7 min

Why Pride needs an executive director

Buried under heavy workloads and high burn-out rates, Vancouver's Pride directors need help

Credit: David Ellingsen

It’s the eve of the 30th anniversary of Pride in Vancouver and as marketing campaigns start to gear up, sponsors start commissioning tacky gay freebies and tourism dollars start to roll in, it’s clear to see that the Vancouver Pride Society (VPS) is at a turning point in its life.

These are no longer the grassroots marches and picnics of the activists who blazed the way for us. These are large-scale corporate-funded festivities that are in dire need of professional organization and execution.

Vancouver Pride has grown from a small homo gathering to Vancouver’s second largest event following only the Celebration of Light, which has an estimated attendance of 1.4 million people over four nights.

With Pride parade attendance increasing from less than 100,000 attendees in 2002 to an estimated 380,000 in 2007 – with more expected this year – it’s no wonder the VPS’ volunteer directors are bickering, burning out, and struggling to create a structure that makes Vancouver’s Pride festivities sustainable.

The VPS needs to hire an executive director.

Starting in February, the volunteer directors begin working an average of 15 to 20 hours a week on top of their full-time jobs and other commitments to make the Pride parade and other related events happen.

Most directors not only hold specific portfolios, they also sit on several committees each.

Assisting the board is an administrative assistant, a contract-based marketing and sponsorships representative, and a growing number of short-term contract staff. But this isn’t enough.

Despite the part-time help and dedicated core of directors, the VPS is only getting half the job done. It’s so focused on the logistics and details of planning each year’s festivities that it can’t look past the present – leaving visioning and long-term planning for the organization on the backburner.

The HR Council for the Voluntary & Non-Profit Sector describes an executive director as the person “responsible for the successful leadership and management of the organization according to the strategic direction set by the Board of Directors.”

While the VPS currently has an administrative assistant aboard at 30 hours a week in the months leading up to Pride weekend, that person’s role is to provide flow and consistency to office operations, not to make executive-level decisions.

The assistant has provided some relief in terms of office organization, but VPS board members are still essentially working part-time for Pride for five months, in addition to their regular paying jobs – which they’re expected to take time off from in the days leading to Pride in order to make the weekend a success for the public.

An executive director would take on the bulk of the work to make the Pride festivities happen, making the entire process more efficient and effective.

The VPS board members would then be free to focus on long-term strategy and vision – elements currently left to fall by the wayside as a result of heavy workloads.

Hiring an executive director is not out of reach for the VPS.

VPS president John Boychuk points out that the organization’s decision to hire an administrative assistant for 2008 stems from a surplus of $100,000 heading into the 2008 Pride season.

He also points out that if each of the 380,000 people expected to attend Pride this year were to donate 25 cents, the organization would have an additional surplus of $75,000 -money that could easily be earmarked by the membership for the hiring of an executive director.

Locally, large-scale queer organizations are finding success with executive directors, as the local queer film fest’s experience demonstrates.

“Spend the money, hire an executive director,” advises James Ong, chair of Out on Screen (OOS), the society behind the film fest.

Ong describes OOS’ pre-executive director era as “very disorganized, very stressful.” Sound familiar?

He credits OOS’ successful growth from an infant to a more mature organization primarily to the hiring of an executive director for “dealing with all the micro stuff.”

OOS brought in $60,000 in private donations in 2007 (a 45 percent increase from 2006 alone) and, since hiring an executive director, has expanded to include five additional full-time staff and a growing number of programming and development projects, including Out in Schools, the Queer History Project, and the Projection 20 campaign – all long-term strategic goals made possible by hiring an executive director, which allowed board members to readjust their previously excessive workloads.

“With an executive director it was possible to have much higher expectations and consistency,” Ong notes.

Drew Dennis is the executive director who brought OOS to the next level and is also involved as a volunteer with Volunteer Vancouver’s Board Development Program (a program offering affordable non-profit board development workshops).

Without referring directly to the VPS, Dennis says “it’s especially hard if you have a working board where everyone’s actually doing the hands-on work.”

Dennis also stresses the challenges associated with trying to tackle governance and long-term planning when an organization’s leadership is left to a rotating board of directors, something the VPS currently contends with as well.

With a limited amount of people and work hours available, it becomes impossible to tackle both the micro issues of running an organization while also thinking on a macro level to plan strategically for the future.

Boychuk, now in his third year of a three-year term as president of the VPS, thinks hiring an executive director is the right way to go.

“We’ve been discussing it and mentioning it to the membership for the last two years,” he says, pointing out that it’s for the membership to determine the direction of the organization.

