A Path Forward for Pride St. Louis – MJ Murphy
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 Pride St. Louis, Inc. might move forward. Rad 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.
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. Without transparency and the accountability it enables, community trust in Pride St. Louis, Inc. will not be rebuilt.
Invest in the Board
Pride St. Louis, Inc. board members often rebuff criticism by claiming they’re all “unpaid volunteers with fulltime jobs.” Newsflash: all non-profit directors are unpaid because non-profits are “public benefit” corporations. They exist to benefit the public, not the board. But board members benefit from other kinds of compensation: 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, 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 volunteer 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 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.
Appoint an Advisory Group
Not all identities and professional competencies 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 the 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 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 towards Organizational Independence
Currently, Pride St. Louis, Inc. is financially dependent on a corporate-sponsored festival/parade for the large majority of its income. It’s also dependent on the cooperation of the City of St. Louis and SLPD 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 Pridefest. Commissioning an economic impact study from one of the area’s universities would give the organization leverage in negotiations with the City, the police, 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 continued existence of the organization. That can’t happen again.
But none of the above will happen if the current board is unwilling to hear to community concerns, acknowledge prior mistakes, and commit to charting a new course for the organization.