Let us help producers of ‘free’ events in San Francisco

| July 15, 2011

Warning: I’m going to be asking you for money. This is my annual version of what I call “Joe’s Pledge Drive.”

I hope you kept reading because this is important.

As the head of a membership-based organization, I have long recognized the critical role our 1,500 members play in the success of our organization. In fact, we recently took membership one degree further and now refer to our members as “partners.” That change in nomenclature signaled a change in our thinking. Not only were we asking for their financial support — which accounts for more than 30 percent of our budget — but also for a relationship that required another kind of “investment”: their time and a commitment to working with us for our mutual success.

So I get how important it is to belong. However, I haven’t always been as aware as I might have been of an equally critical need for us to support organizations that produce “free” events in our amazing city. This summer alone, there are more than 450 admission-free concerts, performances and film screenings throughout San Francisco. On any given day there are singers in Union Square, band concerts in Golden Gate Park, entertainment in Yerba Buena Gardens, salsa in the Fillmore, music-laced lunch hours along Market Street, Shakespeare in the Presidio and film nights in various neighborhoods.

All free to you and me and the millions of visitors who enjoy these serendipitous moments. However, they are not free for the organizations that produce them.

Many of the presenters of our most treasured summer traditions fundraise year-round, presenting proposals to major corporations and charitable organizations for their support. Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund and the San Francisco Arts Commission also are generous underwriters. And there’s the on-site passing of the hat or jar, as the case may be.

But this column is about making a commitment. Becoming a member. By doing so you become an extension of that organization. You have a relationship. You are a partner.

Stern Grove Festival, for example, draws more than 100,000 patrons each summer for its admission-free Sunday afternoon performances. The festival has opened its arms every summer since 1938 to top-notch artists from around the globe and audiences from throughout the Bay Area, completely admission-free. While the festival takes on the same costs as for-profit presenters (artist fees, technical and production expenses, security, et al.), the organization receives no revenue from ticket sales. Instead, the festival must raise more than $2 million each year. Donations from its dedicated members are an essential part of that annual fundraising.

So this summer, the next time you open that picnic basket or perch on a bench for a little Sousa in the park, consider making a deeper commitment. Become a member for all seasons and for all the right reasons. Come on, join up.

Joe D’Alessandro is president and CEO of the San Francisco Travel Association. He also serves on the California Travel and Tourism Commission and U.S. Travel Association board.

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