Tuesday, July 5, 2005

The Future of Triangle Fraternity at Ohio State

I was disconnected from my home chapter -- Ohio State -- all through the 1980s and 1990s. I live within a 20 min drive of the very chapter house I lived in during college thirty years ago, and can see the taller buildings of the university from my back deck. Why did I lose my connection?

I think the answer is obvious, but not necessarily simple: our chapter has never had a tradition of keeping up the connections with our alumni. For a while, there were a couple of local guys from my era who made a point of having get togethers around one of the football games in the fall (and football is THE happening at Ohio State). Over time, one by one, these guys moved away, the rest of us started having families, and the relationships gradually died. I think there are clusters of alumni who still get together around football games, but it tends to be the recent grads whose bonds are still strong, and for whom a little hard partying is still fun.

You walk around our chapter house, and there are composite photos hanging on the walls of past classes going back nearly 100 years (OSU organized in 1911). It's a shame that in all that time, we never developed (or have let die) a multi-generational program to connect the Active chapter to the generations of Brothers before them. Think about what a blessing it would be to a student engineer to have a relationship with a Brother who is a recent graduate who has just survived the interview process and is getting his career started. Or a 40 year old alumni who is in mid-career, and learning not only to be a competent engineer, but also an effective leader. And then maybe a Brother who has retired from a distinguished career, and has great stories about the interesting stuff he worked on.

Organizations thrive or die because of two key elements: leadership and relationships. In the case of our chapter, every once in a while the stars would align where an extraordinary Active leadership group emerged and enough alumni were involved that the chapter bloomed. Again you can see this by walking the halls and seeing how many faces are on each composite. But most of the time, the leadership of both the Active and alumni chapter were ineffective (not because they were bad guys, they just had no training or role models), and we ended up producing little pods of alumni who maybe kept touch with each other, but had little relationship with anyone else. Gradually each one of those pods would dissipate as its members moved away, engaged in careers, started families -- same old story. Once the critical mass of relationships come apart, they are very hard to re-establish.

Ownership of a chapter house plays a part here at Ohio State as well. Our chapter has expended a huge amount of money over the years trying to keep a house going, and it still wasn't enough to keep up with all the repairs and upgrades necessary to make the house a nice place to live. It also became a depressing place to visit as an alumni. Right now, I would place it just a notch or two above slum housing. The kitchen is disgusting, the bathrooms look like they belong in a ratty gas station and the house is generally a mess. I'm told some Greek houses at OSU are worse, but that's hardly a standard to be proud of. We are hanging just at the point of survival. The current team of Actives are trying hard, and making good progress. But we have lost our ability to sustain a chapter house -- there's not enough money to pay current expenses, our Treasury is about depleted, and there is virtually no hope of raising enough money to restore the building to what I consider decent living conditions. The 2005-2006 class will likely be the last to live in a Triangle house at Ohio State.

But there are other houses on our campus that were mansions when I was in school, and remain beautiful buildings today. What is different about those chapters? Simply put, they have a tradition of keeping the relationships with the alumni alive, and that means a constant flow of emotional and financial support. Some might say that it starts with being more selective when recruiting pledges. There's something there too -- but who really knows if a 19 year old kid is a future Bill Gates or Unibomber? A good friend of mine is an alumni of one of these powerful chapters, and he says they have six figures each year flowing into their coffers just from planned giving programs. They are what I would call a "winning" organization in that they have a tradition of excellence, their alumni members are proud to be a part of it, and they generate strong enough relationships that their alumni that they support the active chapter with both time and talent. Winners want to play with winners and be a part of winning organizations. It's a circular thing.

I'm deeply involved in a turnaround situation in our church. While there are many things different about the two situations, there are also many parallels. I'd be happy to discuss details if anyone wants, but one thing that happened which has application here. We found a regional executive named Dr. Paul Borden (
www.abcw.org) who was turning things around in a big way in his part of the country, and got him to come train us in his approach (or "system" if you prefer). His key points are this: a) the membership of a congregation exists to serve, not to be served; b) you have to let the leaders lead and not "committee" them to mediocrity; c) you have to put people in positions where you can use their strengths, not expose their shortcomings; d) you don't get anywhere trying to solve all the problems at once -- pick one, or a few at most, and focus your energy on them until you either fix the problem or discontinue the program.

One of the most important steps Dr Borden took in his organization was to change the mission of his direct reports. Instead of being counselors and sympathizers with the scores of pastors in their territories, Dr. Borden made each of his direct reports responsible for specific growth goals in only 5 congregations each year. His leaders got to choose which 5 congregations they wanted to work with, but the leaders also knew that their performance would be evaluated based on very clear, quantitative goals. Some of those leaders succeeded, while others couldn't make the paradigm shift and were helped in finding new positions. But Borden has held steadfast to his vision, and has built an organization that does exactly what a Christian community is supposed to do: teach, serve and grow.

I think the parallel here is that we should charge Paul and Scott with a similar mission. For example, each of them would be responsible for achieving growth of 10 members or 10% , whichever is greater, in 5 chapters each year. They get to pick which chapters they work with, but during that year, they concentrate all their energy on just those chapters. Then we should base their compensation and continued employment on achieving these goals. Forget about the Triangle Foundation for now. Scott is a great guy, but he's been beating his head against the wall trying to get alumni connected with their money when they aren't connected with their heads. This is a long term program I'm talking about, and will take years to pay off. But the situation has been decades in the making. Eventually, success with this program will show up in cash flows back to the Foundation, but if we don’t fix what needs fixing now, Scott is simply raising money for the funeral.

Hope this gets some juices flowing....

Paul Lambert

No comments: