13 min

Pride Toronto lays off staff, anticipates $250K loss

Sponsorship, beverage sales, toonie drive all down: ED

Pride Toronto executive director Tracey Sandilands Credit: Matt Mills photo

On July 14, Pride Toronto executive director Tracey Sandilands sent an email to staff announcing that two employees had been laid off and a third staff member, who had already given notice, would not be replaced. As well, a half dozen short-term contracts that expire at the end of July will not be renewed.

In an interview with Xtra, Sandilands predicts a deficit of $250,000 on the year ending July 31 and says the outlook for 2011 is “bleak.” Still, she says, people who wanted a smaller, less corporate, community-focused Pride in 2011 will likely get it — as Pride Toronto moves to live within its means.

Sandilands also elaborates on what the promise of community consultations will look like, including saying that open, public meetings are “not productive” because they can become confrontational.

Below is the text of Sandilands’ email to staff, and under that, the text of the interview.

* * *

With a fabulous festival behind us once again, we are now dealing with the wrap up of our fiscal year. As we do this it is becoming clear that we are not in great financial shape at present. We lost a significant amount in expected sponsorships as a result of the political messaging issue, and beverage sales during the festival were down against both 2008 and 2009 figures, while toonie drive also came up short. Due to this situation, we are reviewing all costs and will need to implement severe cuts for the 2011 festival year if we are to survive.

As part of this exercise, no temporary contracts will be renewed and the following staff will finish up by end July: TK, Dina, Cristina, Spink and Lina. We have had to let Mary Zondanos and Michael Ain go, and our office admin Coralee will be leaving to go back to school at the end of August. All these positions will remain unfilled until further notice. We thank them all for their dedication and hard work for the organization and are really sad to see them go, and please join me in wishing them the very best for their futures. We do hope they will all remain part of the Pride Toronto family on a volunteer basis for the foreseeable future.

The next year will be a challenging one under these circumstances, and we will need the support and commitment of all our incredible volunteers to get through it. If anyone has questions, please email me or call.

* * *

Xtra: Thanks for getting back to me. I know this is a difficult time and you’ve got a lot on your plate.


Xtra: I wanted to talk to you briefly about the email you sent to staff yesterday and give you an opportunity to put it in context for our readers about what’s going on. My understanding is that there are a number of temporary contracts that are ending. Is that normal, that they would end after Pride?

Yes, it is. Possibly, there were some of those temporary staff that might have been kept on if we had some money, but we don’t. They were all on temporary contracts that ended in July, but some of them were hired with a view to giving them a try, with the possibility of making them permanent staff.

Xtra: And those contracts expire at the end of July?


Xtra: And for the two permanent staff that you had to let go, is that at the end of July as well?

Well, I’m not going to go into details, because those details are confidential. Obviously, for staff that have been here a little longer, we have provided them with a package, as far as we could. So, they’ll be on the payroll for a while, but they’ve taken their lieu time. But they can come and go as they please; they’re still welcome in the office.

The office administrator, she’d already stated that she’d been accepted into a master’s program, so she’s indicated that she would be leaving, and we didn’t have to try to figure out what to do. We’re not going to replace her; she’s already given notice.

But for the two staff that have been laid off, they’re welcome to come and go as they please, but I can’t exactly tell you for how long they’ll be on the payroll.

But they have been given some kind of consideration. They haven’t just been dismissed summarily.

Xtra: How did you come to this decision?

We looked at what our financial position is expected to be, and it’s still being finalized because obviously our year end is July. So we don’t know what our final number is going to be. However, we do know that if you look at the expected sponsorships that did not come in as a direct result of the political messaging issue, that was $250,000. 

And then there were other issues, like the fact that we might not be able to count on city funding next year and existing sponsors who have given us notice in writing to say that unless we resolve the issues to their satisfaction, they will no longer be sponsoring us next year.

So next year looks very bleak at this point. We can’t keep posting deficits. We have to reestablish our financial base. The only way to do that is to take what we are certain of for next year, which is very little at this stage, and make sure that our budgets fit into that. So, severe cuts in every respect.

I’m not sure we’ll be having all the stages as we had. I’m not sure we’ll be having as many beverage gardens as we’ve had in the past. I’m not sure we’ll be doing a lot of the things in the past, because we simply can’t be sure that we’re going to get the funds for it.

Xtra: In addition to the sponsorship, your email says that beverage sales and the toonie drive are down. Do you have a sense of — is that like five percent, or —

Beverage sales in 2008 were [$334,661] In 2009, we did [$337,611.] This year, we did $280,000. It’s part the heat, and part of being well stocked — in fact, we returned $100,000 worth of alcohol.

We had every expectation that beverage sales were going to do well this year, but it seems they weren’t, and I don’t have any idea what the reason is. They seemed to be busy most of the time. There were some of the beverage gardens that were not busy.  Whether that was because of the heat or the political messaging issue or the recession, I don’t know.

