Nevo: Philanthropy fails to rectify the harms of Greek life

Lily Nevo, Opinion Editor

This is the second of a two-part series examining the harms of the supposed benefits of Greek life: social relationships and philanthropy work. Read the first part on social relationships here.

Greek organizations say they exist to give members opportunities for personal growth through the connections they make and the acts of service they commit. This is abundantly clear in the mission statements of various sororities and fraternities. 

“Kappa Delta Sorority provides experiences that build confidence in women and inspire them to action through the power of lifelong friendship,” KD’s website states. Similarly, Zeta Beta Tau values “Intellectual Awareness, Social Responsibility, Integrity and Brotherly Love, in order to prepare its brothers for positions of leadership and service within their communities.”

On paper, the commitment to give is honorable. Yet community service, in Greek life and beyond, is not automatically ethical merely because it requires a privileged person to give up a small fraction of their time or money. In fact, community service is largely problematic because of the way we consistently celebrate it as such a moral act. 

“(Philanthropy) is always centering the emotional experience of the volunteer, and the experience of a volunteer and doing what they felt was good, but it doesn’t ever have any accountability mechanism with it,” global health studies Prof. Noelle Sullivan said.

In philanthropy, given that the work is done for free and supposedly at the cost of only the philanthropist, it is difficult for those on the receiving end to critique the service because they are expected to believe that any help is better than no help, she added. In turn, this means that the actual needs of the communities philanthropists claim to be supporting are rarely at the center of their efforts. 

This is particularly an issue in Kappa Alpha Theta’s beneficiary, National Court Appointed Special Advocates Guardians ad Litem Association for Children, which provides advocates to abused children as they navigate the legal system. It is unclear, however, that CASA/GAL volunteers, many of whom are white women, understand how to provide trauma-informed support. Additionally, when the court gives these volunteers the power to speak for the child, it assumes that the volunteers know what is better for the child than the child themself. 

As this article in the City University of New York Law Review explains, transferring the power of advocacy away from the children and families reinforces saviorism among volunteers and overrepresents white voices. Ironically, this white saviorism is mirrored in Greek philanthropy as a whole, as the very premise of philanthropy is to center the privileged in their efforts to help others. 

Though direct service may appear to be more meaningful than monetary donations, the experience is often only more meaningful to the volunteer, as it makes them feel like they are making an impact. Therefore, fundraising efforts, though they seem distant, allow the communities philanthropies aim to serve to choose the most effective way to use resources. In some ways, the distance between the philanthropist and the donation recipient is a more genuine representation of the spaces recipients occupy since it does not comfort the philanthropist with an illusion of closeness. 

But even some fundraising events have sparked backlash. In 2014, Kappa Kappa Gamma and ZBT planned a “Jail N’ Bail” event, where participants would dress up as prisoners and raise their required “bail” amount. The event was designed to raise money for Reading is Fundamental, an organization that seeks to increase child literacy rates. Yet in treating incarceration as a game, this event made light of the oppressive systems that plague the very communities the organization seeks to help. 

Though monetary donations are often more useful than donated time or goods, it goes without saying that philanthropy is an attempt to use privatized wealth to solve problems that stem from privatization itself. Admittedly, philanthropy provides short-term benefits through monetary support, but it fails to acknowledge that the roots of poverty and discrimination are entrenched in capitalism. In this way, Greek philanthropy is a lackluster and performative attempt at repairing the injustices that Greek institutions actively perpetuate. 

Yet, whether Greek philanthropy is performative or genuine is not important, because the impact of their service is what matters. However, it is also important to acknowledge that participants in Greek life could have an even greater impact if they simply donated their dues and the amount of money they spend on hosting philanthropy events directly to the charities. 

Furthermore, many of the nonprofits with which Greek organizations partner do not address the systemic issues that Greek life perpetuates. KD supports Girl Scouts of the USA and Prevent Child Abuse America, Alpha Phi raises money for women’s heart health, ZBT supports Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals and Delta Gamma funds Service for Sight, which advocates for people who are blind or visually impaired. 

All of these causes are undeniably reputable, but sororities and fraternities cannot use such philanthropy to justify their existence when their work does nothing to address the harm Greek life causes. While their fundraising is usually harmless, participants in Greek life do not relinquish any of their privilege in hosting these events. In fact, many of their fundraising events are mere photo ops, like a chance to wear a formal red dress at A Phi’s Red Dress Gala. 

It is difficult to say that these efforts cause harm; they often don’t. Yet it is clear that philanthropy does not rectify the longstanding problems with Greek life. Thus, I do not believe that philanthropy is a strong enough justification for maintaining the Greek system as a whole. 

Correction: A previous version of this story mentioned Alpha Epsilon Pi’s Dog Days in a way that insensitively disregarded the purpose of the fundraiser. The Daily regrets this error.

Lily Nevo is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.