How Alcohol (or the lack thereof) is Helping One Fraternity Grow Fast

by Josh Orendi
PDTLogo_PMS539_TagWhat if an entire national fraternity chose to operate 100% alcohol free?  I can imagine the heated reactions of undergrads and alumni.  Seriously.  Try to picture it – a nationwide vote to abolish alcohol from every chapter house across the country.  Next, imagine if that organization had the fortitude to stick with their alcohol free decision for over a decade.  Who would want to join?  Would current members stay?  Is alcohol-free housing a death sentence or a bold, sustainable reinvention of fraternity? Thanks to Phi Delta Theta , we have the answer.

I scheduled time to talk with Associate Executive Vice President Sean Wagner and Director of Expansion Demarcko Butler to ask them about the impact of bold decisions in recent years at Phi Delt and to see if they plan to shake things up again anytime soon.  What I learned is there’s more than a story of alcohol-free housing.  This is a fraternity with a history of doing things differently, leading by example, and YES they are preparing to go big again….

Phired Up: Let’s start with the numbers.  How did alcohol-free housing impact recruitment?
Phi Delt: Here are some benchmark numbers…

1997:  Alcohol free decision was made.
2000:  Alcohol free policy fully adopted.
2000 – 2012:  23% annual increase in new members and 16% increase per year in initiates
2012:  We’re up 14% from last year and reached 4000 new members this year for the first time in over 20 years.

Perhaps the most impressive number of all is that our average colony/chapter size is 64 members.  That’s significant since the national average hovers around the low to mid 40’s.

Phired Up: Are you experiencing positive growth trends with your expansion efforts?
Phi Delt: Yes.  We have installed 60 chapters since 2000.  In the last year we’ve installed 8 new groups at an average size of 41 new members.

Phired Up: What implications did that historic alcohol-free decision have on the organization other than recruitment?
Phi Delt: Ed Whipple, who is currently a fellow for NASPA and formerly was the VP of Student Affairs at BGSU and a former President of our General Council, did some significant research for us both at our 5-year anniversary in 2005 and an update to mark the 10th anniversary in 2010.  Without getting into all of the details, beyond recruitment, some of the most impressive findings included an increased GPA as now 25% of our chapters are tops on their campus in the classroom and an increase in alumni involvement as we now have 55% more alumni involved with our chapters than we did in 1997 when the policy was introduced.

Phired Up: The alumni involvement piece is really interesting.  Tell me more about that.
Phi Delt: We heard from alumni in the past that they weren’t getting involved because our houses weren’t a place they felt comfortable spending their time as a professional.  Now they’re giving both their time and treasure.  Alumni giving is at an all-time high.  Since 1997 when the policy was introduced and today, our Foundation has experienced its best years including last year which was our 2nd highest in total contributions.  Also, while we don’t track local giving, Pennington and Company has helped our local house corporations raise $7.5 million between 2005 and today.

In addition to our houses being nicer, they are also safer; we averaged 12.3 alcohol claims prior to 2000 and today we average less than three a year.  Liability insurance costs have come down substantially offering a much more affordable experience for our members.  Today the average insurance rate for fraternities hovers around $160 per member; our rate is almost half that at $78 when you factor in both initiated and new members.

Phired Up: If numbers are up and Phi Delt is experiencing all these additional benefits, why aren’t more fraternities following your example on alcohol?
Phi Delt: That’s a question you’d have to ask them, but it has obviously worked for us and we’re very proud of the results.    In the meantime, we’re very happy to have created a bit of a niche.  All Greek letter organizations were roughly founded on similar principles but by taking alcohol directly out of our value proposition from a living environment standpoint, we’re happy to be offering an opportunity that our EVP Bob Biggs famously calls a “learning-living laboratory.”

Phired Up: Is alcohol-free housing the biggest reason Phi Delt has grown so consistently?
Phi Delt: More than anything I believe that by removing alcohol from our facilities we have been able to focus on things that make us a better organization.  While there is still a great deal of risk management education that we do and incidents do come up, our chapters, volunteers, and staff no longer regularly focus on incidents involving alcohol we have all been able to broaden our focus.

From a chapter standpoint, we hear from our members that they have gotten outside of their houses for social activity and have become more involved on their campus which has helped build relationships and bigger Phikeia (that’s what we call our new members) classes.  From a staff standpoint, our collective hand in the increased numbers is due to the programming that we’ve been able to do because we haven’t been constantly “putting out fires.” This includes creating new recruitment training, online education, a new branding campaign, alumni loyalty program, a large virtual footprint in social media, the Iron Phi program, and much more.

Phired Up: Tell me more about Iron Phi.  A lot of readers may not be familiar with that program.
Phi Delt: The Iron Phi program is homegrown, born out of the MBA program and brain of long-time staff member Steve Good.  Steve’s great idea was to harness the tremendous enthusiasm and pride that we have for Lou Gehrig as arguably our most famous alumnus and a partnership with The ALS Association, and channel that into a program that challenges our members to take on an athletic challenge and raise money for the fight against ALS and the Phi Delta Theta Foundation.  It’s working!  We’ve raised approximately $310k since February 2010 while giving Phis a chance to do some good and work towards a personal goal.

[Sean] I wouldn’t call myself a runner, but I participated with a number of staff members in a relay team during Cincinnati’s Flying Pig Marathon in 2010 and raised $1000 while doing it. Demarkco is still trying to earn his Iron Phi Stripes…..