The sales were substantially down on what we had anticipated. We had, in fact, been hoping that with such good weather, beverage sales would be better than expected and that would help the situation, and of course they weren’t.

Xtra: You mention the recession. That’s external to anything you could have anticipated. I know, for instance, that Xtra didn’t participate in the parade this year, and that was a financial decision that was made in December of the year before.

That could have had something to do with the beverage sales. It was not a question in the sponsorship — the sponsorships that we lost were the expected sponsorships that in many cases were finalized verbally and agreed, but were put on hold because of the political messaging debacle.

By the time we banned the words, it was essentially almost too late. All the rhetoric that was bandied about, about “We’re still going to march in the parade,” and they were going to boycott every event — that made our sponsors very insecure, and they decided to bail.

Xtra: With that in mind, do we have a sense of how big the deficit is going to be?

I would say it’s going to be around $250,000 at least. Because that is what we came up short in sponsorship. I want to stress this: many of those sponsors, up until two weeks before the festival, we were still expecting their sponsorship. They had given verbal confirmations, they had agreements ready to sign, and we were trying to reassure them. And until this point, we were expecting them to come on board and they decided not to.

There were others where we had already committed the funds [we were expecting from them], because you have to do these things, you have to plan ahead. We planned these things, we paid deposits, we’d secured venues and secured artists. And then they didn’t come in, because they’d dithered on signing and then decided not to.

Xtra: You said throughout the spring sponsors were wavering. Was that specifically about political messaging?


Xtra: If you had to do it over again, would you do something differently?

If I knew what I know now… when we started planning in January, in February, and even last year, none of this had been on the horizon. We knew the issue was coming up, but we had what we thought was a reasonable plan in place by means of the focus groups to get a mandate from the community about what they wanted.

And we did get a mandate from the community, certainly from the people who attended the focus groups, and we acted upon that when we issued the first decision that we would be vetting the messaging. It seemed to come out of the focus groups. Then, through one mechanism or another, various groups managed to get the focus groups and their findings discredited, and that was when all the trouble started.

Because up until that point, we had been operating on the premise that we have a reasonable plan to get through this year, we’re going get a mandate from the community. And we made that decision early enough for us to have told our sponsors, This is what we’re planning to do, and this is how we’re planning on dealing with it. And they were comfortable with it. They knew it wasn’t a perfect solution, but they were comfortable with it. It wasn’t a blatant takeover of the messaging.

And, um, when that fell through, when we were forced to rescind that initial policy, that’s when sponsors started wavering. And as I say, by that point we’d already committed ourselves and paid deposits.

The only way that ended was to go through with it and find other sponsors, in some cases. It probably would have been worse than it was if we hadn’t been able to find other, additional funds, but not enough to make up for those we had lost.

Xtra: What I’m hearing is that you think you behaved with the information that you had in the best way possible, given the circumstances.

We were certainly trying to do that, yeah.

Xtra: Going ahead in 2010, there are a number of people and groups who have asserted that they want what’s best for Pride, but haven’t been working within Pride to do that. I imagine that with the rescinding of the ban, that you might be able to tap into some goodwill there.

Yeah, but all the community goodwill in the world is not — unless it helps to settle the fears of the sponsors so that they will fund us — we will go back to a Pride in Cawthra Park. The community unfortunately doesn’t have $2.5 million to fund us.

And what’s happening with the city funding — that’s on the line at the moment. We have no idea what the city manager’s instructions to us will be, but if we don’t comply, we will lose that money. So, we are planning for the new year expecting to not have that money.

This is fairly well in line with what the community has wanted. They’ve said Pride is becoming too corporate, we should be doing it without the funding. So we’re planning 2011 without relying on funding that is in any way uncertain. And that’s going to mean serious cuts in what we can produce. Everything costs money.

So the plan for the new year is to trim everything that doesn’t fit into the budget that we’re sure of. If we have to put on a small Pride, that’s what we’ll have to do. We’ll be hoping to rely more on volunteers and unpaid staff than we have, which is difficult, because people are busy and they only have a certain amount of time. And dealing with business ventures, you need people who are available during the daytime, and a lot of volunteers are not.

But, you know, we’ll do the best that we can. We have to reestablish that financial base. We have to at least break even. Otherwise we won’t survive. Pride can’t keep posting deficits.

Xtra: Fair enough, and that’s probably the most prudent course. Another question is, in the announcement of the rescinding of the outright ban on “Israeli apartheid,” there was a pledge to strike a group of community leaders to help guide your planning going forward and then to do broad consultations going forward. Has that work begun?

Yes it has. We’ve had an initial meeting to brainstorm a plan of action and Brent Hawkes, Doug Elliott and Maura Lawless, who were the three that came up with this idea, have gone away to put together some guidelines for the advisory panel. They’re brainstorming to get some idea of the people who should be on the advisory panel. They will be consulting fairly widely people who are perceived as community leaders, and Pride is not involved in that process. They are doing that process.

Xtra: Brent, Maura and Doug?

