Elon University junior Melanie Mourt has an older brother. His name is Andrew.
Andrew is autistic. In Mourt’s words, he’s fairly low-functioning. But that’s just one fact about Andrew. He’s also 23 years old, meticulous, a mail deliveryman and a lover of all things Disney.
“He doesn’t say ‘I love you,’” said Mourt. “He says the line from Tarzan: ‘You will always be in my heart.’”
Her freshman year, Mourt decided to rush, and her path collided with Alpha Xi Delta (AXID), whose philanthropy partner is Autism Speaks, the leading autism research and awareness charity in the United States. It was here she found her home — drawn in by philanthropy so close to her heart.
Greek philanthropy doesn’t often make the news. When Greek Life hits headlines, it’s usually negative, such as Elon’s own Sigma Pi’s suspension for hazing, and now Pi Kappa Phi’s similar allegations.
When these controversies crop up in news, Greek Life likes to point toward philanthropy to redeem itself. And Greek Life’s partnership with philanthropy shouldn’t be ignored. To date for this year, Elon’s collective Greek organizations donated more than $109,900 to different philanthropies last year. This work deserves attention. It also deserves critical thought.
Philanthropy and service are some of the building blocks of Elon University as a whole — so much so that Elon builds service into its Elon experiential learning requirements. The Kernoodle Center states its ethic of service is one that “appreciates multiple perspectives, creates opportunities that are affirming and empowering to all, and responds to the needs of our diverse communities.”
So when Greek philanthropy is put under a microscope, does it meet these tenants?
Slacktivism vs. Activism: What makes effective philanthropy
Philanthropy looks different from sorority to sorority, since each sorority’s partnership is different. Alpha Chi Omega (AXO), for example, has adopted domestic abuse as its national issue and cannot establish a chapter without a nearby domestic abuse shelter in the area. All of AXO’s money goes directly to their chapter’s partner shelter — for Elon, this means AXO donates to Family Abusive Services of Alamance County.
Compare this model with some of the sororities who have national partners — AXID and Autism Speaks; Zeta Tau Alpha (ZTA) and Susan G. Koman; Kappa Delta (KD) and the Girl Scouts of America. Money raised for these philanthropies goes to large national charities.
Some of these sororities call for large fundraising events. Others, like KD, host more educational events as opposed to fundraisers. Some sororities require service hours and track philanthropy points — and the amount of points can differ from sorority to sorority. Others do not require either service hours or philanthropy points.
Despite these differences, when determining effective practices in philanthropy, every sorority should be held to the same standards — and high standards at that, according to Elon’s own Dr. Tom Arcaro, professor of sociology and anthropology and co-editor of “Understanding the Global Experience: Becoming a Responsible World Citizen.” He is also the head of Elon’s Periclean Scholars, a program dedicated to creating global social change through sustainable service and philanthropy abroad.
“Philanthropy is thoughtful, thorough, reflective — it is work,” Arcaro said when asked about effective philanthropy. “Philanthropy done well is partnership.”
What philanthropy isn’t — Arcaro pointed to a popular, well-loved event attended by Greeks and non-Greeks alike: Elonthon.
Arcaro criticized the event for its lack of financial transparency and sincere discourse, saying that the event, instead, was more about the students’ experiences than the work being done.
He summed up Elonthon in one word: slacktivism.
The term refers to activities that are easily performed and are considered more effective in making the participants feel good about themselves than at achieving lasting, impactful change.
“With events like a soccer tournament or a volleyball tournament, it’s easy to think ‘oh that was so fun’ and then forget the philanthropy part of it,” said Junior Hannah Green, previous director of philanthropy on Elon’s National PanHellenic Board and member of AXID. “But how else do you get other organizations on campus to donate money to your philanthropy?”
Director of Greek Life Shana Plasters acknowledged that much of Greek life can appear to be slacktivist, but not every sorority, every philanthropy or every student in Greek life is made equal in this regard.
“We would love students to go deeper and we would love for them to build long term relationships with local agencies and have time for reflection and really think about how service impacts,” said Plasters. “But we’re also not going to say to the student that wants to do a one-time service opportunity, ‘Never mind. There isn’t value in that.’”
