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The IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon: What If There Were No Greeks?

by on January 27, 2015 7:30 AM

In less than a month THON 2015 will take place in the Bryce Jordan Center on the Penn State campus.

We all know the amazing numbers for this unbelievable event: last year THON raised $13,343,517.33, and in its history has raised more than $114 million for the Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital.

The largest student-run philanthropy in the world has continued to grow since its humble beginnings on February 2, 1973.

It may be hard to believe, but those humble beginnings as the "IFC Dance Marathon" weren't as well supported as you might think. Back then the term "Dance Marathon" carried a very negative connotation. In 1970 the blockbuster movie "They Shoot Horses Don't They?" was nominated for nine Academy Awards. The title was a sarcastic question – the movie chronicled the lives of a group of contestants vying for cash prizes during a grueling dance marathon and did for dance marathons what "Jaws" did for the beach.

It didn't help that the very first THON was set up in the same manner as the movie – contestants paid to enter, a point system was used to determine winners, there were cash prizes, and you were penalized for leaving the floor or not dancing. Not exactly a student-run activity that gave anyone the warm fuzzies.

But IFC carried on and got the first one in the history books. Interestingly, two non-Greeks who lived in the North Halls (the best dorm area on campus!), won the $300 first prize. (As a former president of North Halls I may be a wee bit biased). Even more interesting, for those who are only familiar with the current incarnation of THON, 39 couples entered, 17 finished all 30 hours, and those 17 couples averaged a mere five-and-a-half minutes of total break time during those 30 hours. Yes, you read that correctly – over the course of 30 hours they spent a total of five-and-a-half minutes in the bathroom!

The second year THON increased its time to an unthinkable 48 hours, IFC kept the ball rolling, a couple sponsored by KDR and Tri-Delta won, and 12 of the 51 couples who entered survived all 48 hours. However there was still a desire by administrators to see this craziness just fade away into obscurity. Finally, after many more successful years, during the ninth annual THON in 1981, President Oswald made an appearance and thanked the dancers for doing something worthwhile – in what was viewed as a de-facto admission that THON was here to stay.

Then in 1990 the Panhellenic Council finally joined in, the name was changed to the IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon and the Greek presence was complete. As they say on the THON website, "The support of the Greek Community has been vital to THON's continued success."

But how much longer can the Greek Community afford to be so closely tied to THON?

As the money raised for THON grows, so does the amount raised by the Greeks. In 2013 the top ten Greek organization pairs raised almost $2 million for THON. That money comes from somewhere. A portion comes from canning, but the Greek alums are also giving very generously. The question is, if the Greek alums are giving to THON, are they also giving to their respective national organization's foundation and charities?

In 2013 the top pair of Greek organizations – Alpha Tau Omega & Zeta Tau Alpha – raised $367,452.77 for THON. That same year Alpha Tau Omega's Foundation raised $1.7 million across its entire membership. Zeta Tau Alpha's Foundation raised just over $3 million. Both organizations are multi-million dollar businesses with administrative costs in excess of $1 million each.

The question for the national offices of these Greek organizations is whether or not the money being raised for THON is taking away from donations they need to run their national organizations and foundations which are the bedrock of their missions.

When Greek organizations started, they were about fellowship. To bind young men and women together in a "family" based upon certain principles, with lofty goals such as insisting on good over evil, and recognizing true merit regardless of the source of its creation.

Now they are businesses. With all the associated abilities and liabilities of businesses. As the computer-age moves steadily forward, the ability of the national Greek organizations to track the income and donations of chapters and especially alums, has also steadily improved. Nationals know which chapters and which alums are donating, which aren't, and which direction those chapter's donations are trending.

If a chapter and its alums keep under-performing in donations, it can become a question of whether it is worth it to the National for the chapter to remain open. Most businesses are willing to accept some degree of revenue loss when there is goodwill associated with it, but eventually that charity wears thin. At least one sorority on campus closed because of its commitment to THON.

For The Kids sake, let's hope the national Greek governing bodies are able to balance these competing needs so all the local chapters can continue their outstanding service to this extremely worthwhile cause. Because it's not the IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon without the Greeks.

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John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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