[This post is one of several in a series of "Recruitment Spotlight" articles highlighting successful organizational growth]
by Josh Orendi
If your reaction to that title was “really!??” or “how is that possible” or “Alpha Sigma who?” you’re not alone. It’s hard to believe that a fraternity founded in 1845 could fly under the interfraternal radar with barely 50 chapters for the last 100 years then suddenly explode on the scene by nearly doubling its chapter count and more than doubling total membership in the last 3 years (that was not a typo, go back and read the last sentence again). Alpha Sig is challenging the status quo of what fraternity growth is supposed to look like. Their high-octane expansion is paired with an innovative support model that is producing sustainable, record breaking results.
I sat down at Starbucks in Carmel, Indiana for an early Wednesday morning interview with Alpha Sig’s Executive Director, Gordy Heminger, and the Director of Chapter & Colony Development, Matt Humberger. These guys are the real deal – full of intensity, passion, focus, and a unified vision. It turns out that’s true of their personal lives as well as their business lives. As I walked in the coffee shop I immediately noticed they were in a forward leaning, heated discussion and to my surprise, they were wearing gym clothes and hoodies complete with Alpha Sigma Phi embroidered baseball caps….
Phired Up: Good morning.
Alpha Sig: [Matt] Hey, Josh, do you know what major league baseball team has the longest streak of failing to make the post season?
Phired Up: I’m guessing you know I’m from Pittsburgh … the Pirates?
Alpha Sig: [Matt] Good guess, but no. They’re the third worst. It’s actually the Washington Nationals. They haven’t made the playoffs in 28 years! Most people wouldn’t guess that because they changed cities from Montreal in 2005…. I love baseball season. By the way, thanks for agreeing to meet with us an hour earlier than our original time.
Phired Up: My pleasure. Are you guys heading to the office from here (sarcastically)?
Alpha Sig: [Gordy] Not until I hit the gym. (looks at his phone) Personal trainer is meeting me in 32 minutes.
Phired Up: I didn’t realize I was on the clock. In that case, let’s jump in. Are the rumors true? I heard a well informed volunteer say 60% growth per year and that Alpha Sigma Phi has doubled in the last three years?
Alpha Sig: (devilish grin) Yes. We’re really proud of the hard work that our undergraduates, professional staff, and volunteers put in the last few years. We’re experiencing unprecedented growth. Here, we brought you the numbers:
Total New Members
2008/09 – 854
2009/10 – 1282
2010/11 – 1330
2011/12 – 923 (Fall only); will be over 1700 new members this year
Total Chapters/Colonies/Interest Groups
2009 – 64
2010 – 76
2011 – 85
2012 – 100
2013 – 16 new groups
2014 – 16 new groups
2015 – 20 new groups
2016 - 20 new groups
Phired Up: I’m pretty sure these numbers make Alpha Sig the fastest growing fraternity in the country! How did you accomplish in 3 years what hasn’t been done in the organization’s previous 165 years?
Alpha Sig: Our board and staff are focusing our resources – human and financial – on supported growth. In the past we were stretched too thin. Today, we choose to use volunteers or outsource anything that we can’t do with excellence on our own.
Phired Up: You said, “supported growth.” What did you mean by that?
Alpha Sig: We’re proud of the numbers, but Alpha Sig is not a fraternity that goes everywhere and recruits anyone. We have a targeted, intentional approach and we take pride in the experience we provide for each member. Our chapters are receiving unprecedented levels of training and volunteer support.
Phired Up: Are you leveraging technology to do more with less or is there something else?
Alpha Sig: Technology has certainly helped. We were the first NIC fraternity offering cutting edge, online member education through our partnership with Big Fish. Also, we were the first national organization to provide every chapter with a free account with WebGreek for website services and backend chapter management. Oh, and Facebook has been huge. But, mostly we’ve gotten better at connecting our base of alumni with our chapters in a way that both are excited to work together. Our volunteers have taken over doing a lot of things the headquarters staff used to be responsible for – and quite frankly they’re better at it than we ever were. Technology helps but we never forget that we’re in a relationship business.
Phired Up: Tell me more about the volunteer and training pieces.
Alpha Sig: 62% of chapters and colonies attended our Burns Leadership Institute, 97% of chapters attended Academy of Leadership, and the Elevate conference became more professional in design while quadrupling its impact to reach nearly 250 undergraduate members. We’ve responded to the growing needs of our growing membership by more than doubling our professional staff and growing our volunteer network. In fact, the fraternity has increased the number of recognized chapter advisory boards from two in 2009 to 50+ in 2012. The coolest part of that statistic is that our chapter advisory boards now require 6 volunteers as opposed to a requirement of 3 in the past. Only a handful of chapters just have one advisor so even the chapters that don’t have a recognized chapter advisory board have more than one volunteer involved in supporting the group. Our standards and support model are increasing at the same time we are increasing our membership.
Phired Up: So this isn’t all about getting as big as you can as quick as you can through expansion?
