Saturday, January 15, 2011

Giving and Getting: Philanthropy among African American Fraternities

by Gasman, Louison, and Barnes

The story of African American fraternities began in 1905 in Ithaca, New York, on Cornell's bitterly cold and racially intolerant campus. Pressured to "ascend" the "proscriptions of color common to American institutions of this era, and hampered by limited means of the average 'poor' student," the founders of the nations oldest intercollegiate black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, "faced the future and boldly endeavored to find a way out of their difficulties, scarcely realizing, however, the import of their action on subsequent generations".[70] Whether they found themselves stranded on historically white college campuses in New York, Indiana, or Ohio or among their own people in Washington, D.C., or Baltimore, the founders of each fraternity set out to establish a mission and adhered to the basic principles of education, political involvement, and economic empowerment to advance the race.

Initiates of Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi, Phi Beta Sigma, and Iota Phi Theta have, from their organizations' inception, taken solemn oaths to serve one another and humankind.[71] The modus operandi of each fraternity is expressed clearly in its motto. Thus, the Kappas aim is to produce "achievement in every field of human endeavor." The Omega knows that "friendship is essential to the soul" and uses it to serve others.. Establishing a "culture for service and service for humanity" is the Sigma's creed. The Iota believes in "building a tradition, not resting one" as he works to advance social change. Being "servants to all" is what Alphas strive to do.[72]

This review of philanthropy in black fraternities highlights the historical models that the five organizations have used to increase blacks' participation in education, engage them in political processes, stimulate their entrepreneurial ambitions, and establish a tradition of giving through fraternity-based foundations. We point to the driving influences behind their philanthropy, noting why and how black fraternities have given support to the greater good.


In fraternity histories, the formation of "movements," or what would later be called "national programs," was often a response to the crisis of the day or the vision fraternity men had for future generations.[73] It is important to remem¬ber that during the earliest years of black fraternities, between 1906 and 1914, black men and women had limited access to higher education. Few African Americans were aware of the benefits of higher education, and discrimination was widespread.[74]

The black fraternities' methods for solving what many referred to as the "Negro problem" focused on balancing inequities in public and private education, creating businesses, participating in political processes, establishing foundations, and building strategic alliances. Early debates routinely questioned the efficacy and sustainability of responding to fraternal and community calls for action. These debates, however, helped lay permanent foundations on which future generations of fraternity men could stand and thus advance themselves, their families, their communities, and their fraternities.[75]

Within black fraternities, philanthropic endeavors typically began at the local level and spread throughout each organization with the aid of national conclaves and conferences. Iota Phi Theta places this fact in the proper perspective on its national Web site: "In the initial stages of the Fraternity's existence, the Fraternity's service initiatives were local in nature as reflected by the size of the Fraternity and the scope of its resources. As the Fraternity began to take on a national dimension, it became evident that its programmatic thrust would have to be adjusted accordingly. This adjustment was complicated however, by the fact that many chapters have had historical ties to service organizations and causes in their local areas."[76] Tremendous overlap in philanthropic focus exists across each fraternity. Also, it is important to note that each organization awards scholarships to members and nonmembers at the chapter, district or state, and national levels, amounting to millions of dollars spent on African American education. No one fraternity concentrates on only one national initiative, and efforts often overlap within chapters.


The brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha agree that a college education is the "single best predictor of future economic success."[77] As such, they developed the national Go-to-High School, Go-to-College campaign in 1920, which used speakers, pamphlets, and personal letters to advertise the benefits of a college education.[78] Today, Alphas deliver their message year-round through a curriculum that concentrates on time management, study skills, goal setting, violence and conflict prevention, building self-esteem, historical perspectives of African and African American peoples, gender in society and current events.[79]

Omega Psi Phi's national talent search awards scholarships to young people each year. The search began in the fraternity's Sixth District, which covers North and South Carolina. Since 1953, Omegas have organized talent contests in local communities and at their national conclaves.[80] Likewise, Phi Beta Sigma "focuses on programming and services to graduates and undergraduates in the fraternity" through its National Education Program.[81] Tutoring, scholarship awards, and lectures are its core objectives.[82]