Phired Up: When I talk to the technology vendors servicing national fraternities, most point to Phi Delt as being an early leader from website development and social media adoption to webinars and online education.  What’s the story?
Phi Delt: In technology our recipe for success has been to experiment and to follow the trends.   We thank the folks at the Group Interactive Networks (GIN) for helping us cut our teeth on our chapter website templates in 2007. We learned through that while our undergraduate members were using technology every day in everything that they do, they didn’t necessarily know how to use it in their fraternity experience.   From there we set out to do our best to serve as a model example from a General Fraternity standpoint.  This included going for it with Facebook and everything else that has come along since, including Twitter, LinkedIn, FourSquare, and more.  If our members are using it to connect to their world, we need to at least attempt to see if it makes sense to as tool to connect them to Phi Delt.  By doing this we’re sharing best practices with chapters so they know better how to use the web for connecting with potential new members and their constituents.

Online education was a similar thing, our advisers were using online education for professional training and we were still sending them paper manuals.  We needed to catch-up.  Now we have a Chapter Advisory Board Certification program for 8 different positions. Since we launched it in March of 2011 we’ve had 498 advisers certified.

Phired Up: I keep seeing blue Phi Delt marketing materials with “Become the Greatest Version of Yourself” on campuses, social media, t-shirts.  Tell me the full story behind the new branding campaign.
Phi Delt: Our governing board, the General Council, provided the tremendous leadership in 2010 to introduce a strategic plan in 2010 called Phi Delt 2020 that has six comprehensive initiatives, but we knew quickly in order to talk about what we wanted to do, we needed to get our messaging down.  We feel like we always had a great story to tell, but didn’t necessarily do a good job at telling it.

To find our voice we wanted to find some folks outside of the industry, so we hired Pocket Hercules out of Minneapolis.  Their principles Jack Supple and Jason Smith had worked on a little brand called Harley Davidson before starting what they call “The Pocket.”  After quite a bit of internal and environmental research, they came up with “Become the Greatest Version of Yourself” as our tagline and the “Sword and Shield” as our primary external logo.  The tagline was rooted in the research and feedback that our prospective, current, and alumni members provided along with sorority women that spoke to Phi Delt building better men.  This was understood whether they knew it personally or had experienced through interacting with our members. We liked the line because it wasn’t boasting or being over the top with alcohol-free housing, it was aspirational and described the opportunity you’re getting when you sign a Phi Delt bid card.  This isn’t something that is for everyone, but an experience that top tier students on campus seek out to help them develop an individual.

Once the key assets were determined we set out to build a campaign that included an overhaul to our web presence, recruitment materials, and how we would communicate about ourselves in all ways.  To ensure that we had the brand in the hands of our chapter members as quickly as possible, we worked with a company called Advanced Online to build the PhiDeltStore to provide branded recruitment items and apparel.   We are still in the process of assessing the roll-out, but anecdotally the feedback couldn’t be better from our members and constituents.   The next wave in branding for us will be to use the brand in such a way that that we are generating demand and creating better overall awareness of the organization outside of our core audience.

Phired Up: Back to the alcohol-free and recruitment conversation … Demarcko, your job is literally to recruit hundreds of men into new colonies of the organization every year.  How do you tell a guy that he can’t have a beer in his room if he wants to become a Phi Delt?
Phi Delt: When an expansion project starts, our process is to recruit the highest caliber men in the areas of academics, involvement, service, athletics, etc.  Those individuals are either already on board with the policy of alcohol-free housing or they see it as an added bonus toward them continuing to make an impact at their particular institution.

Phired Up: Most national fraternities are proud to recruit 25 – 35 new members into a colony.  Is the same true for Phi Delt given the added restriction on alcohol?
Phi Delt: Our minimum standard for recruitment is at least 40 men.  The expansion team looks for the “never joiners” and of course the “maybe joiners”.  We use Dynamic Recruitment with a focus on the first cylinder (referrals) – sororities, coaches, faculty, etc.  Our expansion team has literally interviewed hundreds of college men.   We quickly realized that the best people are no longer looking for the fraternity to be a drinking club.  The students who are attracted to Phi Delta Theta want to “Become the Greatest Version of Themselves!”  They want to defy the stereotypes that their campus has already in Greek Life.  We are looking for “fraternity men” NOT “frat stars.”

Phired Up: It’s clear that Phi Delt isn’t afraid to be different, make bold choices, and stick with them for the long haul.  What do we have to look forward to from Phi Delt in the next few years?
Phi Delt: Our mantra around here is that the Phi Delt 2020 plan is our “north star.”  We have gotten laser focused.  If a new proposal doesn’t fit into one of our strategic initiatives, we aren’t doing it!  You can expect Phi Delt to further emphasize chapter growth and retention, a standardized new member program that leverages new technologies, enhanced branding efforts, and programming in the networking and mentoring space.  We’re doing all of this while ramping up our fundraising efforts with a goal of $20 million by 2020.  Alcohol-free housing helped us get where we are today and Phi Delt 2020 is the plan shaping the course for our future.

Phired Up: Demarcko, wanna go grab a beer with me?
Phi Delt: Sure, but not in a Phi Delt chapter house.

Article Written By:  Josh Orendi, CEO, Phired Up Productions (
Interviewing:  Sean Wagner & Demarcko Butler of Phi Delta Theta Fraternity (
Published May 23, 2012