Alpha Sig: No! We’re serving our current chapters at a high level and offering hands on recruitment help to those in need. Since 2009 we’ve helped 7 chapters with a headquarters led recruitment. We’re working hard to make sure our growth is sustainable for new and existing chapters. In fact, our retention rates are up in our expansion efforts from roughly 75% in 2009 to nearly 93% this past year. To be blunt, we’re recruiting better men at the same time we’re recruiting more men, and we’re giving them all a better fraternity experience.
Back Story & Disclosure: Phired Up co-founders Matt Mattson & Josh Orendi served on the Alpha Sigma Phi national fraternity staff as Leadership Consultants and Directors of Expansion between 1999-2002. Gordy was a Leadership Consultant on the professional staff (and Josh’s roommate) from 1999-2000.
Phired Up: Why now? Gordy, what is Alpha Sig doing different now than when you and I served on staff after college – let alone the 150+ years before then?
Alpha Sig: Here’s one big difference: We rarely hire guys right out of college. Today, Alpha Sig’s consultant team includes a guy with a law degree, a past employee in sales, and a guy with business experience. We only have one staff member that joined staff straight from his undergrad experience. Five members of our team have master’s degrees and Four members of our headquarters staff have masters degrees in higher education … three are former Greek Advisors. That’s important since 87% of our chapters received visits from headquarters this academic year.
Phired Up: What!? That hiring model is so different from what Alpha Sig used to do, and it’s very different from the traditional consultant/expansion model of other fraternity headquarters.
Alpha Sig: We’re hiring professionals to do professional work. We’ve recently hired two staff members who are not members – Tabatha Sarco and Danny Miller. We like that type of diversity of thought and experience. We think the number of staff members we have with higher education degrees and Greek advising backgrounds puts us in a position to better understand how we can improve upon the partnerships we have with our host institutions.
Phired Up: I feel like Alpha Sig has been under the interfraternal radar. How have you been able to keep all this success and change a secret?
Alpha Sig: We haven’t been trying to keep it a secret. We just weren’t talking about it. We wanted to wait until we had evidence and a story to tell before we started sharing what we’ve learned. And, to be completely honest, we’ve just been too busy doing the work to realize others didn’t know what we were doing.
Phired Up: Is there anything you know today that you wish you had known three years ago?
Alpha Sig: I wish we would have started with our 4 step process for expansion from the beginning.
Phired Up: Four step process. What is that?
Alpha Sig: We have a 4 stage business model for new groups. There are benchmarks with each step. The biggest change was moving initiation before chartering. We stopped treating colonies and interest groups like “pledges” for 2 years before they could charter. Now we train and educate new groups the same way we want them to educate new members. We’re modeling the way so they’re operating like a successful Alpha Sig chapter from the very beginning.
Phired Up: Let me tee one up for you. Hundreds of campus professionals are likely to read this article. Why should a campus pursue Alpha Sig for expansion?
Alpha Sig: Expansion – when done right – is good for the entire fraternity community. Here are three things we like to share with campuses we’re considering for expansion. 1) We have a track record of success so the IFC and campus can feel confident we’ll produce results in quantity and quality. 2) We have a five year support model for new groups so schools know we’re committed for the long haul. 3) Alpha Sig is committed to deep campus partnerships – so much so that we have four staff members with professional higher education backgrounds.
Phired Up: I’ve heard you talk about the last few years as “transformative” for Alpha Sigma Phi. What has been the biggest challenge?
Alpha Sig: Getting people to believe has been harder than we imagined. Our own alumni have been some of the hardest to win over. We’ve literally had conversations that sound like they belong in an undergrad chapter meeting. Long time alumni volunteers have told me, “I don’t want us to get too big … we’ll have to sacrifice brotherhood/quality.” In my opinion, they’re not choosing to see opportunities. They’re letting our past or fear of the future control our destiny. Fear is hard to overcome! I believe one measure of our success as an organization is the number of men’s lives we are positively impacting. When we grow, we fulfill our mission. Alpha Sig’s motto is “To Better The Man.” If we can give the gift of fraternity and better more men’s lives, the only question we should be asking is “why aren’t we doing more of that.”
Phired Up: What next? Now that you’ve made such a big splash in such a short period of time, what’s next?
Alpha Sig: This is very much the beginning, not the end. We’re just getting started. Now that we have a winning formula – high caliber staff, strong alumni support, great campus partnerships, and a consistent recruitment system – we’re ready to step on the gas. On top of the seven re-organized chapters, we’ve opened 41 groups since 2009 and the goal is to have 180 chapters and colonies by the end of 2016. That’s roughly 10 per semester. We know we still have a lot to learn and our model will continue to evolve.
Phired Up: If Alpha Sig can turn around a franchise that’s nearly two centuries old, do you think my Pittsburgh Pirates can see a playoff birth in 2012?
Alpha Sig: You’re probably better off hoping the Washington Nationals have another rough year.
Phired Up: That’s cruel.
Written by: Josh Orendi
Interview Date: March 28, 2012
Interviewer: Josh Orendi
Interviewed: Matt Humberger, Gordy Heminger