Elonthon bears resemblance to other events that sororities’ host throughout the year, from AXO’s “Chocolate and Chai” to AXID’s “XiTi Dinner.” These events seek to raise money as the main goal.
“One of the things you have to ask when doing philanthropy is ‘Am I getting maximum bang for my buck?’” said Arcaro. “I would really have to research it, but I’m not positive… I can think of other places where that $100,000 raised at Elonthon can materially change the lives of a lot of people, where I’m not convinced that [with] that $100,000 dropped in a research pool, you can say the same thing.”
Phi Mu is one of Elonthon’s largest sponsors, as its national philanthropy partner is the Children’s Miracle Network (CMN). These funds go toward financing medical equipment, additional research, education and care for sick children. Arcaro pointed out that there was nothing wrong with supporting philanthropy like CMN — a person is doing no harm — but that there may be better causes where the money could make a larger impact. Additionally, Elonthon does not engage its participants in a thoughtful conversation about where the money is going or should go, as philanthropy should.
“Just writing a check is the most hollow form of philanthropy possible,” said Arcaro. “[Philanthropy] is not me giving to you… It is learning from you, partnering with you. It’s understanding that you probably know better when it comes to your local problems.”
What good philanthropy boils down to — at its simplest — is what Arcaro refers to as “powerful discourse,” as opposed to a “discourse of power”: when those with more privilege raise money or do work that they think is best for marginalized communities, without asking these communities what they need.
A discourse of power leads to what Arcaro referred to as othering. In academic fields of humanitarianism and social justice, othering is defined as a process that reinforces a person’s differences from the mainstream and reproduces positions of domination and subordination.
“One of my sayings that I say is that justice can never be just us,” said Arcaro. “Philanthropy is a mutual journey toward ensuring pathways of dignity for all humans. And pathways to dignity means not ‘here’s some food’ — that’s not a pathway to dignity.”
Big philanthropy, big money, big trouble
Several Elon sororities partner with big-name philanthropies that have faced controversy in the past, especially in regard to problems Arcaro pointed out with effective and ineffective philanthropy.
Autism Speaks is one such philanthropy facing criticism. AXID adopted Autism Speaks as its philanthropic partner in 2009. Since then, the sorority has raised more than $2 million for the organization through its various chapters, according to AXID’s national homepage. Elon’s AXID Theta Nu chapter has raised more than $61,000.
According to its most recent 990 tax form, Autism Speaks donated only four percent of its total revenue to autistic people and families with autistic children. It spent 43 percent on media and advertising, 19 percent on administrative costs and 13 percent on research into autism.
As stated in their mission statement and supported via the grants they fund, much of the research funded is dedicated to prevention and to finding a “cure” — which is itself a controversial stance condemned by other autism-advocacy philanthropies, like the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN), the Autism Network International (ANI) and the Autism Society of America.
But most troubling of all to many people in the autistic community is Autism Speaks’ failure to follow one of the basic tenants of disability activism: “Nothing About Us Without Us.” This belief echoes Arcaro’s insistence on partnership, the dangers of ‘othering’ and the importance of including autistic people in the conversation.
Autism Speaks lost its only autistic member on its board when John Elder Robison stepped down in November 2013. He left the organization over disagreements with Autism Speaks’ portrayal of autism in the media, which he felt worsened the stigma surrounding autism. Robison spoke at length about his feelings on his blog and in a letter to Autism Speaks announcing his resignation:
“I have tried to help Autism Speaks staffers understand how destructive its
messages have been to the psyches of autistic people. We do not like hearing that we are defective or diseased. We do not like hearing that we are part of an epidemic. We are not problems for our parents or society, or genes to be eliminated. We are people,” he wrote in his letter.
When asked about controversy surrounding the organization, AXID sisters expressed mixed feelings.
“I don’t really like that they advertise [a cure], because there isn’t one,” said Mourt. “And I think it’s disrespectful to the families to say that. However, it is a great organization that does a lot of work in research, and is No. 1 in advocacies for autism, so in that sense I support it.”
