T.J. Sullivan

End of the year checklist

Photo by my best friend, Rich Yoegel.

Congrats on making it to the end of the school year. Summer is almost upon us, and I know you are ready – for a break from the day-to-day tasks, for a change of scenery, and for a break from classes.  It’s almost here… just hang on a few more days.

As a leader of your student organization, take a little time this week to make sure your group is set for summer.  Don’t passively drift into finals week and vacation. Taking a little time to put things in order before you head out could really make the difference between being able to relax or spending your summer dealing with a ton of annoyances.

• Sit with your treasurer. Don’t sail into the summer without a clear idea of what’s in the bank, what bills are left to be paid, and what financial matters need to be handled over the summer.  The rest of the world doesn’t grind to a halt when you leave for the summer, and vendors won’t be too happy if you leave their bills unpaid until August.  If you have any bills due over the summer, write out the checks now, sign then, and have your treasurer mail them at the appropriate times.

• Review your summer project list.  Every officer should go home with a few tasks that, if completed properly, will help you hit the ground running when school starts up.  Ask every officer to come up with his/her list, and then use this list as a reason to check in a few times in the coming months.

• Figure out who’s staying in town.  If you, as the organization president, are not going to be nearby this summer, make sure you know who can represent you in the event of some emergency.  This is especially critical for those of you in fraternities and sororities with houses.  Make sure you know exactly who can be on site in less than 20 minutes if something unexpected happens: a fire, a burglary, vandalism, a break in, etc.

• Make a communication plan with your advisor. Schedule a few phone calls, even if you’re not sure what the agenda will be.  Every year, students come back from summer to find out that their advisor left the college for another job without even letting them know.  Happens all the time.  Making sure that you check in at least once a month is a good idea.

• Know what your first thing is. You shouldn’t go home for summer without making sure your members know what the first “thing” of the new academic year is scheduled.  First meeting, first social function, whatever.  Make sure people have it on their calendar.

• Update your website. If your group has a website, summer is a great time to freshen that thing up.  Assign that to an eager young leader in your organization.  If your members are keeping in touch, sharing photos, etc., it keeps everyone engaged to some degree.

• Get that budget set. Don’t waste time in the fall wrangling with your budget.  Get it set now.  Know how much money you need in, and by when, to get things off on the right foot in the Fall.

• Set up some social time with members. Plan a cookout on the 4th of July in a nearby city. How about a camping trip?  Get everyone together for opening night of a big summer movie. Getting together with your members over the summer is not only fun, but it’s a great way to remind everyone that they actually like each other.  It also gets people excited about the upcoming year.

• Make a list of unfinished business. Get your officers together.  Brainstorm anything and everything that you can think of that was supposed to get done this year, but didn’t for some reason.  If there’s anything on the list that is still important, assign it as a summer task for someone.  Don’t start the new year loaded with baggage from the previous year.

• Make sure your Student Activities Office knows how to reach you over the summer. Are you traveling somewhere?  Then make sure they know whom to call in case they can’t reach you. Lots of crazy stuff can happen, and you need to be sure that a responsible person can always be reached.

• Who is checking the mail? Snail mail, voice mail, organizational email? Make sure that no important communication is being missed.  If you can’t stay on top of it, then delegate the task to someone who can stay on top of it.  Don’t let your organization completely fall off the grid.

• Schedule at least one virtual executive board meeting over the summer.  There are lots of services you can use (a Google hangout is pretty easy). Review those summer task lists, consider any opportunities that have come up, etc.

It’s hard to motivate to do these tasks at the end of an exhausting year, but leaving with a clean slate will help you sleep better this summer and will put you in the very best position to deal with unexpected crises, cool opportunities, and sudden changes.  The student leader who checks out completely during the summer usually starts off the new year at a disadvantage.

Choosing to become bottom-third after graduation can be a very good thing

uturnMany new graduates struggle.  They love their organization, and they’ve spent countless hours (years!) in leadership roles. They want to stay involved and connected, however they realize that their life is changing rapidly and other priorities are demanding attention.

“If I take a step away, will I ever be able to reconnect?”

“Am I bad person if I take a step back?”

Yes, you will be able to reconnect when the time is right for you, if it’s ever right for you.  And no, you’re not a bad person.

