From Company Sponsorships to ‘Trickle-Down Spending,’ a Look Behind the Economics of San Francisco Pleasure

With San Francisco Pride 2024 in the rear-view mirror, it’s a suitable time to look into how SF’s largest event (by attendance) is funded and how the nonprofit behind it intends to see the event into a more sound financial future.

On a picturesque afternoon on June 27th, 1970, between twenty and thirty then-described “faries” marched through Polk Gulch — San Francisco’s most prominent gayborhood until the 1970s — in the city’s first-ever gay pride celebration, the “Gay Liberation March.” 

Two years later, San Francisco would become the first major metropolis in the United States to have an entire city-recognized committee tasked with organizing gay pride celebrations: the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee, which we know more colloquially now as the nonprofit, San Francisco Pride. The event now attracts an estimated 1.5 million people, making San Francisco Pride the city’s largest annual event by attendance, and the second biggest queer celebration in the country behind the NYC Pride March.

It costs zero dollars and zero cents to attend the weekend-long happening, which includes headlining concerts, world-class drag performances, and, of course, a miles-long parade. But for the organization that hosts, manages, and organizes the event, the price tag is in the millions annually. And despite the immense economic benefit to the city, for SF Pride, the term “non-profit” is pretty much accurate.

The price of Pride

“San Francisco Pride’s annual operating budget is about 4.3 million dollars, which encompasses the cost of over overhead, functional expenses, marketing, and, of course, hosting events,” Nguyen Pham, the current president of SF Pride, told Underscore, adding that the despite other programming throughout the year, the overwhelming majority of that budget goes toward putting on the organization’s signature event, which five full-time staffers and around fifty seasonal contractors help see to fruition each year.

Pham, who’s also the first Vietnamese individual to occupy the role, states SF Pride’s annual budget is virtually consumed each year. “We’re pretty much a break-even organization,” he says.

In addition to the aforesaid costs, San Francisco Pride has, since its inception and as of publishing, awarded more than $3 million in grant funding to other San Francisco-based nonprofits, as well as local performers, queer-owned small businesses, and projects that bolster LGBTQIA+ communities throughout the city.

San Francisco Pride is one of, if not the most, philanthropic pride organizations in the world according to Pham. And it’s responsible for now bringing in an estimated $500 million in local revenue during Pride Month. 

The net-positive financial impact of San Francisco Pride is only increasing. A 2015 report by the San Francisco Office of Small Business Office showed San Francisco Pride generated $357 million in economic impact. 

Moreover: Additional reports from the department, which were produced in collaboration with Smith Travel Research, Inc, show hotel occupancy rates across the city during San Francisco Pride are 85.4% on average — a sizable gain from the 54.7% daily norm observed normally during the fiscal year.

While more difficult to pinpoint exact estimations, San Francisco Pride offers a once-in-a-year opportunity for local small businesses to capitalize (and cash in) on the influx of warm bodies inundating the metropolis.

“Pride month can be a great time to operate a small business in San Francisco,” says Rachel Herbert, San Francisco’s Small Business Commissioner, Board member of the Golden Gate Business Association, and Founder and President of the Park Café Group. “The city’s reputation as a hub for LGBTQ+ activity and activism attracts visitors both regionally, nationally, and internationally. The influx of people and attention is an economic boon for small businesses and the many people they employ.”

District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman conveyed a comparable belief when asked to wax on about SF Pride’s monetary implication for the city’s local economy, particularly as it relates to small businesses. 

“No one celebrates Pride like San Francisco,” says Mandelman, whose represented district includes the Castro. “We host the best parade, with every corner of our city lighting up with pride from the Castro to [South of Market], Bayview to Chinatown. Visitors from around the world journey here to immerse themselves in our queer culture, and it’s this influx of visitors that provides a significant economic boost to San Francisco, benefiting local businesses, especially bars, restaurants, retailers, and hotels.”

So … the awkward and contentious corporate question

Controversy, however, has swirled around San Francisco Pride over the past two decades, most notably when SF emerged as a major tech employer after the Great Recession of 2008. Ever since descriptions that San Francisco Pride has become too corporatized have churned and agitated queer folk in all corners of the city.

