A look at Orlando Pride’s dedicated team of volunteers, and how they’ve spent the past year putting the pieces of Pride back together

By : Jamie Hyman
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For a while there, things looked so bleak that some were concerned that Orlando Pride was dead.

In November of 2014, the Come Out With Pride Board was suspended, its executive director fired and being investigated for fraud. The books were a disaster and the Metropolitan Business Association – COWP’s umbrella organization – was working overtime to try to untangle the mess and get COWP back on track.

Nearly a year later, and less than a month away from COWP 2015, things are looking much sunnier, and organizers are daring to venture that this might be the biggest, best Come Out With Pride Orlando has seen yet.

2220-Cover“Our board of seven individuals, including six production-team members, are in a great place,” says Brian Riha, COWP president. “We’re feeling positive, we’re united. Our theme this year is ‘Pride United.’ We’re moving forward, and we’re setting the bar for a very exciting new pride event.”

Before getting into the past year and how much work it has taken to make sure COWP happens, a little history. Originally, Orlando Pride was a grassroots celebration, but things became official in 2005 when the MBA – Orlando’s gay Chamber of Commerce – formed Come Out With Pride as a 5013c in 2005. COWP did – and still does – operate as a subsidiary of the MBA. Initially MBA board members did double duty to keep Pride running, but in 2009, COWP split into a separate board, allowing both organizations to pursue their respective goals while supporting each other. In 2011, Mikael Audebert became COWP’s first executive director, and he and the board leveraged the event’s 501c3 status to attract national sponsors and record numbers of attendees.

However, it all fell apart in late 2014. Audebert had been both executive director of COWP and president of the MBA, but he resigned from the MBA in October of 2014, with the goal of turning his attention to COWP and divorcing the event from the MBA. The COWP Board voted to sever from the MBA soon after, but the MBA Board stepped in, fired Audebert, and reclaimed control of COWP.

Since then, there have been investigations, accusation of fraud, lawsuit threats… and through it all, a long year of hard work for the still-dedicated team of COWP and MBA volunteers determined to first preserve, and then improve, their beloved hometown Pride celebration.

Getting in the black
Step one was getting COWP’s financial house in order.

“We’ve worked hard all year to get it there,” says Michael Thomas, COWP finance director, a founding COWP board member who returned to help get the organization back on its feet.

“We had a couple processes,” Thomas says. “First was starting fresh: [We] opened all new accounts so we didn’t have any baggage. Then we looked at all the past debts, got that in order, asked people for forgiveness or if they wanted to sponsor or trade their debt.”

Thomas reports that has been wildly successful, with nearly $20,000 in debts erased or traded out. In fact, headed into COWP 2015, they’ve already pre-paid the city its $27,000 fee for use of Lake Eola Park plus additional charges for security, barricades and other city services.

“Our goal this year is to pay all services pre-event,” Thomas says. “We’re definitely on track. In fact, we’ll even have a little extra money going into the event, which is going to be a good thing.”

A good chunk of that money came from sponsorships.

“We’ve just been kicking butt at fundraising and sponsorships,” Thomas says. “We’ve plateaued at over the $100,000 mark.”

He mentions Bud Light as a big one, with $15,000, and Macy’s came in as the parade sponsor to the tune of $10,000.

“We took a look at this year, sponsors, [and] we are way above what our goal-setting was and we’re really excited that a lot of the corporations feel that the movement from marriage equality is just one step. And they’re still behind the LGBT community to continue that movement forward toward diversity and inclusion,” Riha says. “We’ve had sponsors that weren’t a part of it last year who are on board this year; we’ve had sponsors who have come back to us.”

And weeks from the event, there may be more.

“We still have some sponsorships that have been promised that haven’t come in yet,” Thomas says.

Everything in its place
Step two was making sure everyone involved understood that, although Come Out With Pride is a subsidiary of the MBA, they are separate organizations with separate finances and separate missions. When Thomas came on board, he says the two organizations’ books were mixed up, and that was a problem that needed to be solved.

“They’re not supposed to have mixed finances,” Thomas says. “Pride is a 501c3 and MBA is a 501c6. You have to have separate books.”

Once the money was sorted, there was still some untangling to do.

“We had several long meetings at beginning of this year to make sure we understand this,” says Nayte Carrick, MBA president, emphasizing the organization’s separate missions.

For the record, COWP’s mission is a bulleted list that covers fellowship, communication, financial giving through grants, providing positive role models and foremost: “To produce an annual pride event that fosters a sense of community, encourages LGBTQ+ citizens to live openly and with pride, and educates the general public of our shared cultural heritage.”

MBA’s mission: “To lead the way for development, advocacy and growth of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender business community and its allies. We will accomplish this through building our small businesses, working with professionals in corporations, supporting our nonprofits and encouraging the general community to support those that support their rights.”

They have distinctly different goals, but, the organizations still support each other. Carrick says the MBA designated their monthly mixer raffle proceeds to COWP, and also donated the money raised through the silent auction at the Pride Gala, MBA’s annual awards banquet.