Before the Great Depression, and before the discovery of "black capitalism" and the federal Office of Minority Business Enterprise in the late 1960s, the fraternity men of Sigma introduced the "Bigger and Better Negro Business" exhibition in 1924 to showcase to members and the public the achievements of the race. At the first convention in Philadelphia, more than twenty-five leading black businesses entered more than fifty exhibits. The response from local visitors was supportive, and as a result, the fraternity voted unanimously in 1925 to make "Bigger and Better Negro Business" a regular program. This program is consistent with Phi Beta Sigmas commitment to improving the economic conditions of minorities and the welfare of society at large.[83] Today, the programs mission includes "the promotion and fostering of ideas for the effective organization, improvement and expansion of business and the dissemination and propagation of information for the advancement of sound business principles and practices."[84] Partnering with organizations such as the NAACP and the National Urban League, Sigma offers financial and home ownership information to its members and their families through its Project SEED (Sigma Economic Empowerment Development). It also runs "an all-volunteer board, manager and staff" credit union for "the blue and white family" of Sigmas and the women of Zeta Phi Beta.[85] Deposits in the credit union are insured up to $100,000, and it provides low-cost mortgages for fraternity and sorority members, as well as loans for home improvement, education, and weddings.


An old joke asks: "What's the difference between ignorance and indifference?" The answer: "I don't know and I don't care." Each fraternal organization has endeavored to inform communities about pressing social issues that must be addressed through political and legislative processes, including getting people out to vote in local, state, and national elections.

Social action is the term most of the fraternities use to describe activities aimed at registering voters and increasing their knowledge of political issues.[86] Alpha Phi Alpha professes that "A Voteless People Is a Hopeless People." Its campaign began in the 1930s and was led by chapters across the country. Over the years, the Alphas have maintained and strengthened their belief in the power of voting.[87] In fact, in 2005 they began an effort to raise awareness of the expiration of the Voting Rights Act. Members of the organization testified before Congress and worked in local communities to educate African Americans about the importance of the act's reauthorization.[88] Likewise, the brothers of Omega Psi Phi are dedicated to a national platform aimed at increasing political involvement and voting. According to the national office, "all levels of the fraternity are expected to facilitate, participate and/or coordinate activities that will uplift their communities through the power of the vote."[89]


Another way the fraternities work to combat ignorance and educate the African American community is through their health-related initiatives. For example, Omega Psi Phi chapters aim to uplift their local communities through the promotion of good health practices. Specifically, the chapters participate in the Charles Drew Blood Drive each June, the American Diabetes Association, and several HIV/AIDS awareness initiatives.[90] This last effort is particularly important because African Americans represent 50 percent of all new AIDS cases in the United States.[91] Phi Beta Sigma chapters, like the Omegas, spend considerable time raising money and educating their local communities on issues that are detrimental to the health of African Americans, such as diabetes.[92]

Eliminating health disparities in the black community has been a major thrust for fraternal organizations. In 2002, Iota Phi Theta launched a national Sickle Cell Anemia Awareness Campaign with St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. According to Scott Seward, Iota Phi Thetas Pennsylvania state director, "Children are a significant reason for me to do community service. My chapter has donated several thousand dollars to the St. Jude's Cancer Foundation for Children."[93]

Alpha Phi Alpha forms a national partnership with the March of Dimes each year. Both organizations work cooperatively to educate teenagers about sexual health and responsibility. Males and, in some cases, females between the ages of twelve and fifteen participate in workshops designed to let them explore their attitudes about their sexuality, increase their awareness of sexually transmitted diseases, and improve their self-esteem. Also, both organizations raise funds for research on birth defects and educational programs through Walk America. "Every day 1 in 8 babies born in the U.S. arrives too soon," reports the March of Dimes.[94] Alpha brothers team up and engage in fraternal competitions to determine which chapter can raise the most funds and get the most members to participate in the walk.


Over the years, fraternities have partnered with national nonprofit organizations and well-known for-profit corporations to advance their fraternal missions. In some cases, the fraternities were invited to participate in the development of nationwide programs and strategies to deliver educational curricula and resources aimed at reducing the plight of low- to moderate-income communities.

