How Pride Cultivates Corporate Partnerships in a Heated Political Atmosphere
By Dylan Monorchio
July 18, 2023
In a polarized political climate, Pride sponsors are vulnerable to attacks from both the right and the left. How do Pride organizers navigate shifting social currents and bilateral backlash to maintain their corporate partnerships?
Every June, cities around the Western world celebrate the LGBTQ+ community in a series of festivals collectively known as Pride.
For years, Pride’s corporate sponsors have been subject to side-eye from members of the LGBTQ+ community who feel that big brands corrupt the political and rebellious spirit of the event and only participate in order to woo queer consumer and labor markets without actually improving the lives of marginalized people.
However, the backlash companies like Target and Anheuser-Busch (the makers of Bud Light) are facing for their queer marketing campaigns is proof that, in the current political climate, supporting Pride still involves a very real risk from the right.
And the risk of blowback from both sides is escalating.
From conservative customers, the risk of a temporary boycott has evolved into the risk that they will vandalize the brand’s stores, doxx its marketing executives, and threaten its employees.
From the left, the usual jibes and murmurs about participating too little or too easily have evolved into a real risk that a left-wing think tank will uncover some wayward donation the brand wasn’t aware it had made three years ago to blacklist it and taint its involvement with an air of transphobic, two-faced hypocrisy.
Meanwhile, companies who do nothing for Pride are largely ignored by both camps.
Has sponsoring Pride become a liability, and is criticism from the LGBTQ+ community exacerbating that?
Like Pride organizations, many associations, not-for-profits, and public service organizations are being pressured by their communities and members to take a stance on contentious issues, but cannot afford to alienate corporate sponsors and partners.
Pride sponsorship coordinators are experts in this. This article will examine some of the ways Pride builds and maintains relationships with corporate partners in a sea of shifting social currents.
Reality Check: Pride Needs More Corporate Sponsorship, Not Less
Costs Are Rising Faster than Corporate Sponsorships Can Keep Up
“I don’t think the community really understands what it costs,” explains Rob Legere, director of sponsorships and community outreach at Miami Beach Pride. “We couldn’t do this without corporate sponsorship.”
Like most not-for-profits and community-oriented institutions, Pride organizations rely heavily on corporate sponsorship to pay for events and fund their year-round programming.
City endowments and government grants cover a small portion of the operating budget, but depending on the city, anywhere from 50-75% of the costs associated with a Pride organization’s year-round programming are paid for through a combination of cash and in-kind corporate sponsorships.
“The expenditures are growing faster than sponsorships,” says Legere, noting that post-Covid operating costs have pretty much doubled due in part to the increase in security, police, permitting, infrastructure and labor costs.
This increase is not limited to American Pride organizations. Pride Toronto reported that the price tag on police protection in 2023 is $182,000 CAD compared to $62,000 CAD in 2022, while “general liability insurance prices surged to over $270,000 from about $67,000 last year.” These rising costs threatened to limit programming until the Canadian government issued a special $750,000 security grant to be split by the Pride organizations of Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal.
Pride Is a Fundraiser: Corporate Sponsorship at Pride Fuels Other Community Activities and Initiatives
“If anything, [Pride] needs to be more corporate because that’s where the dollars are,” says Yinka Freeman, an independent event planner who supports San Diego Pride in event planning and sponsor recruitment. “At the end of the day, it’s still a fundraising event.”
At San Diego Pride, over 50% of the parade and festival budget comes from corporate sponsorship, which allows the organization to maximize the revenue from festival operations. All the surplus goes back into the community: “At the end of the year, there’s a holiday mixer and Pride gives out checks to 15-20 smaller queer organizations throughout the county of San Diego.”
“Without [corporate sponsors], some of the smaller Prides around the country may not be able to survive,” adds Legere. “Small communities can’t support even small-scale Prides.”
When Pride organizers cannot find sufficient funding or the right in-kind corporate contributions, programming is on the chopping block because many of the other costs are fixed.
