Making Your Mark on the Fraternal Relevance Movement
Dan Bureau, Indiana University
The concept of relevance has been making its mark on the fraternal movement over the last three years (Bureau, 2007; Miranda Smalls & Perlow, 2008). While using some different words, the fraternal relevance movement is really just the latest incarnation of a change initiative. However, it differs from other change initiatives in that it positions our movement at the center of a discussion grounded in six key questions within the context of the higher education involvement market:
Do we matter in today’s higher education involvement market?
If not, then should we cease to exist? If that is not our preferred option, then how do we become more meaningful?
If we do matter, then to whom? To whom do we not matter?
Is it enough for us to exist in our current state and be relevant for the people who currently view us in that way?
If not, then how do we become more relevant in today’s higher education involvement market?
How do we engage stakeholders in intentional practices to become more relevant?
This effort asks us to not only change, but to question how fraternities and sororities must exist as meaningful opportunities. What will be our particular niche among numerous opportunities to become engaged while in college and then within our communities?
We should not assume that our product has an infinite lifespan, particularly in today’s college and societal involvement market. Other meaningful opportunities, such as learning communities, service organizations, leadership development opportunities, and academic honor societies, provide many of the same perks as we do but at a lower cost, with less alcohol misuse, less hazing, and increased diversity of membership. These are characteristics that institutions of higher education appreciate much more than the current product many fraternities and sororities are selling on campuses across the country.
How is our product at the inter/national level and the local community level as meaningful for graduate and alumni members, if not more so, than opportunities to be involved in local churches, charitable organizations, civil rights causes, or groups such as Kiwanis? Many graduate/alumni members question whether they wish to be involved at all post-college.
Enacting change initiatives is one thing: having something that is relevant, meaningful, and worth changing may be another. Knowing how to become more relevant is harder than creating and administering a list of action items (e.g. an awards packet). This effort is about examining how we exist distinctively from other types of involvement opportunities.
Relevance is a public value and return on investment question that must be answered by our organizations. It must be addressed in both the college environment and within the context of a global and demanding society. These five guiding principles provide guidance for the work upon which we embark.
Principle One: Know what we’re working toward.
The key questions here are: “How are we distinctive?” and “What do we do better than anyone else?” Our most powerful and purposeful niche is our role as mission and values-based organizations that help young women and men develop a foundation for success in college and as society members. Our work should emphasize the accomplishment of the mission and education on our values. The process we use to infuse this into our chapters should begin at the intake and recruitment process and be intentionally integrated into membership education throughout the collegiate experience. For integration strategies, see the Models and Samples - Teaching and Training section of the AFA Website’s Knowledge Center.
Principle Two: Relevance may be a subjective term, but that is not an excuse to sit on the sidelines.
Change initiatives are tough and take a lot of work (Sneath, 2007). When considering the idea of relevance, some of the first questions that come to mind are: “How do we define relevance?” and “How do others define relevance?” These are good questions. Our job cannot be to appease everyone all of the time; however, that means that we still have some people for whom our goal of relevance will be meaningful, even if they do not know it yet!
For some people, we will never be relevant. For others, we will always be relevant. However, our responsibility is to ensure that for current members, our relevance continues to evolve and meet their needs. For potential members, we need to provide an experience that will help them to realize their goals. For stakeholders who are not or will not be members, we need to coexist in such a way that while they may not be directly connected to us, they can see how our product provides a meaningful opportunity for others.
We must understand how our priorities fit into a larger set of priorities for our campus community, higher education as a whole, this country, and our global society. Such support will strengthen our relevance to colleges and universities, whose current goals continue to be focused on student learning, diversity, increasing research, and developing global leaders.
Principle Three: Understand your “sphere of influence.”
Imagine that you could compress the concept of increasing relevance into a circle. All the actions that could be done to increase the relevance of fraternities and sororities are included within this space. How you impact or engage others outside your circle does not matter. You can advance relevance by knowing your space and what needs to happen to your section of the circle. You must know your sphere of influence – the space on which you will make an impact in the fraternal movement.
Principle Four: Know and work with stakeholders.
Different stakeholders influence our relevance. Ultimately, their actions, thoughts, and beliefs influence our position of value in the campus community and society. Our primary stakeholders include students, campus professionals, inter/national organization professionals and volunteers, alumni volunteers, parents, and community members who interact with collegiate chapters.
Additionally, the host institution is a primary stakeholder, by providing the environment in which we operate and an external stakeholder, because the institutions are separate from us, but always impacting our work. For example, a national initiative to encourage student graduation and success such as President Obama’s recent work with financial aid and community colleges are external to our day-to-day operations, but they influence how our undergraduate members are able to participate in our organizations. Colleges and universities also influence whether our organizations are seen as meaningful because entities that do not support the broad higher education goals of access, affordability, and student learning are positioned peripherally by institutions. The greater the extent to which fraternities and sororities support the goals of higher education, the more valued they may be.
Potential stakeholders are those who have yet to become members or who will be impacted by fraternities and sororities through either someone close to them becoming a member or through interaction on a relatively daily basis. This includes not only the student, but the student’s parents or guardians. It includes the businesses in the community who will be solicited to support a philanthropic project hosted by the organization.
Campus professionals are in a unique position to convene the collaborative process of connecting stakeholders with organizations. They can also model that behavior for chapters by working closely with inter/national organization staff members and alumni. They can provide information to parents, and train chapters on how to work with local neighborhood associations and businesses. However, campus professionals cannot position themselves so that without their involvement the process would fall apart. Managing a coalition requires you to convene, but empower others to be good partners.
Principle Five: Increasing relevance is as much our responsibility as it is our students.
We must accept responsibility for enabling students. As we aim to empower them, we often find ourselves working for them and letting them dictate our agenda. We all should accept responsibility for dumbing down the experience by catering to the lowest common denominator. We spend most of our time with the worst and the best students, meaning we often neglect the middle group who could go either way. We have positioned ourselves as responsive to their needs. This is why we spend countless hours in meetings that do not need our attendance or why we spend time asking colleagues for t-shirt ideas for recruitment. We are not having the right conversations with our students and are often forced to put aside a more powerful agenda, such as emphasizing mission and values, in order to meet their needs.
Increasing the relevance of our work will require us, at any level or in any responsibility, to advance an agenda where our mission and values drive our conversations. We must start meetings with “Let’s talk about how you’ve advanced your mission and values since we last met,” and we must base our metrics of success on the ability to demonstrate how the mission and values of their organization has been accomplished. We must emphasize student learning, student development, values alignment, and leadership when we work with fraternities and sororities. This will help us be aligned with higher education priorities and also the espoused priorities of our organizations. It will also help us realize, as professionals, the core competencies of our profession (Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors, 2009).
Relevance is not a group to join or an out-of-reach ideal: it is a concept that can be adopted and personalized by anyone in any way at any time as long as the ultimate goal is to increase the meaning, purpose, and relevance of fraternal organizations on college and university campuses and within society.
Bureau, D. A. (2007, Winter). Barriers to greatness: Using the concept of fraternal relevancy to create urgency for change. Perspectives, 8-11.
Miranda Smalls, M., & Perlow, E. (2008, Fall). Fraternal relevance: Be part of the movement. Perspectives, 20-22.
Sneath, K. N. (2007, Winter). Starting a fraternity/sorority community-wide change initiative. Perspectives, 16-18.