PrideFest Milwaukee recently completed its transition into a nonprofit group that will support its Milwaukee community partners in promoting their causes and educating the public year-round — and continue hosting North America’s largest lineup of LGBTQ talent.
The group’s board and production team worked for 15 months with change management consultants Lambert & Pearcy “to restructure and redefine our operation,” according to a news release. As a result of that effort, the board created a new 501(c)(3) organization — Milwaukee Pride Inc. — that serves as PrideFest’s “parent.”
Last August, the board hired an accounting firm to set financial controls and conduct audits. Milwaukee Pride hired its first executive director, Eric Heinritz, in January.
“Through this (process), we found new funding sources, strengthened relationships with community partners and connected with national organizations,” said board president Scott Gunkel. “We can now accept donations, with tax benefits for our donors. We can reinvest dollars to support important LGBTQ causes and fund critical community programs. We have built some proud partnerships.
“Pride can no longer be contained to a weekend. People must live proud year-round and our mission and purpose must be year-round in return. We are pleased to see that mission and purpose coming to life right now.”
The organization’s efforts currently are focused on PrideFest 2016, which is fast approaching. The annual event is scheduled for June 10–12 on the Summerfest grounds. Headliners are already being announced, including Blondie, Sarah Silverman and GGOOLLDD, and tickets are being sold.
Additional headliners and entertainers will be announced in the coming weeks.
PrideFest’s metamorphosis into a year-round organization with a broader mission was enabled by three consecutive years of record-breaking attendance. More than 30,000 people have attended the annual event during each of those years.
With strong headliners and an enhanced operational structure, organizers expect to break records again this year.
This year’s event also has the benefit of better scheduling. PrideFest is usually held at the beginning of June, when chilly weather can discourage participation. The lakefront area normally heats up as the month progresses.
For nearly 30 years, the PrideFest was run entirely by volunteers. This marks the first year that a paid staffer has been in charge of the event as part of the new year-round business operation.
In later March, the board received an abrupt letter of resignation in which volunteers complained about the board’s new direction and accused it of withholding financial information, as well as “encroachment” into duties they’d handled for years. The letter said they’d been treated with disrespect and not kept in the loop with the consulting and budgeting process.
The letter, which was not signed, said the board had 48 hours to relinquish all control of the festival, to turn over all financial information and assets and to remove itself from any involvement with PrideFest.
Despite the rancor, board vice president Michail Takach said he and other leaders were sorry to see longtime volunteers choose to leave. “It’s unfortunate that this happened at a time when we’ve all made such great strides to be organizationally strong, financially healthy and absolutely transparent,” he told WiG.
The board responded to outgoing volunteers with a public letter.
“With your help, PrideFest Milwaukee has become a sustainable nonprofit organization, better positioned to serve the needs of the community every day of the year, in collaboration with local and national agencies, in fulfillment of our vision, mission and purpose,” the letter said. “We thank you for your contributions to this tremendous legacy.”
Meanwhile, the show must go on, with daily progress being made on the festival.
“I see people stepping up and working hard with togetherness to create this wonderful experience. I wish everyone the best. I am looking forward to another successful year,” said Kate Sherry, a longtime PrideFest volunteer and former event producer.
The event’s community partners remain enthusiastically supportive.
“At the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber, we’re so proud and excited for the work being done by Milwaukee Pride to build a year-round, community engagement-driven organization,” said chamber executive director Jason Rae.
“Their board is leading the organization in great new directions, and I cannot wait to see what they can accomplish next.”
The group has sponsored numerous local events and also plans to host additional programs, yet to be determined. The Milwaukee Pride board of directors is currently seeking leadership candidates to fill its expanded roster.
Volunteers are always needed and welcomed. To get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 414-272-3378.
The Milwaukee Pride Parade has named its grand marshal for the 2012 event: Dear Ruthie, chosen because of “her numerous contributions to the LGBT community of southeast Wisconsin and the state of Wisconsin as a whole.”
A news release from parade organizers celebrated Dear Ruthie’s advice columns, which first appeared in Wisconsin Late in 1997 and have since run in InStep, Outbound and Quest.
“In addition to countless appearances benefiting statewide HIV/AIDS-related agencies, Ruthie has volunteered her time and talent to organizations such as Gilda’s Club of Southeastern Wisconsin, BSTD Clinic, COA Youth & Family Center, Camp Heartland and many others,” the release said, also noting Dear Ruthie’s role in bringing the Gay Softball World Series to Milwaukee in 2009 and her induction into the Saturday Softball League Hall of Fame.
In addition to her advising and activism, Dear Ruthie is known for her stage work – appearing in such shows as “Auntie Mame,” “Die, Mommy Die,” “Psycho Beach Party,” “The Women” and “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.”
Parade organizers also observed that Dear Ruthie has appeared in nearly every Pride parade since 1993.
The parade is set for June 10, beginning at 2 p.m. on South Second Street in Milwaukee.
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Despite bad weather on opening night, a total of 26,112 people attended PrideFest Milwaukee 2011, held June 10-12. Although the number was shy of last year’s record tally of 30,829, organizers were happy with their 24th event.
“You know, it’s hard to be upset, when you see so many people having such a great time. Rain or shine, we are grateful to a community that comes out in support of diversity and celebration,” said PrideFest president Scott Gunkel.
The weekend got off to a rousing, if rainy, start with an announcement by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele that he would work with the County Board to extend employment benefits to the partners of county workers.
The opening evening’s headliner was Academy Award-winning entertainer Mo’Nique, who gave an inspirational performance during which she talked about buying dresses for one of her 5-year-old twin sons who requested “something pretty to wear.”
Rap act Salt-N-Pepa headlined Saturday night, and Sunday night featured the festival’s first-ever country music headliners. Chely Wright, the first country music entertainer to come out publicly as a lesbian, opened for LeAnn Rimes.
Rimes told the crowd she was honored that PrideFest Milwaukee had chosen her for its first country outing. Expressing love and gratitude to the crowd, she said, “We all have hearts. We should be able to love who we want to love.”
Rounding out the weekend, the Milwaukee Pride Parade traveled a route along 2nd Street Sunday afternoon. More than 50 floats participated.
– L.W., Photos: Dawn Bloomfield and Kate Sherry