The fact of the matter is, yes: San Francisco Pride is predominantly funded by large corporate sponsors, some of which occupy the tech sector. In total, between $1 million and $2 million in funding is procured by these sponsors each year, many of which, like Levis, have years-long relationships with SF Pride. Contrary to he-said, she-said, they-said hollow presumptions, Pham confidently shared that local healthcare providers and pharmaceutical companies, like Sutter Health and Gilead — headquartered in Foster City, which holds the patent for the pre-exposure prophylaxis drug known as “PrEP” — represent the bulk of corporate-donated dollars. Kaiser Permanente has remained San Francisco Pride’s presenting sponsor for several consecutive years.

City funding for San Francisco Pride had sat at a constant $150,000 for the past few years. However, in 2023, the nonprofit saw a substantial increase in City-allocated funding that came in at $500,000 — a “respectful and symbolic response” to SF Pride’s assertion of generating over $500 million toward the city’s local economy.

The reality of San Francisco Pride’s financial solvency is rooted in foresight: Without these corporate donations and a helping hand from the City, San Francisco Pride would either go the way of the Tasmanian tiger or only be offered as a pay-to-attend event, likely creating a fiscal barrier for queer folk — a population who are statistically far more likely to live in poverty and, on average, earn $0.90 for every $1.00 made by their straight and cisgender counterparts.

San Francisco Pride is steadfast in ensuring and vetting every company partner upholds nonnegotiable allyship with the LGBTIA+ community, all while upstanding the nonprofit’s omnipresent message of inclusivity and equality. For any corporation to fiscally support San Francisco Pride, each entity must agree to non-discrimination clauses regarding sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression — which has left some corporate prospects being denied sponsorships in past years.

However corporate sponsorship alone doesn’t get Pride to that “break-even” point. Organizers also rely on donations, both at the parade itself and via an individual donor campaign on the platform Givebutter, which at the time of publication has only reached roughly 1% of its $100,000 fundraising goal. Collectively, $60,000 in individual donations are amassed annually through SF Pride’s website, through donor-mailed checks, and monies given at SF Pride’s Celebration Gates.

“Trickle-down spending” during Pride is a very, very real thing

In a utopian fever dream, reliances on generosity yielded by capitalism shouldn’t exist, or at the very least, hold such substance. However, for many queer artists and performers, Pride Month offers a time to consciously milk corporate America’s swollen, rainbow-wrapped teet for every pink dollar they can.

Country songbird and Applacian treasure Dolly Parton famously said on more than one occasion “It takes a lot of time and money to look this cheap, honey.” Drag, too, is no different.

“Drag is very expensive. And like most art forms, only a select few performers can make a living on drag alone,” says San Francisco-based drag queen Jubilee. “If you calculated the cost of my makeup, wig, costume, shoes, props, etc. for a show and subtracted the money I get, then I lose money at most of my shows. That’s normal. So normal that we don’t even discuss it.”

And as the co-host of Hooked, a weekly drag show at the Castro’s famed Moby Dick bar, adds in conversation: “I’m not even considering the amount of time and energy I put into drag in that ‘normal’ part of doing this kind of art, as well.”

For Jubilee, bookings arranged by large corporations, be they onsite or offsite ventures, allow her the rare chance to leave a gig with money in her pocket. 

“Pride gigs pay much better than bars,” she continues. “For many performers, June is the only month of the year where they can close the financial gap or maybe even make some money. Money which, I’m sure, the performer would turn around and just reinvest in their drag.”

The Future of Pride, supported by the people

The gratuitous individualism of San Francisco Pride is one of the city’s unsung idiosyncrasies. It encapsulates the iridescent spirit of what it means for a large metropolis to exist (and continue existing) as a bastion for queer culture and community; how radical acceptance and access to opportunity shouldn’t be defined by financial prowess; what it means to be among just a handful of cities in the nation to offer sanctuary for transgender and nonbinary people amid a time rife with transphobia and gender scrutiny.

“We’d like to continue uplifting and partnering with the City and County of San Francisco, showing how SF Pride remains a major global queer event… inside the world’s foremost queer city,” Pham says, before mentioning he and the organization’s desire to become “less reliant” on these large corporate sponsorships.

“Maybe we will one day be much less reliant on corporate dollars, so it doesn’t feel like we’re constantly treading water,” he explains. “Ideally, we’d like there to be a time when individual donors and City funding swap places with corporate sponsorships to become our largest stream of revenue. That’s the dream, anyway. But we’re on the right track to see that vision become a reality.”

Photo: We’d be remiss not to use this picture of a red panda at the San Francisco Zoo posing in front of a Pride flag. (Courtesy of San Francisco Zoo)

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