“I think to date we have so far raised about $13,000 for [COWP] to go toward this year’s event,” Carrick says.

The cross-organizational support goes beyond dollars. Carrick says members of both organizations have made an effort to attend each other’s board meetings and events and MBA board members are planning to volunteer at the COWP event.

“This is a very collaborative effort between the two organizations, and we really have a family feeling,” Carrick says. “It’s really great to see the pride team participating in our events, and we’re really excited to participate in theirs. We’re able to maintain the missions of our organizations while working together.”

“From the MBA side it’s been a large amount of work to pull [COWP] through the year and make the changes necessary to make it really strong,” Carrick continues, adding that rededicating the organizations to their boundaries has ultimately made the MBA a better organization.

“We’ve really turned our focus to how to help provide value to our members,” Carrick says, as opposed to working on increasing membership or making money. “I know that the people on the Pride board feel the same way,” he says. “They really are doing this for the community. I think that when you show up to the Pride event his year you’ll really feel that.”

Pride Gives Back comes back
Step three was reviving the part of Pride that invests in the local LGBT community – Pride Gives Back. Under the direction of the previous executive director, the grants and scholarship program had become neglected.

“The whole reason why we hold this event is it’s an opportunity for the LGBT community in general, in addition to the allies, to provide support and one of our main missions is to give back to the community through scholarships and grants,” Riha says.

Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan jumpstarted the return of Pride Gives Back with a city grant for $5,000, with $3,000 of that earmarked for scholarships to be awarded to LGBT students.

“We’ll be giving away three $1,000 scholarships, students are applying right now, we’ll be selecting those three and Commissioner Sheehan will present them at the event,” Thomas says.

Sheehan says COWP used to be a “problem child” but she hopes her contribution helped turn things around.

“This is what happens in nonprofits, this is what happens in government: People start fighting over money,” Sheehan says. “You lose sense of what’s happening and get obsessed with the money. I’m not that much involved. I hope everything gets worked out. I hope they concentrate on getting the parade back together, which is what I’ve tried to help them do.”

In addition to the scholarships, Pride Gives Back is reviving its grant program, which runs all year. The application is available right now at ComeOutWithPride.org. Grants will be awarded with focus on three areas: education, economic development and health & wellness.

“So depending on how profitable the event is, clearing out all of our old debt and seeing where we are after that, we hope to give a decent amount of grants to the organizations,” Thomas says. “They can apply throughout the year but we will issue the grants in the month of November.”

He says it’s tough to call how much grant money they’ll give out, because it depends heavily on how well the Pride event does as a fundraiser and that depends on many factors such as weather, attendance, bar revenue and ticket sales for the VIP dinner and fireworks.

Pride United … and reimagined
Finally, now that Pride was back on its feet, COWP board members got to do the fun stuff – looking at Prides past and making the changes intended to make the upcoming Pride event even better.

“The goal this year was with Pride United being two different aspects,” Thomas says. “One, uniting the organization together from a tough year, getting ourselves back on our feet and in the black. The second part was bringing the community together.”

He says the board designated some ‘Pride United’ organizations, such as The Wedding Alliance and Human Rights Campaign, and gave them all free vendor space. The Wedding Alliance is performing two weddings at the event, one in the morning and one in the evening, and they’re looking for couples to get married right now.

“It’s a monumental year,” Thomas says. “It’s a perfect year for this.”

Riha says last year, the focus was domestic partner registries, but this year, it’s all about marriage equality.

“We know as the LGBT community [same-sex marriage is] just one step,” Riha says. “There’s many more hurdles we have to jump. We’re still moving forward and supporting those organizations here locally that are driving out those changes at the state and national level.”

He says Pride specifically is doing so through the Pride Gives Back program, and he’s hoping their success with sponsors will allow them the funds to support those organizations through more and bigger grants.

COWP’s 2015 Grand Marshal is Ginger Minj, who came in second place on the latest season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. When asked about the process behind that selection, Riha says, “It just made sense that we had a local person who was representing Orlando, cared about our community, is part of our community, it just made sense to recognize that as a grand marshal.”

In addition to her role in the parade, Minj will perform at a COWP Church Street Station party Friday night, plus both she and Jordin Sparks are part of the line-up at Parliament House, which hosts Pride celebrations all weekend long.

One big difference Pride attendees will notice this year is the layout of the park on festival day. Riha says their 100+ sponsors will be set up in the grassy area on the northeast corner of Lake Eola, “creating a sponsor walk, allowing them to showcase their brand and their commitment to our community.”

“We’ve taken a look at the ways in previous years congestion happened, revamped things to make it easier to get into the park and not having to squeeze by people on pathway into the park,” he adds, saying they “restructured layout of the park in a more impactful and exciting new way.”

Thomas says he’s “very proud” of where Pride is right now.

“People thought we wouldn’t be supported, and it’s quite the opposite,” he says. “We’ve had great support and I’d like to say we did it. It’s still a month out but we’re in really good shape.”

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