Stop Selling Incense Sticks, Oils, or Fruits – Focus on Building Relationships and Connecting Culture

by Tenea J. McGhee, M.A.

In most downtown urban areas and beach towns, you will find someone hustling to sell incense sticks, oils, or fruit; “We got the best deal in town, three (3) oils for $20,” or “Let me tell you what makes our product the best.” Those same tactics show up when culturally-based fraternal organizations (CBFOs) sell their fraternal experience; “We got the best organization with over (X) number of members and chapters” or “Let me tell you about all the firsts our organization has.”

If CBFOs are to recruit effectively – yes CBFOs recruit – they must do a better job of building relationships and connecting the cultural significance of their organization/experience with potential new members-interests (PNM-I).

Post-pandemic, two primary challenges we continue to see many of our fraternity and sorority members struggle with are having intentional conversations and forming relationships. Despite expressing “things are different now,” they still use static recruitment tactics that hinder their ability to connect with their peers effectively. More specifically, some CBFOs struggle to establish authentic relationships and connect the value of their cultural/ethnic fraternal experience.

According to a statement by Dr. Sara Lindberg (2020) in the article, Covid-19 Is Changing the Way We Communicate-Here’s How:

Now is the time to be flexible and adaptable when it comes to how we express ourselves to others. It’s crucial we show compassion and kindness to each other as we maneuver through these changes. And most importantly, be willing to advocate for individual needs, whether they are for yourself or someone else.

Therefore, in an industry where “people join people”, CBFOs must realize it’s not about them; it’s about their ability to lean into being socially excellent by creating dynamic relationships. According to the book Social Excellence: We Dare You, Social Excellence [n]: is a “desire to intentionally connect with others. The ability to engage in deep, meaningful conversation” (Mattson et. al., 2011, p. 21).

CBFOs must dive deeper into four (4) essential perspectives to have sustainable growth.

  1. Recruitment Is a Lifestyle
  2. It’s Not About You
  3. Culture Matters
  4. Authentic Relationships

Recruitment Is a Lifestyle

According to The Harbor Institute Guide to Culturally Based Fraternal Organizations, “Culturally based fraternal organizations (CBFOs) are fraternities and sororities that were founded for the primary purpose of advancing a marginalized community” (Cromwell & Pualwan, 2018). Historically, most CBFOs disassociated with the term recruitment because it was associated with how Interfraternity Council (IFC) and National Panhellenic Conference (NPC) organizations conducted their membership process.

As a result, CBFOs stated, and some still say, “That’s not us” or “We don’t recruit.” However, if CBFO’s cause is to speed on its way, they must adopt a dynamic recruitment™ mindset – “to attract, select, and secure the right people” (Phired Up, 2019). To do this effectively, CBFOs cannot wait until first-year/new student move in or two weeks before their recruitment week/informational/interest/rush/expresso meeting to start connecting with Potential New Members-Interest (PNM-I).

They must understand the importance of creating a lifestyle in building relationships year-round, formally and informally, making space for the following to happen:

  1. Create Awareness
  2. Identify Pipelines
  3. Establish Authentic Relationships
  4. Secure Interest

Sometimes, CBFOs say, “There are not any quality people to select from.” However, is it that there are no quality people, or is it they don’t have quality strategies that allow them to find the right quality people?

It’s Not About You

“We’ve always done it this way” or “It’s tradition” are often the excuses we hear as to why some CBFOs are stuck in a static recruitment ™ mindset, and we all know what excuses are “Tools of the incompetent….” IYKYK (If You Know, You Know). A static attitude allows CBFOs to feel PNM-I should come to them or hide behind discretion when genuinely, some do not know what they should be and shouldn’t be discussing.

Fundamentally, a static outlook puts the organization/member before the potential new member-interest (PNM-I). In reality, it should be the PNM-I aligned with the organization/member. When CBFOs interact with PNM-I, they should:

  1. Be curious to discover the personal and professional interests of PNM-I.
  2. Align PNM-I’s interest with the national organization’s values and outreach efforts.
  3. Draw the connection between one’s cultural identity/interest with CBFO value-add benefits.

Culture Matters

According to Dr. Brian Steensland’s article Sociology of Culture, culture “refers to the beliefs that people hold about reality, the norms that guide their behavior, the values that orient their moral commitments, or the symbols through which these beliefs, norms, and values are communicated” (2011). If CBFOs are to do it for the culture, then in this post-pandemic era, they must reconnect and stay connected to the cultural origins in which they were founded. In the words of Marcus Garvey, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.” CBFOs staying connected to their cultural identity is important because it allows them to stay true to who they are and continue to advance the efforts of marginalized communities.