Green echoed her sentiments.
“I feel like there’s always people out there who are going to be unhappy,” said Green about the controversy. “It’s sad to think that not all the money is going to families, but at the same time, autism… I think that it is such an unknown [disorder] that, regardless where the money goes, AXID chapters across the country are still having an impact.”
AXID is not the only sorority whose philanthropy has faced trouble. Zeta Tau Alpha (ZTA) had a 22-year-long partnership with Susan G. Komen’s Race for the Cure. Susan G. Komen is no stranger to national criticism when it made headlines for dropping funding for Planned Parenthood in 2012. A documentary called “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” premiered in 2012 criticizing Komen’s advertising and merchandising practices as well.
But this March, ZTA is breaking ties with Komen after contractual negotiations broke down. ZTA released the following statement on its website:
“The proposal Komen presented to the ZTA Foundation to serve as the sole sponsor of the Survivor Recognition Program tripled the financial requirement to sponsor this program. This fee would significantly inhibit our ability to increase funding for scholarships and educational programs — essential elements of our Fraternity’s purpose. While Komen presented other proposals with lesser fees, none would allow our members to participate in the Survivor Recognition Program, which has been the cornerstone of our partnership from the start.”
ZTA still plans for its philanthropy to work exclusively with breast cancer research and awareness. Its trademark “Think Pink” will stay with the organization moving forward. While ZTA explores other sponsor options, it will pilot a program with the non-profit Bright Pink, an organization focused on prevention and early detection of breast and ovarian cancer in young women, while providing support for high-risk individuals. Twenty chapters of ZTA will be involved in this program.
ZTA must sit back and wait to hear more information about the future of their philanthropy. Since sororities are assigned philanthropy through the National PanHellenic council, they cannot choose which philanthropies to support and are required to meet national standards in order to keep their charter and remain on Elon’s campus. Some women interviewed felt like any issues with their philanthropies — such as the Autism Speaks and Susan G. Komen controversies — were therefore out of their hands.
“Because these sororities have mandated philanthropies, I think that if there was a problem with where the money is going, National PanHellenic would also have to take account for it,” said Green. “Because they’re the one who is in charge of the chapters. It’s not like we’re choosing to give the money to where we’re giving money.”
Plasters also expressed some doubts.
“I think the challenge is that for our AXID chapter here, if they were concerned about Autism Speaks that would be a dialogue that would have to happen at a national level.
“I’m saying buck up and show leadership, ladies,” said Arcaro. “This is Elon University and our students as leaders have a responsibility to not just follow orders… And I would say that the sororities have the responsibility to do the vetting themselves. And if there are critical things, they need to call nationals on it and make a stink about it.”
Vetting 101: For your Alphas, Deltas and Omegas
Vetting philanthropy is a complicated task, according to Arcaro, one which takes time and dedication. The hardest part is often finding a place to start.
“It involves not just going to the website,” said Arcaro. “It involves looking at a number of resources that you can go to that look at different charities and their procedures.”
Some of these resources are websites specializing in rating charities, such as Charitynavigator.org and Guidestar.org. Both of these sites are free. Guidestar provides links to financial documents that charities are required to share with the public. Charity Navigator provides graphs that break down how a charity is spending its money.
On Guidestar, Autism Speaks received two out of five stars. Susan G. Komen received one. These stars are largely based on anonymous reviews.
Charity Navigator scrutinizes how charities spend their money and also how transparent the charity is with its practices. Autism Speaks faired better on this website, with three out of four stars.
These sites are often just the beginning, though, of a longer vetting process. Sometimes information on these sites can even be misleading. For example, many charities, such as Autism Speaks, spend a good portion of money raised on administrative costs — these costs are called overhead. Arcaro warns not to count these charities out if their overhead seems large at first.
“You can’t run a big organization without infrastructure and that costs money,” said Arcaro. “One of the big mistakes is we assume that lower overhead means good, but I think sometimes it might be the opposite.”
