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Bound for Glory

The kinkfest that is Folsom Street Fair is also this city’s leanest, meanest nonprofit.

 

Well-oiled machine. It sounds like an idea for a demo at the Folsom Street Fair, San Francisco’s annual leather and fetish festival, but it’s also a phrase that many people use to describe the fair’s less sexy side: all the fundraising, balance-sheet-monitoring, perimeter-securing, waste-hauling, volunteer-corralling stuff that happens behind the scenes before so much as one flogger is raised. That’s right: The city’s kinkiest street festival is also its most upstanding, on-the-straight-and-narrow, model fair. In 2015, Folsom Street Events, the nonprofit that puts on the fair each September—as well as July’s equally dirty Up Your Alley fest—funneled more than $347,000 of its $1.5 million budget, or 22 percent, back to local nonprofits. The much larger SF Pride, by contrast, directed $168,000, or 8 percent of its budget, to charity. “By and large they all do a good job,” Supervisor Scott Wiener says of San Francisco’s dozens of street festivals, “but Folsom really has its shit together.”

The group draws praise from city insiders for everything from getting its permits early to, at the end of last year’s Up Your Alley, diverting about 85 percent of its waste from the landfill—a feat confirmed by an astounded Recology. In a city that can’t host a Super Bowl or an America’s Cup without going into the red and/or pissing off a good portion of its constituents, how do a scrappy band of fetishists, most of whom have full-time jobs, pull this off? After all, putting on events that regularly feature flagellation and rope bondage has drawbacks: Corporate sponsors aren’t exactly lining up. About half of the budget comes from attendee donations and beverage sales, with the rest supplied by exhibitor fees, party ticket sales, and sponsorships from bathhouses, sex clubs, and the like. By contrast, downright wholesome Pride can tap increasingly mainstream sponsors for roughly half of its annual budget.

Folsom Street Events owes much of its effectiveness to its all-volunteer board of directors, who put in hours equivalent to a part-time job from May to September. Unlike, say, a museum board, whose members might be selected for their social connections or fundraising prowess, Folsom’s board members are chosen for their appetite to do the heavy lifting themselves and run departments like waste removal and entertainment booking. “None of our folks are rich people, and that’s fine, because we know that the sweat equity is what’s raising money,” says Folsom Street Events executive director Demetri Moshoyannis. “It’s not about an image thing; it’s wanting to do good by the community.” And it’s a lot of good: In the past three years, Folsom Street Events has given more than $1 million to local nonprofits that, for instance, support people living with HIV/AIDS and fight homelessness. At its current pace of giving, it would take Pride nearly twice as long to flex the same amount of charitable muscle.

Of course, running a largely volunteer outfit—Folsom Street Events has just three full-time staffers—comes with challenges, like board turnover and the loss of institutional memory. But the fair doesn’t implode every time someone leaves, thanks to the constant recruitment of associates, or junior board members, who must put in a year of learning the ropes before they’re eligible to be full board members. The associates program, explains board president Edwin Morales, staves off volunteer burnout and smooths the passing of the torch: “It prevents people from being like, ‘I’ve been here for 14 years, and I can’t leave, and no one can do what I do.’” And, Moshoyannis points out, everyone benefits from a trial run: “It’s our training ground to see how well they mesh with the organization.”

That level of screening and prep helps maintain a board that can function like a solid marriage, even though its membership fluctuates. Everyone is responsible for keeping the budget in check. People trust one another and listen. “We spend a lot of time talking about how to communicate under pressure so that we’re not getting mad at each other,” says Moshoyannis, sounding more like a family therapist than the boss of San Francisco’s biggest freakfest. That emotional investment is passed down to 900-plus volunteers, says board member Jennifer Schuster, who heads the volunteer department: “Because of their time, we’re able to keep costs down and return the proceeds we raise to the nonprofits we care about.”

You could say that Folsom Street Events sets itself apart because it has to be beloved to survive. “You have to continually invest in and develop community goodwill,” says Moshoyannis. “If you lose it, you’re kind of screwed.” Yes—in a bad way.


Originally published in the September issue of
San Francisco

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