Corporate Responsibility Makes Prides Go ‘Round
Turning corporate support into community activism
By Sylvain Bruni
Since the first anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, Prides have struggled to balance the tension between celebrating the progress our community has made and agitating for not-yet-obtained queer liberation. The nature of Pride celebrations around the world varies depending on the local context. In countries and American states where queer communities are oppressed, small Pride groups—oftentimes the only organized community outlet—strive for visibility and recognition. In large metropolitan areas, like Boston—with over 200 non-profit organizations that serve, represent, advocate for, or cater to our community—Pride is both a platform and a space creator. Pride is a platform for community members and organizations to express themselves, and a space for every member of our community to connect with one another, and with each of these organizations. By bringing our community together, Pride attracts the media’s spotlight, engages our allies and non-community members in a direct way, and amplifies the voices in our community, through our sheer number and impact.
As a producer of events for an ever-growing community, Boston Pride, like other large Prides, has evolved from a small group of activists planning a rally on the Common, to an equally small group of activists planning over 50 events a year! Despite being an all-volunteer organization, Boston Pride has had to meet the expectations of our community and the ever-evolving demands of the times. And the numbers don’t lie: Boston Pride has experienced exponential growth in the last ten years, both in attendance and in events produced.
As with any non-profit organization in our community, money is crucial to the operation, planning, and production of our events; without money, Pride cannot deliver quality programs to our community. There are typically three sources of revenue for non-profits: grants, individual giving, and sponsorship. Grant writing is an art, and grant getting is a science. Without qualified individuals who can marry art and science to win grants, or volunteer bandwidth to learn through trial and error, it’s an option that Boston Pride has not been able to rely on. Individual giving (i.e., private donations from people to the organization) has rarely been successful for our organization. While Pride used to get over $5,000 of donations thrown onto the Parade’s large rainbow flag, we now are lucky to get $10. Our orange bucket collections during the Parade and the Festival experience the same sobering lack of success year after year. Our experiment with cell donations (remember “text PRIDE to 12345 to donate $5 to Boston Pride”?) failed miserably. We collected $35—mostly from Boston Pride Committee members—and were left with a technology cost of several hundred dollars.
Would the community be amenable to forgoing a march completely as even one lacking the (literal) bells and whistles requires permit and security fees?
Our annual #GivingTuesday campaigns have also reached their limits, with donations steadily decreasing over the years. While Boston Pride loves, and is profusely grateful to, all its donors and supporters, the effort, in terms of time and dedication needed to develop and to maintain an individual giving program, is no longer an efficient use of its limited volunteer resources.
This financial reality is not unique to Boston Pride. Every year, when I attend the world conference of InterPride (the international association of Pride organizers, of which Boston Pride is a founding member), I poll my colleagues at peer Pride organizations about how they manage to derive grants and individual donations. With the exception of those from Prides that have paid development staff, every single Pride leader responds similarly: “not worth [our] time.” And that unfortunately has been my experience: why should I spend over 80 hours of volunteer time preparing for #GivingTuesday to collect less than $3,000, when I can spend 30 minutes convincing a sponsor to support Pride with $10,000?
Radical activists will tell you that you can always plan Pride without money. Certainly. But what kind of Pride? Without money, what do we cut from our 49-year-old celebration? The Concert, which attracts an average of 50,000 per year? The block parties (and the Community Fund they sustain)? The Black and Latinx Pride events, which typically lose money but provide essential space for the community? Would the community be amenable to forgoing a march completely as even one lacking the (literal) bells and whistles requires permit and security fees? Boston Pride has strived over the years to maintain low entrance fees to Parade contingents and to Festival exhibitors, even creating solidarity levels far below cost to ensure grassroots organizations could still connect with our community. All of this comes at a substantial cost that cannot be paid with revolutionary utopian ideals.
If corporations are willing to give Prides money, why not use it as an opportunity to empower, to educate, and to augment their programmatic impact? If companies are eager to pay for access to our community, let those payments provide us with the opportunity to develop programs that serve our community, in particular the most vulnerable or most historically discriminated against.
No matter what positive community impact comes out of corporate dollars, adherents to the queer purity test will throw accusations of pinkwashing and selling out.
Sure, some companies are solely participating in Pride to promote themselves. But how is that different from an animal shelter (which is not intrinsically a queer organization) marching in the Parade? Of the 2017 Parade participants, for example, Pride only identified a single corporate contingent that was just a marketing operation. All others were either LGBTQ-owned or operated businesses, or Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) of those companies. Who is Pride to tell some community members that they cannot march in the Parade because they are part of a corporation? What does it say about us if we have come to the point that we judge adversely our fellow community members based on their employer or job? What is the harm to our community when a company marches in the Pride Parade and says it values its LGBTQ employees and customers?
On the contrary, I see the participation of companies and corporate entities as a positive evolution of our movement: it shows that our community is succeeding in driving visibility, acceptance, and equality. It is unfair, and quite conservative and reactionary, to demand that Pride continue to be exactly what it used to be in the 70s. Our movement has evolved, our community has changed, and equality is progressing. There is still plenty to do, and that’s why Pride continues to pursue a dual identity of celebration (for what we have accomplished) and of activism (for what’s left to be done). Sacrificing one for the other is shortsighted.