Other tools of vetting involve investigating financial documentation, such as the 990s released every year. Areas to pay attention to include the executive-to-employee salary ratio.
“I think you should have a fair ratio between the CEO and your regular employees,” said Arcaro. “It should not be 30:1, not 100:1.”
But what happens if a vetting process does not lead to action, to the kind of dialogue needed on the national level that Plasters mentioned? Plasters urged the girls not to get downhearted, but to look toward other areas of philanthropy.
“I do think that it’s incumbent on our organizations to still honor their obligations through their national organization,” said Plasters. “But, also, find other ways to connect with the values of the organizations.”
Coming home to the community:
Not all Greek philanthropy goes big. Some of these connections happen in little ways, in normal places. One of those places is Elon’s own Community Church. Once a month on Friday night, two worlds come together under its roof.
At a glance, nothing looks different. Last February, the church filled with young adults, any one among them potentially an Elon student. They gathered in groups, sometimes in pairs, to work on Valentine’s Day cards. This is Special Friday: volunteers from Elon’s community working alongside young adults with special needs.
Green frequents many of these Special Fridays with her AXID sisters, including Mourt. AXID also participates in Buddy Break one Saturday a month at Trinity Worship Church in Burlington, where the sisters have the opportunity to interact with autistic children from all areas of the spectrum. For Green, events like Special Fridays and Buddy Break are why she wanted to join AXID in the first place.
“When I decided I wanted to be a special education major… when I went to rush, I went into it like, I needed to be an AXID, because I wanted to be involved with Autism Speaks,” said Green. “I see the same kids at events all year, and I get to know them, and I get to know their parents too, because you know them on a personal level.”
Because of these events, Green and Mourt both agree that AXID falls firmly on the ‘activist’ side of the spectrum rather than the ‘slacktivist.’ And, despite controversy around their larger philanthropy, these kinds of community activities do resemble the partnership Arcaro echoed.
Sigma Kappa, one of the most successful fund-raisers on campus for their philanthropy for Alzheimer’s, also has events within the community that over go under the radar. Many of the women attend the memory care center in Burlington where they interact with patients, either one-on-one or in group settings. Tri Delta meanwhile is the largest fundraiser thus far, turning in more than $700,000 — much of which was raised through letter-writing campaigns.
AXO’s entire philanthropy revolves around its local partner. In the past, women from AXO have helped babysit the children of women who have experienced domestic violence. Last year, they performed an emergency drive where they collected and donated necessities such as shampoo and toiletries to many of the women in the shelter.
Junior and AXO Philanthropy Chair Liz Van Hise previously volunteered with the service learning community her first two years at Elon and with Elon Volunteers. She has taken much of what she has learned from those experiences and brought them to her role as philanthropy chair, where she hopes to establish the “powerful discourse” Arcaro touched upon.
“Something we’re trying to do more is asset-based community services, looking more at the positives and building on those instead of the negatives,” said Van Hise. “It’s really important to be aware, going in, that it’s about asking them [the community] what you can do to help.”
Establishing that powerful discourse is also about education, an area in Greek philanthropy many women interviewed felt could become stronger. It would mean more than creating fact sheets — but engaging the sorority, and the campus as a whole, in a dialogue surrounding many of the issues raised by each sorority’s philanthropy.
“I think there is always more room to learn,” said Green. “You learn all the facts in your philanthropy for Philanthropy Day, but after, what do you really know? We only really talk about autism facts when the statistics keep changing, so we’ll have a conversation with the girls then. But I think there could be more education for sure.”
And according to Arcaro, education is one of the best way to wipe out othering—to ensure ethical practices of partnership, where each side is learning from each other.
Mourt knows this all too personally. I’ve asked her what she has learned from Andrew, and so she sits across from me, recalling her big brother Andrew’s behavior and their relationship, a relationship that she says is ‘so special to me,’ a relationship that is all about the little things.
“I think loving unconditionally,” she says finally. “I think he’s taught me patience and he’s taught me that there’s something in everyone. We just have to take the time to get to know someone, and realize their skills and what value they can add to your life.”