumni/ae volunteers, headquarters staff, university presidents, Deans and Greek Life staff, health & wellness staff, campus recruiters, and an organizational change/strategic planning consultant to commit to massive change in one year. I’d also like to say that I believe our campuses need Greek Life more than ever now. We will help our Universities in attracting students, in retaining students, possibly hosting classes in our facilities, and maybe even in helping our College Athletic Departments survive through the use of volunteers, student employees and getting students to attend the games when the time is right. We can help with the University budgets in a positive way.
I hope this helps you all look at each of your own chapter’s situations. My recommendations are the following:
- Commit to having really good alumni/ae, parent and undergraduate records;
- Ensure that you have a chapter website that focuses on alumni/ae, parents and undergraduates, along with our campus partners;
- Communicate at least monthly via email and social media to your alumni/ae, parents and undergraduates;
- Survey your alumni/ae and undergraduates more often so you know how the chapter can help them meet their needs;
- Reimagine how you have events in-person and online;
- Consider holding a monthly to quarterly speaker series via Zoom that you invite all alumni, parents and undergraduates to attend;
- Develop online and in-person presentations that focus on career preparation & networking, health & wellness, leadership development, and life skills, as well as just overall evaluate what the members experience should be;
- Find ways in-person and online for more career networking;
- Develop strategies to keep alumni/ae engaged for a lifetime;
- Ensure that your chapter officers and advisors talk weekly to bi-weekly; that your chapter finds ways to communicate bi-weekly to monthly; that your Advisor, Alumni Association President, Foundation President, House Corporation President and Chapter President hold a call every 2-4 weeks to keep everyone on the same page;
- Develop a stronger chapter brand that helps you recruit the right members and retain them for a lifetime as well as a better brand helps your members find jobs;
- Finally, be smarter with your facility, financial, kitchen management and purchasing…partner with more chapters on your campus.
Stay safe and engaged with your chapter, and let’s find a way to create an environment to help our members learn, have fun, develop their leadership skills, be career-ready, and develop an affinity to our chapters, fraternities & sororities, and universities.