In 2007, Michael Abraham, Theta Tau’s Executive Director, couldn’t have imagined the membership growth that was about to transform his national fraternity... Or, maybe that’s exactly what he has been methodically building toward since he took over the role in the mid 1990’s. Leading up to the fraternity’s summer meeting at Vanderbilt University, Abe took a little time to help me understand how Theta Tau is doing it. Below are excerpts from our conversation.
How do you describe Theta Tau fraternity?
Theta Tau is a professional engineering fraternity. We’re unique in that our membership is co-ed and open to all engineering disciplines. We focus on professional development, social enrichment, and community service opportunities for our collegiate members.
When did you become Executive Director?
1996. It’s still the job of a generalist, not a specialist, but the role has changed a lot since then.
The role used to be to manage the central office. Now, I have a more proactive role. Expansion is one example. The central office drives all of Theta Tau’s expansion efforts.
Based on Theta Tau’s growth numbers, I’m assuming that’s gone well?
We’ve grown from 39 chapters in 2007 to 74 chapters in 2017 … with 100% chapter retention of chapters established in the last two decades. I’d say yes.
Has expansion been the biggest factor in your growth?
Probably. Although our average chapter size has doubled during the same time period and our membership retention rate is consistently above 90%.
Did you say average chapter size DOUBLED and over 90% retention!?
It’s time to spill the beans! How are you growing this fast without attrition?
I imagine people reading this may be disappointed in my answer.
Let’s hear it anyway.
There’s no magic bullet. No one thing. There were many changes over a long period of time that made this type of growth possible for Theta Tau. In short, real and perceived barriers were removed. Education and training were more standardized and widely delivered.
For example. We used to cap our membership -- we thought maintaining small chapters was central to our identity. That was bad business and more importantly it meant our chapters were turning away great people who would have been amazing brothers just because of an arbitrary maximum membership number. It was part of our culture and systems to celebrate being small. It takes a long time to change culture and build new policies, new systems. Now, our undergraduates have recruitment goals and expectations. On the whole, they are excited about growth and like having a target to shoot for. Engineers are by their nature problem solvers. If we’re honest about a problem, it can be fixed. We like a challenge -- fixing something, designing a cleaner process, making a product better can apply to people as well as widgets. This is an exciting time to be a member of Theta Tau.
Another important policy change was eliminating our unanimous secret vote for membership. That definitely opened things up for growth. Fees and dues have been kept constant for long stretches, making membership affordable to some who would not have considered it.
Another example of Theta Tau’s culture changing was shifting from a mindset that new members have to prove/earn their membership. That’s old thinking. Now, we use the Phired Up recruitment model that brings in members who are at or above the level of our current members and focuses on friendships before membership.
Each change is a piece of a larger puzzle, or machine. Each was evaluated within the larger framework, not an immediate need. Policy and culture changes aren’t easy and they take time. But I think we’re benefitting from them now.
Thanks for the unsolicited Phired Up plug!
Ha! You’re welcome. It’s true, Phired Up training at our regional conferences has absolutely been a driver of chapter growth.
Have there been factors beyond your control that impacted recruitment and retention?
The biggest is probably college admissions. Student enrollment is way up. This is especially true within engineering schools. ASEE just reported that undergraduate engineering enrollment is up 57% since 2007. There’s no doubt that we’re benefiting from that.
That said, there’s also a reality that engineering is really hard and the rate at which students drop out or switch majors is often high. I’m proud that Theta Tau’s graduation rate is higher than that of our host institutions. We’re doing a good job of helping our brothers stay in school, have a more meaningful and more connected experience, and graduate with a great career. I think that’s a big reason why so many colleges have been welcoming new Theta Tau chapters to campus.
Are there other Theta Tau successes during this time that you’re especially proud of?
Along with membership growing rapidly, so has our Foundation. We’re able to do more good for more students than ever before. Our leadership programming has impacted thousands of students in a positive way and our scholarships are helping to reward dozens of great students every year while offsetting the rising cost of higher education. I’m proud of our alumni for their generosity; for stepping up to the challenge by growing the Theta Tau Foundation. I know, cliché, but in the last 25 years, I’ve had truly unique opportunities to meet great Brothers of all ages - Lou Gehrig was never Executive Director of Theta Tau so he didn’t know any better.
Is the growth rate you’ve experienced sustainable?
Probably not for another decade, though it’s hard for me to admit it. Expansion will need more alumni volunteer involvement to continue at our current rate. We’re having those conversations at the Board level now.
What does Theta Tau look like 10 years from now?
For starters, we’ll be a lot more diverse – more so than the student body now, and more than superficially. Better thinkers, better doers, better makers. I think Theta Tau chapters will be made up of the best men and women on campus – though “campus” will become more obsolete.
Give me a hard truth, final tip for organizations that want to focus on growth?
Just one? Don’t take no for an answer! Any idiot can give you a reason not to do something. Fraternities need new chapters in the same way chapters need new members – always.
The interfraternal industry has been in a golden era of membership growth having experienced annual growth every year for nearly 20 years – with many organizations having enjoyed accelerated growth in the last 5 years. Theta Tau is a great example of a professional fraternity that chose to do more than ride the industry growth wave. They pivoted their strategy to focus on expansion, changed longstanding internal policies, addressed culture, invested in education, and raised expectations. Theta Tau prepared in a way that allowed them to accelerate through the industry growth wave. Their success is earned. I’m proud to share their story. I hope it will inform and inspire others to do the same.
Interview Date: July 24, 2017
Interviewer: Josh Orendi, Josh@PhiredUp.com / Josh@TechniPhi.com
Interviewing: Mike Abraham, Mike.Abraham@ThetaTau.org
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Posted on Thu, August 10, 2017
by Phired Up Admin