This past September I ran a first-time event with my business partner Leigh Nash. It was called Oktoberfest in Marmora. You may have read about it in a previous post. We tried to keep it simple:
- Throw a party that locals and our friends would enjoy.
- Raise money for the Food Bank.
- Cover our costs and perhaps our time for organizing it.
- Learn something.
I'm happy to say we achieved three of four goals. We didn't get to pay ourselves for the time it took to organize, but we did cover our costs. I enjoyed the party, our friends enjoyed the party, we drank all the beer... we ate all the food... and we raised some money for the food bank: $160 to be exact. Yeah, it's not a lot, but it's more than we were able to pay ourselves. So why was I left with a feeling that I had to explain myself for actually trying to make money? Why do so many people in this town think volunteers should run everything? Why do they believe that if you decide to raise money for charity AND pay yourself that you are some how corrupt?
How do I combat this skepticism?
In small town you see the same people all the time. You run into people on the street constantly that you know. You make friends with the businesses owners of the shops you frequent. You feel like Norm on Cheers because everybody does know your name. It can also be a little daunting to know that you see those same people every day. When you decide to do something for the community you are raising your head above the crowd – what if there is a call for beheading? It seems like an extreme example but sometimes it feels that way. When I became Chair of the Marmora Snofest board there was such a fear of what locals might think that it was difficult to even discuss certain changes. The result is that things become frozen in time because if you make a change you feel people will revolt! And by revolt I mean talk amongst themselves, or whisper as you walk by, or smear your name in some way. But what are we really afraid of? Is it going to be that bad?
Sure, on occasion, I have been stopped and educated on everything I'm doing wrong or everything my predecessors have done wrong... But there are more people who are just happy whenever someone sticks his or her neck out – it means there is change a-comin'. And most people really support change in a town that hasn't seen much of it since 1979. But those few who fear change speak loudest. And angriest. And meanest. I'm not saying that I have been attacked in such a way, but I’ve heard about it happening to others. My dad was Reeve for quite some time, so I'm not blind to how horrible people can be to you when you're in the public eye.
Have you heard of Dan Pollotta? I watched his TED talk a while back and in it he said some pretty interesting things comparing the for-profit and not-for-profit industries. Here is a brief excerpt from his talk:
Why have our breast cancer charities not come close to finding a cure for breast cancer, or our homeless charities not come close to ending homelessness in any major city? Why has poverty remained stuck at 12 percent of the U.S. population for 40 years?
And the answer is, these social problems are massive in scale, our organizations are tiny up against them, and we have a belief system that keeps them tiny. We have two rulebooks. We have one for the nonprofit sector and one for the rest of the economic world. It's an apartheid, and it discriminates against the [nonprofit] sector in five different areas, the first being compensation.
So in the for-profit sector, the more value you produce, the more money you can make. But we don't like nonprofits to use money to incentivize people to produce more in social service. We have a visceral reaction to the idea that anyone would make very much money helping other people. Interesting that we don't have a visceral reaction to the notion that people would make a lot of money not helping other people. You know, you want to make 50 million dollars selling violent video games to kids, go for it. We'll put you on the cover of Wired magazine. But you want to make half a million dollars trying to cure kids of malaria, and you're considered a parasite yourself. (Applause)
So it would seem it's not just a small-town problem. It's a disconnect in our perception of right and wrong when it comes to capitalizing on ideas and what should be free and what should come from the high paid private sector. I think it might be totally backwards.
When we opened the doors at Oktoberfest the cover was $8. One fellow came to the door with his $8 ticket and when we told him beer tickets were $5 each he looked at us like we were holding him upside down and shaking the money out of his pockets. He said, "The ticket doesn't cover the beer?" Seriously? He paid $8 so he didn’t have to do a thing but show up and enjoy some local brews at $5 a mug. You can't beat those prices. Leigh and I, however, put in a total of 200 hours between us to make this event happen, plus we paid for everything out of our own pockets and took on all the risk.
And when Leigh and I were selling tickets in the local Valumart we were simultaneously collecting money for the local food bank. One lady came over and asked us about the tickets and what we were doing and wanted to know where the money would go. When we answered honestly that we were a business raising money for charity and throwing a party she literally grabbed her purse tight and walked away from us scowling until she was out of arm’s reach, as if we were waiting for her to drop her guard so we could run away with her belongings.
With SnoFest Marmora has a tourism opportunity that can really benefit the community. And this year we have made some big changes that we weren't able to make last year, to involve the community more and enable them to participate and benefit from the events. But it is near impossible to get anyone to join the SnoFest board. And frankly I don't know how this tradition will continue in the way that it has for the past 36 years. I personally believe SnoFest is a good thing for our community. Could it be better? OF COURSE! But we are a small group of six volunteers. Volunteers also run the annual fall fair. The Lions have a huge presence in Marmora and are also a large group of volunteers. One of the biggest draws to our little town is the Classic Cruisers night during the summer moths. It’s run by volunteers. The Legion, the churches, the Scouts, sports... everything in this town is run by volunteers, and everyone is getting tired. Old and tired. The young parents volunteer for hockey or skating so that their children have something to do. The old people have been volunteering for decades and are literally dying off.
Is there a way to turn this excessive volunteer work into jobs? I’ve asked myself this question many times. The events in many small towns aren’t exciting anymore. They hardly benefit the local businesses, and they are rarely marketed. They need professional help, a team of people whose job it is to remedy these shortcomings. I try with SnoFest. The board tries. Leigh, our staff member tries. But one paid person can’t fix all of our problems. We want to do better, and I still put a hell of a lot of time into it: I do all the marketing for free. I spend hours a day trying to make things easier, more profitable, more exciting, more inclusionary, more participatory… just something close to what it SHOULD be. It should be something that brings customers into our stores, fills tables at our restaurants, fills beds at our B&Bs and entertains all of these visitors enough to bring them back next year. These tourism and marketing jobs earn big salaries in the city. People here do it for free because it’s been the only option.
We’ve lost sight of the reasons why we hold these events. Most businesses don’t benefit, and the businesses don’t represent themselves on boards for events like SnoFest because it’s enough of a struggle to try and pay the bills without the hassle of volunteering. Or they used to participate with little return and have decided it’s a waste of time. Time that is precious and no one wants to waste. There are so many problems to overcome here.
I don't have any answers, but I know we need change. Until we try new things and figure out what that balance is, we are a ghost town waiting to happen.