Greek philanthropy needs to refocus, become more active
It’s easy to stereotype Greek life as a party-heavy, socially irresponsible set of groups, especially with the constant bombardment of news showing fraternity misogyny, racism and hazing across the country. Yet past this veneer created by the small minority of ill-behaved Greek organizations, fraternities and sororities are all founded with a clear dedication to philanthropy.
Today, Greek life continues to support hundreds of local and national charities across the United States. At Washington University, this philanthropy is seen most conspicuously in sorority and fraternity philanthropy weeks on campus. Through a mix of benefit nights at local restaurants, sporting competitions and on-campus events, sororities raise considerable sums of money for their deserving charities. For instance, Alpha Phi donates their proceeds to their Alpha Phi Foundation, which helps fund research on heart health and cardiac research, and Kappa Delta works with Prevent Child Abuse America. TKE supports St. Jude’s research with their sTriKErs soccer tournament and has done numerous holiday gift and book drives in past.
Yet, as someone in Greek life, I feel that there is a certain lack of initiative in our philanthropy system. By hosting events that are centered on sorority and fraternity competition, our Greek organizations are choosing to ascribe to a passive form of philanthropy. Entrenched in the bubble of Washington University, we fail to recognize the people we are trying to serve. As a community, Greek life should pursue more active forms of civic engagement that put the spotlight on the people and programs to which they have committed their charitable efforts.
In framing any discussion about philanthropy, we first have to look at how we define what philanthropy is in the modern era. One particularly profound definition comes from the Center for Civic Reflection, which sees philanthropy today as a form of civic engagement, meaning that organizations “are investing resources in strengthening relationships and nurturing conversations among citizens.” The goal of philanthropy today is more to build connections between disparate groups of people than to provide funding for self-improvement or to relieve communities that are struggling. As La’Rez Wilson, the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement manager of K-12 and youth initiatives, explains, philanthropy as a word carries a passive connotation; We need to think of ourselves more as community partners who are building genuine empathy with the people we are involved with. Any type of philanthropy or service should entail a two-way relationship, one that Wilson believes can “develop the values that really strengthen [internal and external] communities.” There is an important message here for Greek life philanthropy: We need to expand our horizons, embrace a true sense of partnership and bring our mission outside of the Greek realm.
The most important implication of this defining framework is that there are ways in which Greek life can have a larger philanthropic impact. For instance, there are other groups on campus that are already supporting likeminded charities and organizations, so perhaps there is room for us to sponsor community service events or to volunteer in the St. Louis area. Besides funding teams for Dance Marathon and Relay For Life, we can look to partner with smaller campus groups to help strengthen the power of philanthropy events.
There is a clear lack of service and volunteering involved in Greek philanthropy currently. By visiting organizational sites, volunteering our time and even holding presentations about the groups we support, we can emphasis active engagement as a core value of our work. In addition, the omnipresent emphasis on Greek life participation creates an exclusionary culture that limits the impact of philanthropy. By eliminating point systems and Greek competitions and including a larger focus on the community partnership being fostered, Greek philanthropy can become a more essential part of Wash. U.’s remarkable outreach ability.
One of the many things Wilson told me was that “service activities are a two-way street.” His point is very clear—it is time for Greek life to act on the incredible potential they have to define effective philanthropy on Wash. U.’s campus and move away from our system of passive commitment.