Roughly 65% of Miami Beach Pride’s operating budget comes from corporate sponsorship, and while Miami Beach Pride is in a better position than some, funding can still affect the scale and scope of its activities: “If we don’t have enough external funding for an activity we want to do, it can change our final programming.”
Corporate sponsorship also allows events and services to be free and accessible. In an interview with ABC News, Suzanne Ford, the executive director of San Francisco Pride, said that keeping its “two-day, $3 million festival free” depends on longtime sponsors like Anheuser-Busch.
Backlash From Both Sides: Is Pride Sponsorship a Liability for Corporate Partners?
Despite their willingness to support LGBTQ+ organizations, corporate sponsors are being put in a position in which they face backlash from all sides if they choose to get involved.
Last year, the majority of negative social media feedback was from the left and revolved around “inauthenticity.” The most common concerns can be boiled down into three main criticisms:
Pride, by Coca Cola. The corporate presence at Pride is unseemly and undermines the political purpose or “spirit” of Pride by watering down the event into something that’s easier to commercialize (namely, a party).
Activism? More like “slacktivism.” Companies need to be taken to task for courting LGBTQ+ consumer and labor markets through performative virtue signaling without putting in the consistent, year-round work of allyship and taking material action toward social progress.
Stop fraternizing with the enemy. Companies that sponsor Pride and back politicians who are associated with anti-trans legislation are effectively taking our money and giving it to our oppressors.
And while the reaction from the right is typically a temporary reduction in demand, this year the backlash has not stopped at their wallets. While boycotts are a civil way to use economic leverage to apply pressure, there is “a new dimension” to the backlash that involves violence, doxxing, and targeting company employees and marketing professionals personally.
The danger to employees and property caused Target to pull their Pride merchandise and Bud Light CEO Brendan Whitworth to ambiguously declare his “responsibility to America” in a strange plea for everyone to come together over a beer, both of which elicited a collective eye-roll from the LGBTQ+ community.
Criticisms from the left that normally revolve around Pride participation being some combination of perfunctory and opportunistic have now (and somewhat ironically) morphed into a backlash for mishandling the fallout from having demonstrably put skin in the game by supporting Pride. From this perspective, failure to double-down on support for the LGBTQ+ community when the going gets tough only reinforces other criticisms around slacktivism and hypocrisy.
How Pride Builds Robust Sponsor Networks Amid Shifting Social Attitudes
Despite increasing costs and ongoing challenges, Pride organizations have been able to address detractors from all sides while building bridges and curating resilient networks of reliable partners. They do this through guiding sponsors on community engagement, vetting prospective partners carefully, building relationships on longer engagements, and adopting a policy of honesty and transparency with both LGBTQ+ and corporate stakeholders.
#1 – Be a Conduit for Community Action
Define Programming First, Then Find Sponsors
The disdain for Pride sponsors who flip-flop in the face of right-wing backlash contributes to a more general criticism of the level of corporate participation at Pride, particularly by those who see it as an obstacle to real political activism that is harder to commercialize.
Since being less corporate is not a realistic possibility (barring a massive increase in other funding), the onus is on Pride organizations to take charge.
Legere starts by taking the goals for the year and the larger annual program into consideration. Only then does he begin outreach to find companies that have a good fit with the programming he’s already defined. For example, as a healthcare provider and pharmaceutical company familiar with the trans community, Gilead Sciences was a natural fit for Miami Beach Pride’s Trans Pride Pavilion.
Be a Conduit for Action, Focus on Education
Pride organizations are purpose-built to engage with and serve the LGBTQ+ community throughout the year, and their intimate knowledge of the challenges and experiences of marginalized queer people put them in a much better position to know how to spend and redistribute corporate funds in the service of their communities.
As such, it’s in the community’s best interest for Pride to assume the responsibility of guiding the corporate sponsors on how best to deliver value with mutually advantageous activations. Predefined programming gives sponsors a template for their own initiatives and suggestions when they do want to be more action-oriented at Pride.