That’s right. They are doing that process to get an idea of who would be willing to serve on that panel, who would be appropriate people to have as part of it. And they will come up with a list of names that the board will give their input on. And we don’t know when that will be.

The plan is that the community consultations will happen in the beginning of September. So I still at this point need to go back to the trans community, because we promised to have a meeting with them on the 12th of August, but this probably needs to be done as part of the broader consultations, rather than having the consultations in a vacuum.

Xtra: You’re talking about big, public, open meetings where anyone can attend and everyone can say their piece?

I don’t know exactly what format the meetings are going to take. The advisory panel, once it’s been established, will recommend what format they feel should be appropriate. I do believe that there will be a combination of public, community meetings and some targeted or representative meetings and maybe some kind of an online survey as well.

There will probably be a combination of those, but at this point, we’re waiting for the panel to be established and them to provide some kind of recommendations as to the process.

Xtra: I guess the thing is, part of the process that you went through in December, January, February with the focus groups, one of the criticisms of it was that it wasn’t very open, or public.

I don’t know how people can say that, because we used every channel that we had in our means that didn’t cost money — we had it in our newsletter, on our website, on our social media. We publicized it everywhere we could, and we invited people to come and be a part of it.

Everyone who offered to be a part of it was accepted. There were one or two people who were clearly identifiable as being on one side or the other of the issue, and we didn’t include them. Everybody else. The focus groups were not only about the Israeli messaging issue, and we wanted broad representation from the community. We asked for 60 people in specific age groups and demographics. As they came forward, we included them in the different groups. And we struggled to find enough people, and they still got paid.

I’m not sure how much more public we have to [be]. We didn’t have the funds to go out and do a huge research study.

Xtra: It used to be that Pride Toronto would have these big public meetings. And I realize that they could be a bit of a dust-up sometimes, that it was messy—

We found that the one community consultation that was held had very little value because we were not given a chance to answer. That’s unproductive.

Xtra: Sorry, you’re talking about the Blockorama meeting?

There were questions asked, and accusations thrown, that we could have answered if we’d been given the opportunity. We found that when we tried to speak, we were shouted down — much as what happened at the press conference. That’s not productive. That’s not productive for the people attending the meeting from Pride or from the community. We have to find a new way of doing that.

Xtra: Have you read the Pride Community Contract?

Yes, I have.

Xtra: What do you think of it?

This may be a surprise to the people that wrote it, but some of the things in there, we’re already doing.

And maybe our messaging is faulty, that it’s not clear that we are doing those things. Other things have been in the cards to do for some time, but this year we got railroaded by the political messaging issue. Nothing else really got the attention it deserved.

There are some good ideas in it. There are some ideas that aren’t practical. But by and large, it’s essentially not far from what we also think. By and large, we’re mostly in agreement with it.

Xtra: Yeah, I wanted to get a sense of how you feel about the Pride Community Contract and the other folks who are working on suggestions or ways to help out Pride.

Well, Marcus, I would be appreciative of anyone who comes to us with constructive suggestions and comes to us in the spirit of wanting to do what’s best for Pride. There are some people who have done that, and we are in talks with them. And it’s not just the three that I’ve mentioned. There are others as well, who have clearly come in with the spirit of, “We want to help. We understand this is difficult. And we want to give you whatever we can put into this. We want to contribute.” And we would welcome them with open arms.

There are also people out there who are professing to want to help, but it’s contingent on things like — and I just hear these things — that it’s contingent on things like firing the entire board, firing the entire staff team, shutting down Pride for a year. None of those things are practical, and none of those things are going to benefit Pride.

You shut down Pride for a year, and who’s going to fund you after you’ve defaulted on all your accounts. It doesn’t make any sense.

Xtra: I haven’t heard that from anyone — that they want to shut down Pride.

I’ve heard it very loud and clear from at least two people. So there is someone saying this, and I know who the person is.

So we have to be very careful, we have to be very clear that those who want to help Pride actually want to help Pride and don’t have an ulterior motive. I also happen to know that there are people out there who are seeing this as an opportunity to put themselves in a position where they can fill their own pockets. That’s happened in the past, and it could happen again.

We have to be very careful with what’s left of Pride. It’s a very fragile situation at the moment. And my job, as uncomfortable as it is, and as difficult as people have made it for me, I don’t intend to let Pride fold.

Whoever comes to us with the right spirit and the right intentions, I’d be very glad to have them on board.

Xtra: What would you want gays in the community to do next?

I think the community can help us best at this time by allowing us a little bit of time to get the advisory panel in place, by attending the community consultations, and by taking the time to tell us what they want. For a long time, we’ve been in the position that we’ve been guessing. We’ve been guessing what the community wants. Now we’re saying to the community, come and tell us what you want.

Pride Toronto’s annual general meeting is tentatively scheduled for Sept 23, location TBA. Stay tuned at and for details of the community consultations. The Pride Coalition for Free Speech will hold its next meeting July 20, 7pm, at the 519 Community Centre.