Financial co-op fits students’ needs

Since 1939, the Fraternity Purchasing Association has serviced the financial needs of many greek chapters.

Parker Lemke

Among the University of Minnesota’s many student groups, the Fraternity Purchasing Association’s membership skews noticeably older. Each of its three full-time employees have been on campus for more than two decades.

Tucked away in a snug office, three women and their student staff meet with a steady stream of clients each day, a routine that reaches back almost 80 years, when fraternities first came to the group in search of necessities like fuel to heat their chapter houses.

This year, the group is requesting student services fees for the fourth time in its history, partly to help cover unpaid services it performs for groups. Last week, the association filed a $10,000 fee request for the 2015-16 school year. It has a projected annual budget of about $260,000 for the same period.

Founded in 1939 to help connect greek organizations to local vendors for goods and services, the nonprofit cooperative has evolved with the groups it serves and now offers a mixture of financial management services. And though national bill-paying companies have sprouted up to cater to greek communities, more than 60 University student groups still come to the FPA for its personal brand of fiscal assistance.

“We just kind of continually evolve,” said FPA manager Chari Porter, who has been with the group for 27 years. “Whatever the student groups need is what we end up providing them.”

Although long established on campus, the FPA has seen its fair share of change over the years.

The association has been housed in buildings such as Nicholson Hall, Coffman Union and the Dinkydome, Porter said.

“We kind of just go wherever the University has a spot,” she said.

The FPA scouts area vendors, putting out bids that give student groups a discounted price on anything from catering to pest control and furniture.

Approximately $1 million in goods and services move through the association’s office each year.

To handle its trash removal, for example, the University chapter of Kappa Sigma fraternity pays through the FPA, the fraternity’s treasurer Scott Erdmann said.

“They basically pay up front, and we just pay them back,” he said. “They keep track of what everybody owes in the house and bills [the fraternity] every month with a statement.”

Since its founding, FPA has branched out into providing services for tax returns, payroll management and financial statements, Porter said.

Some national organizations that represent greek chapters have also tapped companies like GreekBill and Billhighway to manage their chapters’ finances, said Matt Levine, program director of the University’s Office for Fraternity and Sorority Life.

But having a campus-based organization to interact with still has its advantages, said Matt Kerschinske, the Interfraternity Council’s vice president of finance.

“It’s a lot better to have that personal connection than to do it online,” said Kerschinske, who said he stops by the FPA office about once a week to conduct business for the council and his own fraternity.

“You get to know the people you are working with really well,” he said.

Delta Chi fraternity president Connor Johnson said his fraternity’s national organization uses the website ChapterSpot to track membership numbers and offer options for services like dues collection. His chapter, however, hasn’t yet seen the need to pay the extra fee for the website, he said.

“We’ve never really seen a need to switch,” Johnson said, adding that Delta Chi has found maintenance workers like plumbers, exterminators and mechanics through the FPA.

Even though some chapters might be mandated by their parent organization to use a national billing service, Porter said, they can still use the FPA’s other services.

“The organizations save money, we make enough money to run the office, vendors get increased sales,” Porter said, “so it’s like a big happy circle of life.”