Naturally, these organizations won’t tell you this.  Statistically, tons of highly involved members go away and never look back, and organizations and colleges are naturally doing everything they can to prevent you from detaching.  Just watch the extraordinary efforts that colleges and university foundations employ to keep you connected after graduation.

They will guilt you.  They will tell you that there are a million ways to stay involved.  There are highly involved young alumni reading this right now ready to tell me I’m entirely wrong. You’re needed! You should stay involved in new roles!

I am going to validate the other choice, however. You need to make the decisions that are healthiest for you. Taking some time away might be the smartest decision.

It’s fairly typical for alumni to take a step back during their 20′s.  Yes, some join young alumni boards, attend football games every weekend, and maintain their involvement in their school or organization as a big part of their identities.  That’s fine for them, but it doesn’t mean it has to be the right choice for everyone.

The 20′s are a time when many men and women are launching their careers, getting a financial footing, and starting families.  The demands are high, and the stress is real.  It’s hard to put organizational involvement at the top of the list when you’re planning a wedding, working on an advanced degree, or deciding whether to move cross-country for a job opportunity.

If you’ve had an involvement that could be described as emotional, consuming, defining, or transformative, you might need a break so that you can invest that energy into other, more urgent priorities in your young adult life. Give yourself the room you need.  You’ve been a top third member for a while – sacrificing a great deal for your organization.  You might feel incredibly guilty about moving your attention to other things.  You don’t want to feel disloyal. You’re afraid of losing the political capital that you worked so hard to gain.

However, you need to do what’s right for you.

Personally, my “dark period” (as I call it) from my national fraternity was about six years. After heavy undergraduate involvement, followed by three years on the fraternity’s professional staff, I was ready to reframe things.  I had some negativity about the organization that was making me dysfunctional.  I needed some time away to stop hating some things about the organization.

I took a big step back, and I hardly thought of myself as a fraternity man for those six years.  Down came the fraternity paraphernalia from my walls.  I stopped wearing the tshirts.  I fell off their radar.  There were conferences I attended that asked for my fraternity affiliation, and I left that part blank.

It turned out to be a very good thing for me.  I needed some distance.  I devoted time to my career, my financial well-being, and my romantic life.  I started a family.  I joined organizations that did other things – things relevant to my career, where I lived, and communities with whom I wanted to socialize. I learned how to come home in the evenings and relax.

I missed my fraternity, sometimes.  Other times, I didn’t miss it at all.  Through this period, I started forgetting the things that drove me nuts about it, and I started remembering the good parts.

In that seventh year, someone at the national fraternity reached out to me, invited me to an event, and I began to reconnect.  Slowly, cautiously, and in ways that fit into my new life without disrupting it. The organization looked different to me at 28 than it did at 22.  Three years later, I attended a convention again – not in some demanding leadership capacity, but simply as a participant.  My break allowed me to consider what lifelong involvement meant to me.

Looking back, I wish I had done a few things differently during the time I went “dark.”  I wish I had taken a more active role in maintaining some of my friendships.  I should have continued donating to the Foundation.  I should have expressed less disgust with the organization as part of my mental break –  I levied a lot of criticisms on the organization because I had some hurt feelings and felt devalued.

I thought taking a break needed to be an all-or-nothing thing.  I cut myself off from my group entirely because it seemed the only healthy way to disconnect. That’s not the way it has to be.  You don’t have to be a chapter advisor or take on a national leadership role to stay connected.  You can be a bottom-third member, maintaining some ties, without disappearing altogether.  Most of all, you can be positive about your organization and remain grateful for the opportunities it gave you.

You were a top-third member for so long.  Choosing to detach for a few years while you get your life together doesn’t mean rejecting it.  It means moving from top-third involvement to a more reasonable middle- or even bottom-third framework, and keeping a smile on your face while doing it.

You have to allow yourself the possibility that – at some point, eventually – you might be able to be involved in a meaningful, reasonable way again. Your organization likely will be there when you’re ready.  It will feel weird to go back after some time away, and you might need to spend some time adjusting to new political realities, business practices, and organizational priorities.  People there might not value you like they used to.  You might have that moment when you want to stand and scream, “Don’t you people know who I am?”

No, they don’t.  You took a break.  Now you have to reestablish yourself and your value to the organization, which is a good thing.  Now you can choose involvements that make sense for you, that are fun and meaningful, and that fit nicely with your abilities to contribute.

