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Universal Truths Unmasked About Fraternity/Sorority Growth Following COVID-19

by Matt Mattson

When COVID-19 hit and our fraternity and sorority world went “virtual,” a lot changed. Especially related to the way we grow. Our efforts to do marketing, promotion, recruitment, intake, and new member onboarding were all shaken.

But sometimes when you shake a thing… if you shake it hard enough… the excesses can fall off, and you’re left with all that really matters.

That happened in 2020 to sorority and fraternity growth processes. Our team was there alongside communities, councils, and chapters as they pivoted, adapted, and prioritized the things that truly mattered. We spent thousands of of hours on Zoom this fall with countless campuses, chapters, council leaders, alumni groups, headquearters staff, and individual members. We heard their frustrations and felt their hope. We watched this group of sorority and fraternity leaders emerge as heroes who saved our industry. While the industry experienced membership loss (likely more than 20% fewer members joined this fall than last year), we also watched an industry respond quickly and deftly.

After it was all said and done, we could see what really mattered.

If you look at the way fraternities and sororities (from all councils and umbrella organizations) attracted, selected, and secured new members in the fall of 2020, you’ll see four universal truths emerged. The following are four general themes that our team consistently saw this fall.

Meaning and Value
If a chapter’s only value proposition was in-person social events, they struggled. If there was real meaning and value beyond “fun,” the chapter was just fine. For instance, most NPHC inter/national organizations are reporting increases in year-over-year membership and that success is being attributed to increased relevance in a year where injustices against Black Americans were in an especially bright spotlight. Meaning matters. Chapters that knew their answer to a question our staff asked often, “What are the top 10 reasons it’s worth it to be a member of your organization despite being in global pandemic?” were able to adapt easily. Those that struggled with that question felt real pain. Fraternities and sororities must connect to a value proposition that is timeless, specific, undeniable, and that doesn’t depend upon face-to-face big events. It is likely that our world will continue to evolve in multiple ways that will make face-to-face experiences less and less typical.

Access and Frequency of Contact
Chapters that found creative ways to find non-members, contact non-members, and follow-up with non-members were able to respond to the challenges presented by COVID-19. Many chapters, unfortunately, had depended for a long time upon face-to-face on-campus experiences organized by the institution or council to lead potential members to their chapters. Fraternities and sororities need two simple things for chapter growth to happen, and new creative ways to accomplish these things have to be contiually developed: access to and frequent contact with non-members. After all, “you can’t recruit who you don’t know,” and “people don’t join organizations, people join people.”

Connection and Trust
Your flex doesn’t play real strong in a Zoom room. A universal truth we found demonstrated over and over on campus after campus was that the “big dog” chapters that used to “win” recruitment season with size, fancy houses, and other things that are “impressive” on the surface struggled, while chapters that focused on building authentic connection and deepening trust between prospects and members succeeded.

Systems and Consistency
Some chapters are organized. Some chapters have a repeatable system. Some chapters have excellent technology infrastructure in their growth processes. Some chapters do excellent officer transitions. Those things all sound kind of boring. And those are the things that made chapters successful. Fraternities and sororities that remember “systems outperform and outlast temporary talent every time” were successful this fall, while the fraternities and sororities that depended on having a really cool member in charge of growth struggled.

As you walk into the next season of growing your chapter, please focus on these universal truths. When our growth processes were shaken and all the glitter and flash and fluff fell off, we are left with these universal truths.