Iota men help communities "succeed in a digital age" through a joint effort with and Microsoft Corporation to bridge the digital divide. The digital divide has been described as a social, racial, class, and even political problem in society that further separates the haves from the have-nots with regard to technology and information access. In 2001, Iota men set out to deliver black culture and history to schools through Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Kwame Anthony Appiah's Africana Encyclopedia and Microsoft's Encarta Africana, the CD-ROM version.[95]

The preponderance of single-parent households is a critical issue in urban and rural communities. National organizations such as the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America have sought to ease the stress in these homes by provid¬ing children with "Bigs" to serve as mentors, counselors, and guides. In 1990, Alpha Phi Alpha signed an agreement with Big Brothers/Big Sisters to assist in its efforts to create environments where single parents and their children can increase their growth options and opportunities.[96] The fraternity also partnered with the Boy Scouts of America to create additional opportunities for boys to receive career guidance from accomplished black males.

Fraternities have partnered with or donated to the causes of such organizations as the NAACP, National Urban League, and United Negro College Fund. Omega Psi Phi has an extensive history of giving to these organizations. At Omega Psi Phi’s Los Angeles Grand Conclave in 1955, it was decided that "each graduate chapter would purchase a Life Membership from the NAACP," and "between 1955 and 1959, chapters contributed nearly $40,000" to the organization.[97] In the 1980s, the fraternity contributed $250,000 to the United Negro College Fund and authorized an "annual gift of 50,000 dollars to that organization in perpetuity."[98]


Determining what drives people to give of their time, talents, and treasures to help others is no easy task. Although there are many reasons why a person might express a philanthropic spirit, it is clear that purpose is what drives black fraternity men. They connect on a number of levels with the missions of their organizations. Isaac Fraisier, an Omega Psi Phi brother for fifty-plus years, says his fraternity encourages him to "produce a better society where there are more and better young people being prepared to become leaders. It's an inward feeling that I get when I'm helping Omega to be the best. You are a servant of the community."[99] Fraisier has been a dues-paying member since he was initiated in 1949 on the campus of Claflin College. Born in 1925, he is currently a very active member of Nu Alpha Graduate Chapter in Charleston, South Carolina.

Iota Phi Theta member Scott Seward remarks, "My inspiration to serve comes from the knowledge that somebody will be better educated or better prepared in life because of my efforts and the efforts of my brothers. There is no other reason why I do this than the promotion and positive movement of the black race."[100] Seward was initiated at West Chester University in Pennsylvania in 2001 and is thirty years old. He is a member of the Chi Omega Chapter in Philadelphia.

Although the black church has often been cited as a reason for participating in philanthropic activities, some members do not understand this notion. According to Seward, "I am a Christian. I don't believe there is a spiritual influence in this work. Some of the [philosophies] connect with my fraternity's ideals, but I don't confuse them. We have partnered with churches and faith-based organizations on several occasions. It helps promote our brothers' work to people we wouldn't connect with through our other events and community service efforts." On the campuses of black colleges and universities, religion was a strong influence in the development of a service orientation. According to Fraisier, "Claflin was supported by the Methodist Church. The president demanded that everyone put on clean shirts and pants, and line up to go to church every Sunday. We marched with the Deltas to the church. Service wasn't a hard thing for me to do because of my background. It was a demanding sort of thing at Claflin."[101]

Since pledging was officially abolished in 1990, the fraternities have put service at the core of their process to initiate new members.[102] In all cases, "aspirants" are required to design and implement a community service project or program during the orientation period. Some believe that membership intake does not instill philanthropic values, but others disagree. "After some members pay for membership and use up their advanced payment, they don't come around anymore, and are not to be counted on to give time and money" said Fraisier. He continued, "It depends on brothers that sponsor new members to help them embrace that promotion [philanthropy]." Seward has a different point of view: "When service projects are properly implemented, intakes get to see that philanthropy is second nature for a brother. When they're done improperly, it has a negative effect and intakes see service as a chore. I believe engaging intakes in the service project or fund-raising development process helps him to better understand that this is our fraternity’s primary purpose, and it’s what's most important to the brotherhood." According to Seward, "Tradition goes hand in hand with philanthropy."[103] Each fraternity prides itself on what it has done to serve others. Service is their raison d'etre. Each of their creation stories points to a void that was present in their communities and the steps they took to improve themselves and society. Tradition is a powerful influence in the black fraternity, especially among the more senior members.