“Sponsors can suggest activations or workshops if they want to be a part of the programming, but it’s always subject to Pride’s mission,” says Freeman. “If the activation aligns with the event, like a workshop about accessibility at events, that can work out really well – and it usually comes at a premium, which means more funds for other community programs.”
#2 – Align Values to Strengthen Your Network of True Partners
Defining the programming not only helps interested companies figure out what they need to do, it also helps Pride organizations narrow their search for partners based on inherent mission alignment with their objectives. This, in turn, leads to better “true fit” sponsors.
Say “Farewell” to Fair-weather Friends
While the recent controversy has caused some sponsors to participate in Pride more discreetly, others have pulled out altogether.
For Freeman, this meant reaching out to more local businesses with a stronger connection to the community. Well-known liquor companies were lined up to sponsor products for San Diego Pride, says Freeman, but “right after the Bud Light debacle, bigger name sponsors dropped out citing ‘marketing reasons’.” This meant that only a month and a half away from the event, Pride had to scramble to find new sponsors. “The [local San Diego business community] is really strong and rallied behind us, but it threw a wrench into the program.”
When sponsors feel “skittish” and want to adjust their participation, Pride organizations compromise for high value relationships in some cases, but often it’s wiser to cut losses in order to pursue a sturdier partnership. A cultivated partner network gives Legere enough leverage to withstand demands that deviate too much from Pride’s prerogative: “We will take a sponsor’s thoughts into consideration, but if we’re not willing to pivot, we just won’t partner with that sponsor.”
Vet Partners for Value Alignment by Asking the Right Questions
This is where value-based selection comes in. “I never just ask for money,” says Legere, who validates his sponsor shortlist by probing potential partners about why they’re interested:
- Where do you see your involvement?
- Why do you want to be involved?
- What is your formal diversity and inclusion policy?
- Are you coming to activate on a corporate level, or is it a local group of LGBTQ+ and allied staff driving it (e.g. Amazon vs. Glamazon)?
- Do you have LGBTQ+ resource groups within the staff?
- What is your Human Rights Campaign (HRC) rating?
- Are you making donations to other Pride organizations?
- Are you involved in homeless youth programs?
Freeman similarly looks for queer-friendly ERGs as part of the surveying process to establish a presumptively queer-positive culture before she even reaches out to anyone. Moreover, she recommends reaching out within existing professional and personal networks in which the vetting process has, in some sense, already taken place: “If a sponsor has partnered with another Pride event or another community organization, that’s a good sign.”
Build Robust Networks Based on Mission Alignment
Value alignment bears fruit when push comes to shove. Making sure the sponsors are there for the right reasons and that their participation in Pride is one manifestation of a larger commitment to the LGBTQ+ community creates a foundation that is much more resilient to nay-sayers. While it’s not a perfect process, it allows Pride to build a solid network of trustworthy partners over time.
“Our sponsors haven’t really flinched, and in many cases, sponsor commitments have actually grown year over year,” says Legere. “Companies largely recognize that they have LGBTQ+ employees who shape a culture of acceptance and reciprocal support with the community.”
InterPride, which represents more than 375 Pride organizations globally, reported that 40% of its member organizations have at least a 20% increase in sponsorship revenue in 2023.
#3 – Focus on Long-term Corporate Sponsor Engagement
Rainbow-washing, Slacktivism, and Inaction
Anti-corporate sentiment is laced with a community-wide cynicism around rainbow-washing and “slacktivism.” Slacktivism fundamentally rests on the perception that throwing some money into a bit of queer-themed merchandise or a float in a parade is a low-lift, risk-free and frequently inconsequential way to court the LGBTQ+ community’s disposable income and workforce talent.
The argument is fundamentally about inaction and inconsistency. Critics within the LGBTQ+ community feel entitled to consistent and corporate-sponsored solutions as a sincerity condition of showing support during Pride. In their absence, brandishing rainbows and giving money during Pride Month is really just a blasé virtue signaling exercise.
