Does Size Really Matter? Supporting High-Functioning Micro Chapters

by Amanda Oller & Keith D. Garcia

There is no question that organizational growth has been, and always will be, a dominating priority for our fraternity and sorority communities. If we do not recruit, we do not exist. But somewhere along the line, it feels like we have aligned ourselves with a “bigger is better” approach. Larger chapters are considered to be more successful and high functioning, while smaller chapters, or micro chapters, are labeled as “struggling” or somehow inferior because of their lack of resources, visibility, or manpower.

But does small necessarily mean struggling? The term “micro chapter” is relative to the context they operate in, referring to chapters that are small when existing in a context with many larger chapters as well. We have chapters in our communities across all governing councils and organizations that have between 5-20 members that continue to exist and thrive, providing a meaningful and valuable fraternal experience. Of course, we want chapters to continue to grow and reach their full potential, and few micro chapters would tell you that growth and membership is not one of their top priorities. Yet it is important for us as an industry to consider the value these chapters bring to our communities and the unique needs they have in terms of their support and operations. This is our opportunity to shine light on the micro chapter experience and reframe our mindset to support these chapters and the value they contribute to our organizations and campus communities. Many chapters may want to be bigger, but if they are not, how do we validate them and still make them feel worthy of their existence and centered in our work? These are some of the best practices we are here to discuss.

The Value in a High-Functioning Micro Chapter

There are a number of reasons why a chapter might be small. For many, it is because they exist to serve a specific purpose or population of people. We see many cultural/Divine 9 organizations fall in this category because they exist to provide a space and a community for those seeking a particular affinity experience. They often find meaning and value in grounding their fraternity and sorority experience in their identities and serving their communities. This is particularly true for certain contexts, like micro chapters at a predominately white institution (PWI) where the majority of the campus population might not exist with these identities. There is also value in having micro chapters provide a fraternity/sorority experience that might not be found in other organizations. They attract the “never joiners” that find a different type of chapter works for them. They want an experience grounded in the idea that a small chapter is a safe place for those who might not fit in elsewhere. This might change over time, or a chapter might grow out of this identity, but it is valuable that a micro chapter can provide a home for those who don’t see themselves in a larger chapter in the fraternity/sorority community. Smaller chapters also tend to provide a more affordable fraternity/sorority option, with lower membership dues and living costs that might prohibit members of these chapters from joining under different circumstances. Microchapters provide joining options in our communities, and are valuable because they exist to create space for those who might want, or need, an alternative membership experience.

Supporting Micro Chapters

As professionals who have worked intimately with small organizations, here are some best practices to consider when working to support micro chapters in your communities:

Set Achievable Expectations

  • Do your standards of excellence require a plethora of programming and attendance requirements that are difficult for small chapters to manage? Do they have to reinvent the wheel every time? Are they attending and hosting programs just to check a box and fulfill a requirement? Consider what you want them to learn, and then give them paths to meet those expectations in a way that works for them. Provide space for students to set their own strategic priorities and create accountability mechanisms that hold them to their own goals.

Embrace Their Identity and What They Have to Offer

  • Micro chapters, while small, provide a valuable service to their communities and their members. They should not feel ashamed of who they are. We should challenge their perspectives to shift from a deficit model to a space where they feel empowered and have ownership over their experiences.
  • Micro chapters often do things really well that some of our larger chapters can learn from. We should create spaces where our organizations can highlight their successes and share their content knowledge with their peers when it is valuable. For example, micro chapters may have some really great practices for building brotherhood/sisterhood/siblinghood, risk management, mentorship, delegation/consolidation of officer roles, member involvement, and more. If they are doing something well, make sure they know it, and give them a platform to share what they have to offer and be rewarded for their contributions.

Use a “Less is More” Approach

  • Micro chapters do not need to reinvent the wheel and copy everything their peers are doing. Understand what best practices can be applied to a small chapter experience, but help them understand they should not feel like they have to compete with the larger chapters or produce an experience to match them. Members join micro chapters because they are looking for something different, so they shouldn’t try to produce the same large chapter experience on a smaller scale. This can be hard for chapter leaders to understand because they have an inherent desire to fit in and see what their peers are doing as something to strive towards. The value in micro chapters is they have an experience to offer that is unique to them, so we should help them understand what is reasonable for them to achieve with what they have.