In addition to the imperatives to give, there are certainly factors that have a negative impact on giving. Membership fees and dues at the chapter and national levels have the potential to dampen the philanthropic spirit. "Even though it's sad to say, membership fees, local and national dues, and convention costs have a negative effect on the willingness and ability of a member to donate money to scholarship causes," Seward observed. Established members are more likely to make direct donations to scholarship funds. These members are typically alumni who have achieved a modicum of success in their careers. Fraisier points to economic reality when he says: "Young people in the fraternity are still in debt after graduating from college. They have small children, mortgages, etc. That situation has a negative effect on their ability to give time and money, but sometimes they manage to do it. More established alumni brothers are different altogether."[104] Socioeconomic background, lifestyle, living arrangements, and even hobbies are all factors in a fraternity member s ability and willingness to participate in his organization. There are many more reasons that push and pull these men to give up the things that matter to them to help others.

It is evident that BGLOs play an intensely significant role in American philanthropy, specifically in the lives of African Americans. As demonstrated, in formal and informal ways, black sororities and fraternities have worked to serve and shape their local, regional, and national communities. Too often, the work of these organizations has been overlooked by historians and scholars with little access to organizational papers and key stakeholders. As noted, this is often due to the secretive nature of these organizations. However, through the scholarship of insiders and those who are willing to invest the time, a rich, wonderful story of love of humankind can be told. Telling this story is essential to establishing the relevance of BGLOs, especially in light of recent criticism surrounding hazing issues. The African American community and the general public need to be made aware of the multilayered, complex history and operation of BGLOs in order to have a more informed understanding of their contributions to society.

Excerpt from Black Greek-Letter Organizations in the 21st Century
edited by Gregory S. Parks. University Press of Kentucky, 2008. p.197-209.


70. Charles H. Wesley, The History of Alpha Phi Alpha: A Development in College Life (Baltimore: Foundation Publishers, 1996), 15.
71. Brown et al., African American Fraternities and Sororities.
72. Ibid.; Herman Dreer, The History of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity: A Brotherhood of Negro College Men, 1911-1939 (Washington, D.C.: Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, 1940); W. S. Savage and L. D. Reddick, Our Cause Speeds On: An Informal History of the Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity (Atlanta: Fuller Press, 1957); John Slade, The Centaur Rising: Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Inc.: Ascending to the Next Millennium (Washington, D.C.: Nations
Capital Publishers, 1999).
73. McKenzie, "Community Service and Social Action”.
74. John Hope Franklin and Alfred Moss, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994).
75. Brown et al., African American Fraternities and Sororities; Walter Kimbrough, Black Greek 101: The Culture, Customs, and Challenges of Black Fraternities and Sororities (Teaneck, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003).
76. Iota Phi Theta Web site, (accessed April 9, 2006).
77. Go-to-High-School, Go-to-College curriculum guide, (accessed April 8, 2006).
78. Wesley, History of Alpha Phi Alpha.
79. Ross, The Divine Nine.
80. Dreer, History of Omega Psi Phi. a .
81. Phi Beta Sigma national Web site, (accessed 27 April 2006).
82. Welton Scott, History of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity (Savannah, Ga.: Savannah State College, 1970).
83. Ibid.; Phi Beta Sigma Web site,
84. Phi Beta Sigma Web site,
85. Ibid.
86. McKenzie, "Community Service and Social Action."
87. Wesley, History of Alpha Phi Alpha.
88. Alpha Phi Alpha Web site, (accessed 30 April 2006).
89. Omega Psi Phi Web site, (accessed 30 April 2006).
90. Ibid.; Dreer, History of Omega Psi Phi; Robert Gill, The Omega Psi Phi Fraternity and the Men Who Make Its History (Washington, D.C.: Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, 1940).
91. Centers for Disease Control, (accessed 30 April 2006).
92. Savage and Reddick, Our Cause Speeds On.
93. Scott Seward, written response to survey questions.
94. March of Dimes corporate Web site, (accessed 29 April 2006).
95. Iota Phi Theta Web site,
96. Alpha Phi Alpha Web site,
97. Gill, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity; Omega Psi Phi Web site,
98. Omega Psi Phi Web site,
99. Isaac Fraisier, telephone interview with Mark Barnes, 9 March 2006.
100. Seward, written response to survey questions.
101. Ibid.; Fraisier interview.
102. Brown et al., African American Fraternities and Sororities.
103. Fraisier interview; Scott Seward, interview with Mark Barnes, 9 March 2006.
104. Seward interview; Fraisier interview.

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