A Path Forward for Pride St. Louis

Some thoughts and suggestions

I have spent a lot of time criticizing recent actions by the Board of Pride St. Louis, Inc. and I realize not everyone views criticism as a form of help. So, let me offer some suggestions for how the organization might move forward. Read this story to understand the background to the organization’s current crisis:

Manage the Current Crisis

In the near term, the board needs to listen to community concerns in an open and sincere manner; offer individual and organizational apologies (where appropriate); and create a plan to move forward in a way that will avoid a repeat of the last few years’ problems. And certain board members should probably resign. Personal attacks against critics and debate on social media need to cease and the organization needs to begin speaking with one, unified voice. Community trust in Pride St. Louis, Inc. will not be rebuilt so long as its board remains unresponsive, defensive, or argumentative in the face of community dissatisfaction.

Appoint a Director of Communications

There is currently no Director of Communications on the board, leading to frustrations over how to communicate concerns and confusing messages coming from the organization. A Director of Communications should be named to oversee all aspects of organizational communication, from press releases to the website and social media posts. They will need to be kept in the loop on all organizational discussions, relay decisions to the public, and serve as a conduit for community feedback. They need to be accessible to the community. Clear, consistent communication will be key to dispelling rumors and concerns that Pride St. Louis, Inc. is not responsive to its community.

Commit to Transparency

There needs to be a renewed commitment to transparent and ethical leadership and decision-making by the Board of Pride St. Louis, Inc. A good start would be posting the prior year’s board minutes, current budgets, and all IRS 990 reporting forms to the PSL website — and in an easily located place! The business of the board needs to be conducted in the light of day, not in secret or via social media. A code of ethics needs to be adopted and incorporated into board by-laws and all board members need to commit to it. And there needs to be a commitment to non-profit best practices and the resignation of some current board members who have clearly committed malfeasance and malpractice. Without transparency, and the accountability it enables, community trust in Pride St. Louis, Inc. will not be rebuilt.

Financial Transparency

Financial transparency is key to rebuilding trust with the community and donors. People don’t give to organizations that don’t manage their finances responsibly. Responsibly run non-profit organizations aren’t afraid to share their financial information with donors and other stakeholders. The Board needs to immediately commit to:

  • a complete audit of its finances by a fully accredited accounting firm, with the results made public;
  • filing its last three years Federal tax returns and making those returns public (along with any fees, penalties, or unusual accounting expenses associated with delayed filing);
  • producing consolidated annual financial statements, including complete annual income/expense and asset/liability statements, with analysis and certification by a CPA. These need to be annually presented to the Board and made available to the public as part of an annual report by the organization;
  • a transparent budgeting process, produced according to generally accepted accounting principles, and made available to the public upon Board approval;
  • a Board commitment to using donations solicited to support specific programs (such as scholarships or PrideCenter) only for those programs and showing those funds as “restricted” in budgets and other financial reports. Donations should no loner be used to plug financial ‘holes’ in a poorly managed festival or event budget.

Costs associated with financial transparency will likely eat into the budget for PrideFest and the Pride Parade but it is necessary to understand the organization’s finances if the Board is to direct Pride St. Louis, Inc. going forward.

Invest in the Board

Pride St. Louis, Inc. board members often rebuff criticism by claiming they’re all “unpaid volunteers with full-time jobs.” Newsflash: all non-profit directors are unpaid because non-profits are “public benefit” corporations. They exist to benefit the public, not the board members. But board members receive other kinds of compensation: the power to direct the organization; reputational enhancement by association; professional development; building personal and professional networks. To attract and retain high-quality board members, Pride St. Louis, Inc. needs to begin investing in board development, training, and education. New board members need appropriate training on their legal and fiduciary responsibilities as directors of a non-profit corporation.

That investment will, in turn, improve the quality of the organization and attract better-qualified board members. Training might be sought from the Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program (at UMSL), Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership (at UMKC), Non-Profit Missouri, Independent Sector, or the National Council of Nonprofits. But this will require redirecting some income from Pridefest activities into organizational development. By investing in its board, Pride St. Louis, Inc. will be better able to navigate complex issues (like the role of police at Pride) and manage resulting crises. And it will make directorship at Pride St. Louis, Inc. a desirable service opportunity.

Diversify the Board

Investing in the board will help address longstanding issues with board diversity. Although the board has made recent improvements in racial and ethnic diversity, there are currently NO lesbian or bisexual women board members (and few in recent years). That situation needs to be treated as an urgent crisis. But a strong non-profit board also requires a range of talents and professional competencies (beyond experience derived from identity): expertise in law/public policy, public relations/communications/marketing, accounting/finance, and non-profit management are obviously desirable for any non-profit board. The board has lost seven members in the last year. In next month’s board elections, seats should be filled with an eye towards including un/under-represented identities and adding needed skills/talents/competencies to the board.

*Update: new Board elections in August 2019 produced an incoming Board having NO lesbians. That’s indefensible and needs to be treated as an urgent crisis. The Board must be diverse and representative if it’s to have any legitimacy.*

Appoint an Advisory Group

Not all identities, talents, and professional skills can be included on a small non-profit board and not everyone in the community can commit the time and energy required by board service. Pride St. Louis, Inc. should appoint an advisory group with the knowledge, talents, and skills to guide its Board of Directors in times of change or crisis.

Obvious for inclusion in any advisory group are: LGBTQIA+ community leaders; staff/directors of peer non-profits; those with experience in community organizing and social justice activism; and, those with experiences and professional skills not otherwise represented on the board. Non-profit boards cannot include all stakeholders and points of view, but a carefully curated advisory group might help fill the gaps.

Work Toward Independence

Currently, Pride St. Louis, Inc. is financially dependent on a corporate-sponsored festival/parade for more than 90% of its income. It’s also dependent on the cooperation of the City of St. Louis and St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department for those events to occur. That dependence that is easily exploited and at odds with the political activism of some of its stakeholders. Board development and increased transparency, accountability, and responsiveness would allow Pride St. Louis, Inc. to apply for grants to fund Pride Center activities and (perhaps) hire a small staff, reducing dependence on income from a corporate-sponsored Pridefest.

Pridefest is an economic boon to the City of St. Louis. Commissioning an economic impact study from one of the area’s universities would yield data that can be used to leverage negotiations with the City, the SLPD, and corporate sponsors.

But until Pride St. Louis, Inc. is able to chart its own course, it will continue to find itself in positions like that which occurred in June, when the Board was forced to choose between fidelity to its community and the continuing existence of the organization. That can’t happen again!

None of the above will happen if the current board is unwilling to hear community concerns, acknowledge prior mistakes, and commit to charting a new course for the organization.

A longtime resident of St. Louis, Michael J. Murphy, MA, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (Routledge, 2019).

Professional homosexual. Professor. Writer. Scholar. Activist. Husband.

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