It was more than 15 years ago when I reached out to an attorney—Mr. Tarver—who worked for Federal Bureau of Prisons’ main office in Washington, D.C. I had met him while I worked there as an intern in the BOP’s Office of Research. This time around, I had a request; I needed another sponsor for my membership application to Alpha Phi Alpha. I had chosen two personal ones already—my brother-in-law and my eldest sister’s best friend from college, who was like a big brother to me. Mr. Tarver would serve, I hoped, as a professional reference. When I asked, he agreed, but he required that I always remain financially and physically active in Alpha in order to receive the reference. In his words, Alpha needed bodies; it needed men to do the work of the Fraternity. I told Mr., now Brother, Tarver that I would do just that. In the many years that have passed since that time, I have kept that promise, becoming a Life Member, consistently remaining active in alumni chapters as I have moved from this to that state. I now serve as a national committee chair and regional committee co-chair for the Fraternity.
While I have remained active in Alpha, many brothers have not; and this is a persistent issue across black Greek-letter organizations (“BGLOs”). Not only does membership inactivity impact BGLOs’ with regard to hands to complete the labor, but it also effects BGLOs’ bottom-line. Many, if not all, of these organizations are 501(C)(7)—tax-exempt—organizations under the Internal Revenue Code, and as such, the vast majority of their operating funds must come from membership. This results from membership dues and/or initiation fees. Consequently, the fewer financially-active members these organizations have, the more individuals they must initiate, and this could create some quality-control issues for BGLOs. In thinking about dollars and cents, consider the net assets or fund balances from 2011 and 2010 for each of the 9, major BGLOs [all publicly accessible]: Alpha Phi Alpha ($6,809,028/$7,258,956); Alpha Kappa Alpha ($24,384,894/$23,654,672); Kappa Alpha Psi ($5,817,499/$5,148,046); Omega Psi Phi ($2,624,479/$2,575,365); Delta Sigma Theta ($19,188,109/$19,555,631); Phi Beta Sigma ($1,835,670/$1,766,064); Zeta Phi Beta ($1,008,703/$1,091,217); Sigma Gamma Rho ($2,559,860/$1,817,088); and Iota Phi Theta ($300,857/$308,047). For most of these organizations, these end-of-the-year balances are relatively small.
One of the great challenges with regard to reclamation—i.e., getting members to reactivate, financially—within BGLOs is that leadership view the issue from their beliefs, unhinged from data, and in isolation from broader issues within the organizations. For example, there is a considerable body of scholarly literature on why members commit or fail to commit to organizations. Organizational behavior (“OB”) scholars tend to do this type of research. A couple of months ago, when I surveyed about 20-30 BGLO members who are OB professors and asked them if their organization leadership had ever solicited their expert advice, to a person the answer was “no.” Not only do BGLOs fail to capitalize on the extant research on organizational commitment, they also fail to utilize their own intellectual capital—the expertise and ideas of organization members—that could address a problem like reclamation.
Moreover, BGLOs’ approach to reclamation is too-often one of insisting that inactive members reactivate with little regard for why they are inactive in the first place. Part of the reason why surveying inactive members is often ignored as a first step is because BGLOs don’t want the critiques. They don’t want to hear about what’s wrong with the organizations, because they don’t want to address deeply-imbedded issues within BGLOs. For example, say individuals are inactive because of the poor academic performance of undergrad chapters, which undermines the ideal of scholarship on which BGLOs stand. BGLOs would then have to raise academic standards or institute some program and allocate resources to aggressively assist undergrads to academically achieve. Say individuals are inactive because of issues surrounding non-heterosexual (especially within fraternities) members. BGLOs would then have to discuss, analyze, and try to resolve matters which they don’t want to entertain at this point. Say individuals are inactive because they view BGLOs as anti-Christian. BGLOs would then have to discuss and maybe come to terms with the actual role that faith and religion should play within their respective organizations. Say individuals are inactive because they view their fraternity or sorority as not meaningfully committed to community service, philanthropy, civic activism, and shaping public policy. As such, they spend their time engaged with organizations like 100 Black Men, The Links, The Junior League, and the NAACP. BGLOs would then have to become more meaningfully engaged in these areas. And say individuals are inactive because of the rash of court cases involving embezzlement of organization funds on the part of BGLO national leaders. BGLOs would have to become more transparent and better stewards of members’ hard-earned dues. These examples don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the long and ineffective chapter meetings, petty-politics, conventions of limited value, and the like. It is easier to say that a member has not lived up to his or her oath than it is to figure out why members are inactive and seek to fix those things.
Moreover, reclamation ignores a crucial issues; that is retention. I suspect that about 70% of BGLO members, within 5 years of initiation, are no longer, financially active. Spending time getting 5, 10, 15% of inactive members to reactivate fails to address why the other 30% may not remain active and why those who reactivate may not stay for long. People have finite resources with regard to time, money, energy, and the like. While BGLOs may think that members should invest no matter what in their organization of initiation, giving those members a reason to stay engaged is a better bet.
Even more, a central issue is who and how members are brought into BGLOs. I am not a fan of aggressively recruiting members, at least to my Fraternity. But I will say that the ultimate recruitment tool, I think, is mentoring African American youth, inculcating them with the values we say we extol as BGLO members, getting them into college, and helping them fund their educations. Moreover, we must be engaged in addressing the structural inequalities that hold them back as well as the laws and policies that do the same. For example, this past year two cases went before the US Supreme Court that impact the black community in monumental ways—one on the Voting Rights Act and one on affirmative action. There is no excuse why no BGLO wrote an amicus brief in these cases. That aside, once these young men and women make it to college with the skills to succeed, what are the chances that they will want to join our organizations and continue the legacy of lifting as they climb?
Finally, BGLOs seem to largely ignore the fact that the juncture at which they could most likely ensure organizational commitment is during MIP. The selection and initiation process should be designed to enhance the likelihood of (1) getting high-quality members who (2) will remain financially and physically active in their respective organization for life. Unfortunately, I think we are light years from such an approach.