Boychuk points to other major North American cities as examples of the direction Vancouver could take -cities such as San Francisco and Toronto, both of which have executive directors.

“Is that growth potential there? Absolutely. Is the ability to pay staff? Absolutely. Should we be [hiring an executive director] for the future? I think we should be definitely doing that.”

Ray Lam, the VPS’ director of governance, bluntly states where his support lies.

“The Pride Society is at a point where it should be hiring an executive director,” he says, citing the amount of work necessary to produce the parade and festival and the need to have someone coordinate – not just execute – the entire workload.

Lam points to the new bylaws that he has been developing for the VPS. If passed, among other things the bylaws would create a Senate – an independent governing body of people elected by the membership to five-year terms, charged with overseeing the long-term planning of the organization – leaving the regular board to focus on day-to-day duties.

Lam sees the Senate as a possible transition to help pave the way for an executive director. He sees two possible scenarios: keep the Senate and a working board to be entrusted with day-to-day logistics; or keep the Senate and replace the board with an executive director equally responsible for daily logistics.

The Senate could eventually be dissolved once the transition is complete, he notes, leaving the VPS with a regular board of directors entrusted with long-term planning and an executive director responsible for day-to-day planning and operations.

Either way, he says, the VPS wins.

“What we’re looking at for a Senate to do would be to create the infrastructure for the Society and develop our long-term goals,” he explains. “It’s not micromanaging or getting involved in the day-to-day business.”

By building the Senate’s creation and parameters into the bylaws, specific requirements will be set for its composition, Lam continues, citing such things as the mandatory inclusion of the current VPS president and one other sitting board member.

Regardless of the form it takes, a temporary committee will need to be formed to ensure the hiring of an executive director is handled with attention and care – rather than halfheartedly by a group of people already overworked as it is.

Such a committee could still be struck without the need for it to be written into new bylaws, but Lam makes an argument for accountability and structure in a time of change.

Former VPS president Shawn Ewing is open to the idea of hiring an executive director but not convinced that it’s the right step for the organization.

An executive director would not necessarily address the internal conflicts the board has seen in the past couple of years, she notes.

“If the organization is a parade and festival, I don’t know if it warrants the position of executive director,” she continues.

But if the VPS has the potential to become much more than simply a parade and festival, she says, then it needs help setting long-term direction.

While Ewing suggests giving more consideration to the option of hiring other full-time staff, she does concede that an executive director would offer the VPS a level of continuity – something it’s had difficulty finding with current bylaws that elect people to two-year terms (which, with internal struggles and high burn-out rates, are rarely fulfilled).

Whether you’re for or against an executive director, Pride is clearly at a turning point and we have an amazing opportunity – we, the members of the VPS (memberships available to anyone for $10 at Little Sister’s) – can define the VPS and local Pride celebrations for generations to come.

We can shape the vision and goals of the Pride organization that’s supposed to represent us, both in our own city and internationally.

This is finally an opportunity for the membership to strategically put people in place – community leaders and activists – who can really make long-term changes in our community, who can re-shape our Pride organization to successfully focus on both long-term planning and the day-to-day requirements of producing a growing Pride parade and festival.

If the community so desires, by generally supporting the proposed bylaws, speaking to the VPS board of directors (either in person, via email, or by way of the online survey), and showing a small amount of financial support at Pride, we could potentially see an executive director hired as soon as 2010.

It may not be easy to convince the community at large that this is the starting point for a fully functional, professional VPS; after all, the organization has faced opposition to a number of proposed changes over recent years.

Some of the community’s distrust could stem from the still-recent memory of the Pride Society’s $106,000 debt in 2002, but Ewing succinctly states a larger fear: “Change. People fear change.”

“I understand it,” she says. “There have been lots of times since I’ve left the board where I would read something or I would hear something about the board or what they were doing or going to do, and it would be a change.”

But she readily admits that “change has to happen. If it doesn’t then we become really stagnant.”

Maybe that’s what scares people about these bylaws, the proposed Senate, and the idea of hiring an executive director: the idea that we, as a community, might actually be given the responsibility of getting involved in shaping and defining ourselves as a community.

Blame a declining tradition of oral queer history, blame the media, the internet, or technology. Blame whatever you want, but the fact remains that most people would rather spend a Saturday afternoon hanging out with friends or updating their Facebook profile than attending a notoriously dry marathon meeting about bylaws and governance in a church hall in the West End.

Except this year that meeting gives birth to an entirely new way of thinking about Pride in our city.