I remember the moment like it was yesterday. There I was, an 18-year-old member of Phi Delta Theta standing in the middle of the Great Hall in the Iowa State University Memorial Union with hundreds of my fellow Dance Marathoners waiting for the event’s fundraising results to be unveiled. We had just spent the last 15-hours dancing, sweating, standing, learning about overcoming obstacles, and meeting the children of the Children’s Miracle Network, who we had just supported through our fundraising efforts. We had accomplished something. We had done a little good in the world. We had raised funds to help others with terminal illnesses, and most importantly, we had just learned about the power of philanthropy.
At the time, I had no idea this particular moment would have such a lasting impact on my life. To be frank, I wouldn’t be typing this article or working on the things that I work on if I wouldn’t have had that experience. My membership in Phi Delta Theta at Iowa State led to me signing up for Dance Marathon and the experience continues to be a highlight of my life as a fraternity man. My story is not unique though. Philanthropy is integral to the fraternity/sorority experience. Odds are, when you hear the pitch of why one should join a fraternity or sorority you will most likely hear about this thing called philanthropy.
This article is not about all the good things fraternities and sororities do within the realm of philanthropy, it is about how we can become better at helping others. Over the last eight years, I have learned there are a few key factors that are holding fraternal organizations, campus communities, chapters, and individuals back from truly becoming philanthropic. Our intentions are wonderful, but our impact can be drastically improved.
Let us first start by looking at the definition of philanthropy. One of my favorite definitions of philanthropy is this: “philanthropy is about giving of yourself, whether it is with money or your time. All you have to do is care about something – an organization, a cause or a mission – and give something of yourself to support that which has touched your heart.” There are a few key takeaways from this definition. You can be philanthropic by both raising funds AND engaging in service, but ultimately you must care about a cause, connect with it, and take action to be philanthropic.
With that definition in mind, we, both students and advisors, need to ask ourselves the following questions:
Are we using philanthropy for selfish motives?
Being recognized by others for being philanthropic is not a bad thing, but when it is the motive for doing it, change needs to be made. So how do you identify the motive of your philanthropic efforts? If the answer to any of the following questions is yes, a new approach should be considered:
- Does your organization align itself with a charity of choice without investing in or providing programming that develops this relationship?
- Does your community have a dollars raised, events hosted, or service hours compiled requirement in order to improve statistics to be used during recruitment?
- Does your chapter do philanthropy to socialize, win awards, or check a box?
Through our philanthropic efforts, our stories will be told and seen by many, but true motives also shine through when the motives are not good ones. We must go into philanthropy with a giving mindset asking how we can make this world a better place rather than how can this help us?
Are we aligning members with causes that are important to them?
We all have things that are important in our own lives. The things that are important to us drive our priorities and the attention, time, and resources that we give to them. When it comes to causes that we support, this is an extremely personal decision. For me, I support Iowa State University, Phi Delta Theta, The ALS Association, and the Humane Society because of my experiences. I am more likely to engage in philanthropic activities associated with causes I care about than activities associated with causes to which I have no connection.
So how does this affect philanthropy within the fraternity/sorority world? The majority of philanthropic activity at the undergraduate level happens at the chapter level. Throughout the year, our chapters do something as a group to benefit a cause. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, but I have to imagine that within each chapter, there are individuals who would be more passionate about supporting a different cause based on their life experiences. Many of our chapters select their cause based on what others tell them to support.
Fraternity and sorority members will become more philanthropic when we create an environment that allows the flexibility for individuals within groups to select the cause that will drive them to be more engaged. I am not suggesting the removal of chapter philanthropy events, rather, I am suggesting two things: 1) Having a discussion as a group about why you support what you do, and 2) Encouraging individuals or small groups to go beyond the chapter’s philanthropic events to connect with causes that are important to them.
From an organizational standpoint, we should not become upset if our members choose to support a cause other than one of our partner charities. We should be proud that they have aligned themselves with causes that are important to them. They will ultimately become more philanthropic because of this.
Are fraternity and sorority members making a connection with a cause and learning about it?
The most effective philanthropists have a strong connection with the cause they support and are extremely educated about its mission. If I could identify the biggest area of improvement for fraternity/sorority philanthropy, it would pertain to connecting our members with the causes they support. As mentioned above, aligning individuals with causes they care about is the first step, but no matter what cause is selected, we have to create opportunities for members of fraternal organizations to learn more about the cause they support. Once this is accomplished, the next step is to use philanthropic events or activities to educate others about or connect them with the cause. Without an initial understanding of what one is supporting, it is challenging to achieve the latter.
Ways to connect with a cause include:
- Having a conversation with somebody who is affected by the cause
- Inviting a speaker to a chapter meeting to discuss the cause
- Developing educational materials to pass out to those who attend your events
- Researching a cause and sharing what you find to others
- Sharing stories about the impact of the cause that you support
- Giving a presentation at a chapter meeting to help others learn about the cause
Are we focusing on the philanthropic event or the cause that we are supporting?
Let us look at an analogy: fraternity/sorority recruitment.
Over the years, we have learned that effective recruitment happens when it is executed year-round at the individual or small-group level. Yes, we still have formal recruitment periods, but our most effective chapters are building relationships with potential members throughout the year and they are not doing it solely by inviting people to large-scale events. Recruitment over the course of one week seems rushed and relationships are unable to be properly developed.