Corporate engagement with our community extends beyond Prides with corporations engaging publicly in lobbying against policies harmful to our community. Recently, PayPal withdrew plans for an expansion in North Carolina in response to an anti-trans law. Additionally, companies including Uber, Prudential, Marriott, and Amazon, submitted an amicus brief in support of the community in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado. Businesses in the United States, and around the world, have been providing their economic weight to ensure equality for our community. There are several companies that have supported Boston Pride for over a decade, and even one beer partner who has provided financial relief since 1999, long before the fight for equality was fashionable. Why would we say no to that support? Why would we turn that power away?
Accepting corporate money comes with its responsibility for Pride organizers to assess each entity: are they actually supporting their LGBTQ employees at work, or do they have policies against discrimination? The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has worked for years to conduct such assessment, through the Corporate Equality Index (CEI). For years, Boston Pride has conducted these internal evaluations and weighted our engagement with companies that did not reach the top 100% score. And typically, Pride’s work behind the scenes has been one of education and empathy to affect change in the workplace through support of and interactions with ERGs.
Partnering with corporate sponsors creates a mechanism whereby Pride can educate and train the company to be a better employer or a better ally to its queer customers.
However, for the radical component in our community, this will never cut it. No matter what positive community impact comes out of corporate dollars, adherents to the queer purity test will throw accusations of pinkwashing and selling out. Placing such a purity test on sponsors’ intent would result in the abandonment of all corporate funding, for the simple reason that businesses, by definition (as entities meant to generate profits) will never meet the purity requirement. Consequently, as logically outlined previously, Pride would need to downsize and cut programming. I don’t believe that this is a net positive for our community. To the contrary. And that opinion is, anecdotally, shared by several organizers who launched and built the Pride movement in the 70s. In their words, “We dreamt to see companies embracing us, welcoming us, caring about and for us.” Isn’t the point of marching in the street or rallying on the Common to drive visibility, acceptance, and equality?
Partnering with corporate sponsors creates a mechanism whereby Pride can educate and train the company to be a better employer or a better ally to its queer customers. HRC’s CEI can be leveraged as a roadmap to perform this work and to yield tangible, positive outcomes for LGBTQ workers and for our community. Additionally, this work isn’t restricted to happening in June: beyond Pride week or Pride month, partnerships can ensure visibility of our community year-round. Examples abound to illustrate how an ERG’s participation in Pride activities has helped revive the group, motivates queer employees to be out at work, fostered a better workplace climate, and even driven the conversion to gender-neutral bathrooms. Conversely, we have observed how corporations with significant marketing budgets have expanded their equality-focused advertisement outside of our community, thereby making a statement, creating conversations in straight communities and circles of power, and generating visibility, all three positive benefits to our community.
Our community additionally gains leverage and power when engaging in close partnership with businesses. When Boston Pride did not have the operational budget to pay for a meeting space, it was a local bank in the Boston area that donated its community room, so our team could meet every Tuesday. This initial relationship has grown over the years to positive advocacy for policy change and monetary support not only for Boston Pride but multiple other community organizations. This newly gained leverage has led to another opportunity for impact: targeted, thoughtful, and deliberate recruiting of LGBTQ employees. A local technology company didn’t have an ERG when they began partnering with Pride, but plenty of motivated queer employees. Seeing a huge need for recruitment, they worked with their human resources department to specifically participate in Boston Pride events to recruit queer techies. And recruit they did: all their jobs openings received a deluge of candidates. That is positive impact for our community and for our movement. Last year, Boston Pride was similarly approached by two companies that desired to work with Boston Pride to launch a company-wide ERG initiative on diversity and to recruit data scientists and software engineers from our community.
Seeing a clear pickup in sponsorship demand in 2018, the Boston Pride Board of Directors made the decision, for the first time, to allocate 10 percent of all partnership revenue to the Boston Pride Community Fund. This allowed Pride to give an unprecedented $43,000 to serve underrepresented segments of our community through direct financial support of grassroots organizations this year.
Ultimately, the job of a Pride organization is to create positive impact: lifting up and amplifying the voices in our community, so we gain equal rights, for everyone, everywhere. Corporate sponsorships are in fine a means to an end, engaging and rewarding opportunities to affect change for the better. From a purely pragmatic point of view, they keep the lights on and support those programs that have little to no revenue. •
Photo Credit: Marilyn Humphries.
Sylvain Bruni is Executive Editor of the 2019 Boston Pride Guide and a former President of Boston Pride (2014-2018) and member of its Board of Directors (2007-2018). He has volunteered with Boston Pride on the Committee since 2003 and led two of its major events (Parade and Back Bay Block Party), as well as key organizational areas (communications, security, technology, and sponsorship). Until 2018, he played an active role on the Board and Committee of InterPride and co-chaired the 2012 InterPride World Conference in Boston. Outside of Pride, he is Principal Engineer at Aptima, a local R&D company in the fields of defense, aeronautics, and healthcare.