There many great qualities that I love about my chapter. We are a recovering chapter (debt, low numbers, etc.) and are addressing multiple issues this year that are going to fix. With that being said, there is one thing that hasn’t ever been addressed and that is the meaning of pledgeship.
I understand that you are a brother of Alpha Tau Omega based on another article when you described the “meaning” of the pledge pin so I believe you can help. I know you’re familiar with the basics of pledge ship and what I’d like advice on is how we can bring a whole new level of meaning and mystery into the process. This year pledges will not be able to attend chapter which will add to the suspense of fraternity affairs. Do you have any suggestions as to what events/activities we could have the pledges do to emphasize the unknown?
I would say the fact that you’re trying to go for mystery in the first place, or excluding pledges from meetings, is wrong. The pledge period is about two things. First, getting them ready to understand the ritual and commit their lives to the mission it demands of us; and second, preparing them to be the best most productive actives possible as soon as possible.
When you graduate, you’re going to get some kind of job. Imagine if you showed up there and for the first year you did nothing but mop floors and make coffee. Then suddenly at the end of that they put you in charge of a multimillion dollar project when you have absolutely no idea how to do anything even related to the job you’re in, and you’re not going to get any training. You just sink or swim. That sounds like a recipe for failure doesn’t it? So, why are you doing that to your pledges? How are you not making the connection between that and the fact that you have a small chapter trying to dig its way out of debt? Let’s take a completely different route.
First, you need to get your pledges very involved in the operation of the chapter. I don’t mean using them as the grunts to make some project an active came up with happen. I mean train them in a series of major positions in your chapter.
I did an article a while back on a program we created while I was in school, which we called Active Practice (http://thefraternityadvisor.com/how-to-develop-a-meaningful-fraternity-pledge-program/ ). You can read that article, but I’ll back through it since that was a bit vague and what we specifically did might make more sense to you as an ATO.
We had an eight week pledge program. Of course you know the stars in our pledge pin represent scholarship, fellowship, and character. So, why don’t we assign one of those to each of the first three weeks.
Scholastic is week one. So, if you were the scholastic chair and you had an actual committee that really did stuff, what would you do? Okay, well for this week the pledges as a team are the scholastic chairman. Your actual scholastic chair is going to orient them to your chapter’s scholastic plan – which I hope actually exists, but if not this is a good chance to come up with one – including what requirements they’re going to have to meet throughout the semester to make sure they make grades so you can actually initiate them when they’re done. But beyond that, your chairman would facilitate them coming up with some ideas on how they can work together to make sure everyone gets to class and does well. Those are things they can try out and adapt throughout the semester, and your scholastic chair can check back with them over time to see how things are going. It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking. What it has to be is this is what the scholastic chair does, so that one of them could take that one as a JI and hit the ground running. It’s also learning by doing, with backup & guidance from the active scholastic chair. It’s forcing them to be creative, to work as a team, and to take responsibility for one another and hold each other accountable from the start.
Fellowship, work with social, plan a party. Learn how to do all the risk management stuff we have to deal with. Learn how to promote an event to create buzz. You’re still going to have a guest list, but wouldn’t it be better if sororities are calling you up trying to get girls on that list instead of you trying to chase them? Social is a tough job, but it is a whole lot easier to do well when there are a lot of people around that understand more than where to put the speakers and how to run the door. That’s better than one active trying to figure it out the whole time and disappointing the chapter all semester. That’s not going to improve morale or help retain and recruit members. Don’t tell them what to do. Show them how to do it, give them a budget, and guide them in the process. But, let them come up with the idea, present it to chapter, and execute it with your guidance.
Character week we did with the chaplain and culminated in our big brother ceremony. This week focused on brotherhood of course. We did several discussions guided by the chaplain trying to achieve an introspective kind of thing where they would start to think beyond a college drinking club and get ready to realize what a fraternity is really about. This was a transition point where they start to get a lot more serious about what they’re learning and why. If people are going to quit, they’ll do it by this week. After this, if you take it seriously, they’ll be committed.
Our badge has some different symbolic meanings from the pledge pin. Those are the eternal & immutable principles we learn in ritual that we insert into the beginning of our creed so that we can understand what it means. Obviously we didn’t tell our secrets to uninitiated pledges, but you don’t need to. All you have to do is substitute synonyms. You should know in detail what each of those words means within the ritual. Use a synonym & then teach them that lesson one per week. You can try to make some sense of which active position you link to each week, but the point is they’re going to do the same but less intensive process as they did with the chaplain in week three to learn the meaning behind each of those words – without you having to tell them the actual words themselves; and, they’re also going to pair up with an active officer to take on that job and learn by doing it.
For week four, we paired them up with recruitment. This is a very important week for them and for your chapter. They should be on an emotional high after big brother and fully committed to the cause. That is a great time to start teaching them how to recruit guys outside the formal rush system. If you don’t already understand year round recruiting, there are several articles on here about it and I would point you at the phired up videos on the national website (http://www.ato.org/AlphaTauOmega/downloads/phireduprecruitment.aspx ). Have them do a recruiting event for the chapter. Hopefully your actives have been talking to people in classes, in other organizations, or whatever the case may be. This is the time to bring them out, along with the guys the pledges will invite. As a chapter, you are halfway through pledgeship and already establishing a strong foundation for your next pledge class. If you do a good job with this and will make friends with the guys you’ve started to recruit, you should have half your next pledge class already in place when the next semester starts. Each of those guys will then be helping you recruit from within the process. You’ll be able to both grow your numbers and be more selective at the same time. Plus, now all of your guys from the time they’re pledges are going to be experts in how to recruit.
Week five we’d do philanthropy. This can be easy or hard. It is super easy to just pair up with habitat for humanity or something, coordinate, the whole chapter shows up, and bank a bunch of hours. You can do that if you want, or you can have them set up something more involved. Maybe a volleyball tournament or something that sororities can participate in.
Which other positions you choose doesn’t really matter, just try to pick positions they might get in their first 2-3 semesters as an active. The order you do them in doesn’t matter either. It does help to link the principle they’re learning to the task they’re performing if you can, but the principles don’t have to go in order either. Just make the progression logical.
You could put the social more toward the end, have them plan their own end of pledgeship party if you want. We did historian at the beginning & had them document their pledgeship experience for a pledge class collage we hang in our chapter room. Fundraising is another good one. They can use it to help fund the party they’re going to be planning, or to help with their own dues. We also blocked out one of those weeks for either homecoming or greek week depending on the semester. It’s flexible to whatever is going to work best for your chapter.
The point though, is you are teaching them the traits we need in our members as well as setting them up for success as the actives that are going to be running your chapter in the future. This isn’t easy, but do it for two years and see what happens to your chapter. I think you will be amazed.
As far as mystery, don’t worry about that. These guys aren’t joining your organization because they desperately want to know what our secrets are. They’re joining because they want to be friends with you. It’s your job to identify the potential members that are already leaning toward the things we believe in and use this educational process to help them better understand what they are about to commit their lives to. If you take this seriously and do it right, you will change lives. And I really mean that.
This website and a hundred other resources out there can help you become a better fraternity chapter. But, at the end of the day, you’re wearing my letters. If you aren’t putting in the effort to teach what we’re about and guaranteeing that the people you initiate understand and are dedicated to our beliefs, then you shouldn’t have a charter. I know that a little bit of mystery can heighten the experience, and there’s nothing wrong with that in the right place. You can do some of that with pledge induction, big brother, and ending pledgeship. I think you would be a lot better served using this time to educate than trying to amuse them with some sleight of hand. Just give it a try and see what happens.