Now think about fraternity/sorority philanthropy. There are many parallels here. The most philanthropic fraternity and sorority members are philanthropic year-round. They may host and attend large-scale events throughout the year, but they are making the most progress by serving and supporting the cause throughout the year on their own or with a small group of people. Whether it is through volunteerism, other clubs, working part-time for the cause, infusing the cause into school projects, or individual fundraising efforts, the point is that a year-round approach develops more philanthropists.
To uncover whether the chapter is focused on the philanthropic event or not, ask one simple question to the philanthropy chair.
What are your goals for the year?
Those who are focused on the event might say:
- To create an event that we can do every year,
- To create an event that is recognizable on campus, or
- To get more people to our philanthropy events.
Those who are focused on the cause might say:
- To help more of our members understand why it is important to support the cause,
- To educate our community about why it is important to support the cause, or
- To raise more money in order to make a greater impact toward the cause.
Are we raising funds effectively?
Each year, fraternity and sorority members raise millions of dollars for a variety of great causes. A component of being philanthropic is the raising or giving of funds to help support the mission of the cause one supports. While the cumulative number of dollars that fraternities and sororities raise varies depending on whom you ask, I am going to make the argument that we could double that number each year if we focus on two specific components of fundraising.
Reduce costs – Fraternity/sorority philanthropic events have very high costs. How much good are we doing charging $5 to eat a meal that costs us $3 to serve? High costs means less dollars granted to the cause that is being supported and ultimately less impact being made through one’s philanthropic efforts. There are differing opinions about what an acceptable cost per dollar raised should be, but the national average is approximately 20 cents of cost per dollar raised. Personally, I think we should strive for 10 cents or less per dollar raised. To do this, the first step is to identify what costs you might have associated with your philanthropic activities or events. Once the costs are identified, you can begin to think about how to either reduce these costs or find someone else to cover these costs. Business sponsorship is a way to drastically reduce costs, but we are not doing it enough. To succeed with business sponsorship, a pitch will need to be developed and you will need to demonstrate the value to the business for their sponsorship. You will also gain a valuable experience in the world of sales.
Expand fundraising reach – When discussing fraternity/sorority philanthropy with advisors across the country, one frustration is stated over and over again – the pass the hat mentality of fundraising within the fraternity/sorority community. Fraternal organizations supporting other fraternal organizations in their philanthropic efforts is a great thing, but it becomes detrimental to our potential if we are only marketing to and reaching other members. If we are only reaching other fraternity or sorority members, philanthropic efforts are stalled as the same pool of participants and donors are approached time after time. The solution is to broaden your pool of potential donors and participants. This can be done through the power of the internet. The internet allows each of us to share what we are passionate about with the world. It opens doors, strengthens our voice, and most importantly within the world of philanthropy, gives us the opportunity to make a greater impact for the cause that we are supporting. Online, peer-to-peer fundraising technologies coupled with social media platforms are revolutionizing the way we raise funds and have the ability to strengthen our philanthropic work as a community.
Understanding where we can improve helps us take action. Given everything stated at this point, here are a few specific things you can do to help improve fraternity/sorority philanthropy:
Make philanthropy a priority
Philanthropy is something we always talk about, but is often an area that we do not invest time and resources in to develop. Philanthropy done right will develop compassion within the fraternity/sorority community. Greater compassion ultimately results in improved decision-making and awareness of the right thing to do in any given situation. The good works of our members will be noticed by others who want to do a little good in this world. These are the people we need within our community.
Focus on motivated individuals
It is much easier, and more effective to get a small group of philanthropists moving in the same direction than an entire chapter, community, or organization. Focusing on motivated individuals is an approach that takes time to permeate a larger group, but it is much more manageable. Focus your attention on developing the philanthropic traits in your most motivated peers, students or members and then share their successes with others within your community. These individuals will set the bar and others will want to reach it.
Help make the connection with causes
Focusing on this piece of the philanthropic puzzle has the greatest potential for positive change. Without the connection to the cause, fraternity/sorority philanthropic events are simply events. We must encourage and help facilitate opportunities for fraternity and sorority members to learn about the causes they are supporting. Doing this will drastically improve our results and our impact. Search for local opportunities to make that connection by asking people who are affected by the cause your organization supports to speak to your members to tell their stories.
Evaluate how philanthropy is rewarded
How we reward philanthropy drives how fraternities and sororities do philanthropy. I think it is worth repeating. How we reward philanthropy drives how fraternities and sororities do philanthropy. As an example, I recently spoke with a fraternity man who admitted that his chapter was guilty of dumping out full cans of beverages in order to get more cans for a can drive. In this case, the number of cans collected determined who was most philanthropic. I would argue that the measurement here might have determined who was the least philanthropic. Competition to win awards is fierce within the fraternity/sorority community, so we have to be careful about the measure used to reward philanthropy. For example, measuring impact made, strongest connection, best awareness campaign or most inspirational story will create more philanthropists than measuring most money raised, most hours served, or number of events. The awards process is another great place to recognize those individuals, who are leading the philanthropic way within the community or organization. In the end, awards should not drive why we do philanthropy, but if positioned right, they can help shift the mentality of what philanthropy really is.
Twelve years after my first philanthropic experience at Iowa State University, I had the opportunity to return to watch future generations fall in love with philanthropy, just as I did. The moment, and subsequent joy that one exudes, after realizing that he or she is a philanthropist is what drives me personally. More importantly, it is a moment that we need to replicate as many times as possible within our community. If we do this, our community will become an even greater producer of compassionate leaders within this world.