It might mean going back to the basics of your group.  Help in a small way with an event.  Advise a group in a niche capacity.  Make a few phone calls and catch up on some neglected relationships.

When you do, you’ll find many alumni who are also in that reconnecting phase, and you’ll make new and valuable relationships. Hopefully, through your new lens, you’ll come to appreciate your organization in a whole new way.

You might even find yourself liking the involvement enough to become top-third again.  This time, you will bring a whole new frame of wisdom to that involvement. Perhaps you’ll be able to guide and encourage others finding their way back from their own dark periods.


I believe in fraternities

AtlanticGuest blog by Sam Davidson

The article in this month’s The Atlantic by Caitlin Flanagan has more bark than bite. The cover headline, “The Fraternity Problem” may have had some guessing that Flanagan would call for the abolishment of all Greek societies and the disbursement of their remaining assets to the nearest charity. But, in her very fair treatment of the current fraternity and sorority system, Flanagan’s chief target isn’t a specific chapter or fraternity; her main beef is with institutionalism.

She goes after national bodies, local chapters, universities, college kids, litigators and media equally. In fact, when reading it, I felt exasperated that in many cases where fraternities are at the center of terrible instances, there is no clear pathway to blame, responsibility, and sadly, prevention.

The article mentions much of the good that fraternities provide to the world, namely leadership training, philanthropy, and community – three great reasons I very much support America’s Greek community as we know it on campuses and as I personally know it as a proud alumnus. But the article also shows how powerful bodies tend to grow more powerful through legal maneuvering and shrewd business strategy.

Most of the undergraduates I know will never see this article. In fact, most of the undergraduates I know don’t come close to exhibiting the behavior that the article details, calling attention to a handful of worst case scenarios that are void of courageous leadership.

And this is why I believe in fraternities.

I don’t only believe in fraternities because I’m a positive product of the system, shaped by friends and brothers to form part of who I am today. I believe in them because in my travels and speeches, I’ve found the willing leadership needed to keep fraternity and sorority life a positive and transformative experience for so many.

I believe in fraternities as an instrumental and transformative social experience for young men and women.

I believe in fraternities as a chance for someone to find his or her passionate cause that they may contribute to over a lifetime.

I believe in fraternities as an excellent arbiter of leadership training and inspiration.

I believe in fraternities as a vital connection between alumni and their school.

I believe in fraternities as a link between a student’s first days at school and his or her final ones, a place to become shaped into who they dream of being with the guidance of peers, tradition, hope, and adults who have come before them.

But I also believe that for fraternities to be all of these things, courageous and committed leadership is needed at every level. For me, Flanagan’s article was a call to a deeper form of leadership as much as it was an analysis of what’s gone wrong over the last 40 years.

I believe that fraternities should make sure houses that bear letters on the outside are up to fire sprinkler and building codes, regardless of in whose name the deed rests.

I believe that fraternity men and sorority women must look after members (initiated and not yet), peers, and guests when they visit a house. This may be seen as a hassle and detract from the convivial atmosphere a party hopes to create, but leadership doesn’t take parties off.

I believe that colleges and institutions must hold chapters and members – and national bodies and alumni – accountable to embodying their deeply held values. And when those values are violated, schools must make sure that all students – not just members – are kept safe, even if it means the loss of valuable financial contributions.

I believe that if fraternities claim to do good, they must be good – for everyone. Initiated members are not the exclusive recipients of the positive effects a fraternity can have.

I believe the time is now for courageous and bold leadership that doesn’t bend to the whims of a strong but uniformed wind. Leadership is needed that sets agendas and doesn’t react to them.

I closed this issue of The Atlantic with the same positive outlook of fraternities and sororities that I had before I read it. But I was left with a nagging question: who will lead?

I believe that fraternities will.

I believe that fraternities can be reformed from within if leadership is willing to live in that tension between what is right and what is popular. I believe that, like other institutions such as churches, governments, and corporations, fraternities can move beyond the careless actions of a few and the negligence of bureaucracy in order to chart a course towards somewhere better.

I believe in fraternities. So do millions of other men and women. But the time for reaction is over. The time for action has come.

And so I pose to you the haunting question that the article inspired in me:

Who will lead?


sam-280x280-1Sam Davidson is a member of Pi Kappa Phi, a CAMPUSPEAK speaker, and founder of Batch, an exciting new company taking Nashville and other cities by storm.

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