Provide Equitable Resource Support

  • Smaller chapters often have fewer resources. Period. Smaller chapters might struggle to fund even basic chapter requirements. How do we provide equitable support and funding for those who may need it? In the context of Northwestern University, for example, the office provides funding directly to culturally based sorority/fraternity councils with the intent of removing barriers. Depending on your resourcing model, support does not have to just be financial- How can we provide access to space, information, colleagues, and other resources to help micro chapters overcome barriers?
  • It is important that we are coaching councils, particularly councils made up of mostly larger chapters, to consider what they are asking chapters to contribute in terms of both monetary resources and time. Are there ways to consider more equitable contribution models that acknowledge the strains and limitations that might exist for micro chapters? Are we talking with micro chapters about these expectations to see if there can be accommodations made for their circumstances?

Growth Coaching Beyond Formalized Processes

  • Smaller chapters do not always thrive in structured recruitment models. Provide alternative pathways and opportunities for them to develop recruitment strategies that will be more productive for where they are. Get them connected to best practices and resources from other organizations that share a similar size, even if they are not in the same council or at the same university. Invest resources to help develop competencies in growth models that might fall outside our primary pathways to membership.

Create Visibility

  • Micro chapters often feel invisible simply because they might not have the physical footprint or capacity to be as present as larger organizations. How can we be intentional about creating visibility and promotional opportunities for micro chapters? If a group does not participate in a structured recruitment process, are there opportunities for them to still engage with other members of the community? How do we highlight and feature them in our publications and social media? Is there a way to still provide a physical presence, particularly if other chapters have a campus footprint? How do we intentionally create space for them to share in meetings and community gatherings where they will be outnumbered? This all contributes to their sense of belonging and their perceived value in the greater community. Even small gestures can make a big difference.

For Large Chapter Councils Specifically

  • Challenge conceptions of what a member chapter should be and how to include micro chapters in policy and decision making. There is a balance in needing to program and serve your majority members while also making space for chapter experiences that deviate from the dominant experience. This requires intentional conversations and training. Council officers may not be aware of the needs of our micro chapters or even that they exist within their councils. As advisors, it is our responsibility to provide opportunities for training and education to make sure that our officers and leaders are aware of the variety of experiences that exist within the community and how to program and create policies for chapter experiences that may be different from their own.

Use Equity and Justice as a Throughline

  • Often our expectations that chapters “look” and “perform” in certain ways are rooted in whiteness and dominant perspectives about fraternity/sorority life. It is valuable to challenge yourself and those with whom you are working to frame your practices, policies, and assumptions from a lens of equity and justice. Asking smaller organizations that may exist in that way for various reasons to operate in a fashion that larger and/or more dominant groups function may be an oppressive manner of approaching your professional practice.

There is nothing wrong with prioritizing growth. It is an essential part of chapter survival and success. But when chapters are not large, how are we as an industry supporting and validating their experiences and their value? Micro chapters serve an important role in creating space and community for those who have not found it elsewhere, as well as providing access to a fraternal experience that might not be possible in other settings. Micro chapters permeate across council and university contexts and require intentional thought and action to make them feel empowered, supported, and valued as a member of their communities. By reframing our mindset in how we approach our advising and support structures, we can help broaden our understanding of what a successful chapter can be and help micro chapters thrive and contribute to the success of our communities in meaningful ways.

 

About the authors

Amanda Oller currently serves as the Associate Director for Student Accountability and Conflict Resolution at UNC Charlotte, previously serving as a campus fraternity/sorority advisor for the past seven years. She is a member of Alpha Epsilon Phi and has served many years advising and working with micro chapters in a variety of campus and community contexts, and was a member of a micro chapter herself.

Keith D. Garcia currently serves as the Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. He is a member of La Unidad Latina, Lambda Upsilon Lambda Fraternity, Inc. In the various roles he has held on campuses and within his fraternity, he has been tasked with supporting chapters whose sizes run the spectrum from 1-200+ members. It is critical in his work that he considers the implications of the expectations, policies, and norms he creates/adheres to on the breadth of the communities he serves.

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