As CBFOs navigate this new environment being flexible and adaptable in expressing themselves to others, they need to learn how to enhance potential new member-interest (PNM-I) personal and professional development.

In a presentation presented by Dr. Eric J. Simeon, he highlighted six imperative value-added benefits to which CBFOs must draw a connection (E. Simeons, personal communication, 2018).

  1. Cultural Identity Development
  2. Providing an anchor to the same community connections.
  3. Allowing members to develop their cultural identity.
  4. Global Citizenship/Cultural Competence
  5. Better relate to/work with those from different backgrounds
  6. Higher involvement in political activity after college

These connections are important because they help those ethnically/racially marginalized students and those who want to extend allyship to those communities at predominantly white institutions (PWIs) find a sense of mattering and belonging.

Authentic Relationships

There are levels to building relationships! To avoid falling into the traps of selling organizations, CBFOs must be positioned and set up for success to form authentic relationships. The process in which we form relationships should challenge CBFOs to practice the Dynamic Recruitment™ philosophy of “Be More Normal.”

For example, often when participating in tabling events, organizations either come off like they are selling Girl Scout cookies or only focused on showing off the newest stroll/salute they just learned. As a result, it may be off-putting or scare people away because they are unsure of how to approach members and/or if they want to engage with said group. Instead, true relationships are built in front of the table, not behind the table, where they have the opportunity to be curious about the person they meet and authentic in their conversations.

An identified obstacle that has been observed and sometimes communicated by CBFOs is the imposter syndrome mindset (Tulshyan and Burey, 2021). Historically, we know this term focused on high-achieving women. However, when we observe this mentality within CBFOs, they adopt the attitude of, “But we’re not as good as…”, comparing themselves to Interfraternity Council (IFC) or National Panhellenic Conference (NPC). As a result, they mask the cultural components and experiences that can bring value to underrepresented student populations.

CBFOs should practice the following Socially Excellent™ behaviors with a Potential New Member Interest (PNM-I) to ensure CBFOs know how to form authentic relationships:

  1. Be curious to learn more about the PNM-I.
  2. Be generous with time to be more transparent about the CBFO experience.
  3. Be authentic in actions, not over-promising and underdelivering experience.
  4. Be vulnerable to share how their CBFO experience helps co-create a meaningful collegiate experience.

CBFOs avoid these levels of engagement because of fear of the word no. No, I don’t have time. No, I don’t want to attend. No, I’m not interested. Stakeholders invested in supporting CBFOs should help them see that N.O. stands for the next opportunity. Developing authentic relationships doesn’t happen overnight.

If CBFOs are to cultivate healthy and sustainable recruitment efforts in a post-pandemic era, they need to generate holistic interactions that create a lifestyle that centers PNM-I with the organization, positions culture at the forefront, and cultivates deep and authentic relationships.

An unknown author said, “You gotta look deep to find deep things. If all you ever do in your life is stay on the surface, you’ll never find anything worth exploring”.



Cromwell, R. A., & Pualwan, E. N. (2018). The Harbor Institute Guide to Culturally Based Fraternal Organizations.

Lindberg, S. (2020). COVID-19 Is Changing the Way We Communicate-Here’s How. Verywellmind. Retrieved on June 6, 2023.

Mattson, M., Williams, J. G., & Orendi, J. (2011). Social Excellence: We Dare You. Phired Up Productions.

Phired Up. (2019, May). What is Dynamic Recruitment? Retrieved June 6, 2023.

Steensland, B. (2011). Sociology of Culture. Oxford Bibliographies. Retrieved on June 6, 2023.

Tulshyan, R. & Burey, A.(2021). Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved on June 6, 2023.,focused%20on%20high%2Dachieving%20women.

About the author

Native from Fort Worth, TX, Tenea completed her undergrad studies at the University of North Texas and master’s program at Clark Atlanta University.  As a proud Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. member for the past 24 years, Tenea is active through the Nu Zeta Graduate Chapter in Knoxville, TN.

For the past 2.5 years, Tenea McGhee has served as Phired Up’s inaugural Cultural Based Fraternal Organization (CBFO) Director of Growth. With over 15 years of professional experience in public research, private/historically black, and flagship institutions, Tenea thrives in spaces that help communities flourish.

Career Center

Other readings

Changing the Fraternity/Sorority Culture

A 2022 NIC Advisor Award of Distinction recipient reflects...

Rewriting the Playbook: Post-pandemic priorities for fraternity/sorority life

Perspectives editors were interested in hearing from a variety...

Prioritizing Change in Fraternity and Sorority Life

Fraternities and sororities have created community and connected members...

Find a Growth Strategy That Fits (Part II): Marketing the Sorority Experience?

College Panhellenic communities are experiencing new challenges around enrollment...

Who Am I Posting For?

Social media has played a role in my life...