Value alignment ensures strong, reliable partners you can count on when things go awry, but it’s also more conducive to longer term engagements. As it pertains to shifting social currents and bilateral backlash, longer and more active corporate engagement is the key to safeguarding against rainbow-washing and slacktivism.
Most Corporate Sponsors Stand With Pride Beyond June
This common criticism comes from “a lack of understanding of how we operate,” explains Legere. “We don’t just come together once a year to put on a single event; we’re planning and activating in the community throughout the year.” Legere adds that many people are themselves only tuned in during Pride, so they think that’s when everything happens.
Miami Beach Pride’s year-round activities include fundraising campaigns, community programs and ancillary events that are often paid for through sponsorships. In fact, interest in longer-term and even multi-year engagements are part of Legere’s vetting process, and over 60% of this year’s corporate sponsors were long-term partners.
Ensuring a long-standing partnership with a company that has strong value alignment is not only a political move that preserves the integrity of the event, but a pragmatic move that stabilizes the budget and programming in the face of rising tensions. It makes way more sense to cultivate a network of committed sponsors who actively want to be involved throughout the program than to have to reinvent the wheel for every single Pride function.
Moreover, longer engagements are better for corporate partners, too, as they “create greater opportunities for larger and more meaningful activations,” says Legere.
#4 – Don’t Be a Fairweather Friend
It’s important to be socially aware. A new generation of social stakeholders is more value-conscious than ever, and corporations have a role to play in progressing and maintaining social virtues. When activists and whistleblowers call the integrity of a partner into question, it’s important to listen.
However, it’s important to evaluate the merits of any claims before reacting. Overreacting to accusations without properly determining how problematic they really are is a great way to arbitrarily throw away well-meaning and high-value partners over what amounts to social histrionics.
Pride Sponsors Accused of Supporting Anti-LGBTQ+ Legislation
The desire to invalidate and delegitimize corporate support for Pride has recently manifested in an effort to take companies to task over alleged conflicts of interest within their political donations.
Last year, Fortune reported on research that “progressive think tank and advocacy group” Data for Progress published in its Corporate Accountability Project, which purports to expose corporations who supported Pride and also donated funds to anti-trans legislators. The purpose is ostensibly to show the companies’ employees “where they actually stand when it comes to values and supporting the LGBTQ+ community.” According to the data they produced, companies collectively donated over $3 million USD through their political action committees (PACs) to problematic lawmakers between 2019 and 2022.
However, in order to make this correlation, Data for Progress attributed activities across subsidiaries and franchises to the same corporate values determination. Under this rule, someone at a Target subsidiary in Florida who, for whatever reason, donated $500 through a PAC to a problematic legislator in 2019 is meant to in some way delegitimize the decision to donate $250,000 to LGBTQ+ organizations and launch a queer merchandise campaign to raise money for the community in 2022.
Another body of research by Popular Information reported that Pride sponsor CVS Health had “recently supported the sponsors of anti-trans legislation in Texas, North Carolina, and Tennessee,” citing (among others) two donations in 2019 and 2020 to co-sponsors of an anti-trans bill that was only filed a year later in March 2021.
Is This Kind of Corporate Morality Accounting Necessary?
“I don’t request a full balance sheet from companies who want to sponsor us,” says Legere, adding that pretty much every company donates to pretty much every political party, and typically for reasons that have nothing to do with the LGBTQ+ issues. “The people who are actively engaging with our Pride organizations are not the people making those decisions.”
Legere points out that most companies get involved to satisfy and support their own employee base and LGBTQ+ employee groups. His corporate points of contact are typically “within a special division led by someone who is part of the LGBTQ+ community or a strong ally.”
“Those people are in there trying to fight hard within their organization to try to promote queer voices,” adds Freeman, who notes that refusing to engage with them and give them a channel to the community is not fair.
Add to this the fact that annual corporate spend dedicated to philanthropic (and often LGBTQ-specific) projects dwarfs the likely inadvertent spend on problematic legislators, and detractors have a pretty underwhelming argument – which is likely why the HRC doesn’t consider political donations when establishing their corporate LGBTQ-friendliness score.
