Titles can be provocative if written well. The title of this blog was designed to be just that: provocative. It was designed to make you stop, reflect and apply your knowledge and experiences to a theory. So let’s do that. Everyone, stop and collect your thoughts for exactly 1 minute on this question: Are fraternities a business or a brotherhood?
The Brotherhood Coin has Two Sides
If you pooled any number of random people, you’d likely find just as many people that believe a fraternity is a brotherhood as those who believe it is a business. But what if you pooled the alumni of a specific organization that work at the international headquarters of said fraternity? Most of them would say a fraternity is a business and they’d provide you with the federally filed documentation that they believe confirms their answer. Ask the same question to a group of undergraduate chapter members that have just initiated a large new member class into their organization. They may point to centuries-old ritual and symbolism that confirm their belief that a fraternity is not a business but a brotherhood.
Are Ritual and Organization at Odds?
The concept of ritual is confusing to even the brightest among us. As an undergraduate, I thought ritual was significant because of how old it was. Something that is nearly 200 years old must be significant, right?
This is where my understanding of ritual went astray. I associated something that's old and rare as having value, and it does. Look at rare coins and memorabilia. Those items are worth a lot of money. However, that doesn’t mean they are significant or have more than monetary value. Ritual is valuable because of its intrinsic meaning to the individual. It’s tied to emotion, memory and a sense of shared experiences. That’s why we hold it so dear, not because it has monetary value, but an emotional value that is completely subjective. If I saw another fraternity’s ritual ceremony, it would mean nothing to me. However, mine means everything to me. As I am sure is the same for all of you.
The symbolism and meaning behind our ritual is timeless. It doesn’t ever change. Even if the ceremonies change ever so slightly over the years, the significance of the acts therein do not. They still point to the values of the organization.
So, if the reason we hold our ritual so dear is based in its significant meaning and not monetary value, then its age is irrelevant to its significance.
With this being the case, fraternities are free to evolve in all facets except those values instilled through ritual. And fraternities have been doing just that for centuries. Look at how they used to operate compared to how they do today. Look at how large they’ve become–how successful. There are 9 million members of the fraternity and sorority world today. This would never had happened if we hadn’t evolved over time. The organization is what accomplished these magnificent feats.Our ritual doesn’t preclude us from being fiscally prudent. It doesn’t stop us from expanding to new campuses or recruiting more members. It actually promotes these actions.
Think about it… If you were to be a fraternity superhero and live a life that embodied the values of your organization, you would be a magnet for members. Towering above the boys on campus, you’d stand out as a man both honorable and humble. The epitome of the True Gentleman. Who wouldn’t want to join you? A group of these men would change a campus forever and a fraternity of these men would change the world. The ritual does that, and the organization gives you a bullhorn to ltell people.
"Ritual and organization are not at odds; they are monogamously entwined."
Why we Hate Thinking About our Fraternities as Businesses
When you hear the word business, what comes to mind? Successful corporations like Apple, McDonald’s or Walmart? Or do you think of executives, accountants and mail room clerks? You may think of news articles about corruption and embezzlement. None of these things correlate with your feelings about your fraternity, nor should they. But these things don’t represent most businesses.
Most businesses are small groups of like-minded individuals that have come together to promote a common passion. Sound familiar? They expand of course, but their core is defined by their founding values. Ringing bells? 52% of these small businesses are run from houses; just like fraternities. They have officers with titles like: president, treasurer and secretary. They have meetings and take minutes for the official record. And there are 28 million of these organizations in America.
This Guy’s Business Story
I own a business, it’s a small artisan coffee roasting company. I own and operate it with my family: my two brothers, two sisters and my mom. It started out as a passion of mine that grew beyond my sole obsession and into the world. The reason? I couldn’t shut up about it! When your excited about something, you talk about it, and when people hear that excitement they want to join you. That’s how our business was launched and it’s also how the best fraternity chapters in America recruit (that’s just an aside freebie for you).
My company has employees, and guess what? They are all fraternity brothers of mine. I trust them with my future and my fortune and for god reason. They are damn-good business men. They understand finances, record keeping, event execution and expansion. Their most advantageous attribute, though; they understand leadership and management better than anyone else I’ve ever worked with. Each one of them learned these skills as officers and members of their fraternity. The fraternity was a training ground for business titans.
Spoiler Alert: All Fraternities were Founded as Businesses
When fraternities we’re founded, they were done so as businesses–at least those that survived were. Sure, they came together because of friendship and shared values, but they immediately organized by selecting officers, having meetings and keeping an official record. They collected money for items they needed to enhance their fraternity and they recruited more members to share in those experiences.
These students simply mirrored what they saw as success in their lives. They noticed how businesses operated and survived. They then used those same skills to further their cause. Just as young men do nation-wide today.
Brotherhood isn’t For 4 Years, but isn’t for Life Either
Follow me for a moment…
Brotherhood is arguably the most sacred type of relationship. It’s a bond based in shared values, but moreover, it’s an agreement of accountability. It’s grounded in an oath in which you agreed to hold your brethren accountable to live a life of the values prescribed in the rituals and ceremonies you shared. When your brothers act in contradiction to said values, you are to tell them, and then help them return to the light that is your shared values. But there is a second oath taken; the one of the individual promising to live a life of those values no matter what the circumstance.
We all make mistakes, that’s why we are tasked to strive to live a values-based life. The word strive is very important. It means that all must work toward an impossible perfection. But, no matter the circumstances of our lives, we must continue to strive.
The saying, “It’s not for 4 years, it’s for life.” is very popular among fraternity men. It speaks to the concept that your journey as a fraternity man will continue after you graduate. And it’s true in that sense, but not in the sense of guaranteed membership. Our fraternal membership is not grounded in time. We are brothers because of our sacred oaths, not because we are in college, an alumnus or even still breathing for that matter. Once we die, we are still brothers, right? So we’re not members for life, we are simply members.
However, we are only members because of our adherence to the oath we took in our ritual ceremonies. The one where we promised to strive. That’s it. The moment we stop striving, we are no longer bound in membership. And this is the hardest and most significant aspect of fraternity: accountability. It’s also why many brothers do not believe a fraternity is a business. That term is often thrown around when it comes time to removing members from the organization. As chapter brothers, we see this as a betrayal. We say things like, “We took an oath. We initiated him. So what if he doesn’t pay, show up or pull his weight, he’s our brother. This is a brotherhood, not a business.”
Fraternities>Businesses | Businesses ≠ Fraternities
Fraternities aren’t just businesses. This is where most of us get it wrong. From the undergraduates to the alumni, we’ve all got it wrong. A fraternity is undoubtedly a type of business, but it transcends far beyond the basic yokes of corporate America. It’s an organization founded in a space of shared values. It has singular significance to its members through a ritual that does not have monetary value. The members take a sacred oath and are not bound by time or place.
Yes, fraternities collect dues and have expectations of it’s members, but not because it’s a business, but because of its ritual.
There’s an “x” factor in the equation that states a fraternity is a business. That “x” factor is not some monolithic term; it’s brotherhood; it’s an oath. This new factor makes a fraternity the best possible type of business–one where employment must continually be earned, not by adding to the bottom line, but through a continual retrospection of one’s own life and how it can better fit into the values upon which they strive.
In these terms, membership in a fraternity should be the hardest type of membership to maintain, not the hardest to lose.
We should strive for nothing less.