“Critics need to do a little more research into what these companies are doing year-round,” says Legere. Another company named in the Data for Progress report, AT&T, has been consistently supporting Pride initiatives despite taking a lot of heat from the community. “They are producing a Turn Up the Love summer concert series in several American locations; they produced a documentary about the Pride experience; and they are extremely supportive of the community.”
“People need to realize that these companies are not just writing checks to us,” adds Legere. “They’re standing side by side with us.”
#5 – Show People How to Be the Partners You Need
This moralizing zero-tolerance attitude also raises a few philosophical and pragmatic questions about imperfect allyship.
- Is it reasonable to expect companies composed of 1,000s of people to have a flawless moral track record?
- If not, can Pride organizations afford to alienate well-meaning corporate sponsors who may not even realize there is a problem?
- Is the LGBTQ+ community in a position to only accept support and solidarity that is offered by paragons of virtue?
Don’t Just Expect Corporate Sponsors to Do Better, Teach Them How
While the moral virtue threshold for acceptable sponsorship may not be clear, it’s still important to establish and maintain a set of standards, and Pride adopts a policy of supporting corporate partners by meeting with them, discussing alignment with Pride’s mission and showing them how to better serve the LGBTQ+ community.
This educational approach is a best practice even for companies that don’t qualify for sponsorship. Those that express interest deserve an opportunity to improve, both for their own LGBTQ+ employees and for the community in general.
“The Pride organization has a responsibility to facilitate relationships between corporations and the community,” says Freeman. “When Pride rejects a corporation, there’s a whole conversation and educational package for creating more alignment with Pride in order to qualify in the future.”
The focus on educating corporate teams establishes the Pride organization as a trusted community liaison/partner for sponsors; encouraging them and keeping them engaged along their journey to LGBTQ-allyship will also make them more likely to sponsor Pride in the future.
Invite Transparent Dialogue to Reinforce Bridges Between Community and Corporate Stakeholders
Having carefully vetted a corporate sponsor and negotiated a sponsorship agreement with them, Pride is able to defend its decisions if accusations of inauthenticity persist.
As such, Pride organizers engage in frank discussions with community stakeholders so they understand Pride’s position and how things operate.
“A lot of people are not engaged until it comes to Pride, so they think that’s when we’re on,” explains Legere. Social media has exacerbated this narrow concept by being a channel for distorting facts and then disseminating them widely.
“If people took some time and did some research and asked the right questions, I think there would be a better understanding of what these companies do and why they’re engaged with LGBTQ+ organizations around the world,” says Legere, who cites volunteering as the best way to understand the way Pride operates. “Be engaged and volunteer, and understand what it takes to run a Pride organization year-round.”
Corporations who want to sponsor Pride have to be ready for criticism from both their right-wing customers and the LGBTQ+ community, and they need help to navigate both.
Corporate sponsorship establishes and reinforces the mainstream approval of LGBTQ+ people, but when it comes to translating corporate dollars into firm action, Pride organizations are in a much better position to channel those resources. They accept the onus of educating corporate partners and defining the mechanisms of engagement, not only to ensure that they deliver on the needs of the community but to vet partners for value alignment and their desire to contribute longterm.
Because relationships are so critical for reliable partners, standing by partners and serving as a medium for a transparent discussion with stakeholders allows each to feel more confident in the other.
In summary, this is how Pride organizations approach corporate sponsorship in a politically charged atmosphere:
- Put the community first by defining programming independently.
- Stay true to the mission, vet partners for alignment.
- Assume the responsibility of guiding corporate sponsors.
- Focus on long-term commitments and year-round engagement.
- Recognize that relationships are critical and go both ways.
- Facilitate open and transparent dialogue.
Pride finds itself at a unique social and cultural crossroads. What they have done and continue to do is a lesson for associations, not-for-profits, and public service organizations that have to walk a fine line between the good of the communities they serve and the need for outside financial support.
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