Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Sad End of a Community Partner - Events Wood Buffalo

It is with a heavy heart I share the news of the demise of Events Wood Buffalo. I wish I could say I was surprised, but of course I wasn't as I had known for some time that this sad end was likely in the cards for an organization that I cared about deeply. Fellow blogger Russell Thomas, who was much more intimately involved with EWB than I, wrote a stellar blog post on it when the news was announced. I was not on the board, and not an employee of EWB. I was just someone who went to the events they created, and who had the great pleasure of volunteering with them on many occasions.

I have so very many fond memories of my times with EWB, you see. They trusted me enough to let me work with the artists they brought to the community, people like Reba McEntire and George Canyon and K'Naan and so very many more. I worked for them at CanadaROCKS, SummersEND and interPLAY, running the artist hospitality venues and savouring every single moment. Some of my very best memories of this adventure of the last few years are of the days I spent as George Canyon's driver, driving him and his band wherever they wanted to go. I well recall realizing his soundman was someone I had dated when I was 14 and had not seen in decades, and telling the band that they didn't need to thank me every single time they saw me but to wait for me to actually do something. I'll never forget the post-show trip back to the hotel when I picked George up at the back of the stage and he asked me to roll down the windows so he could thank the fans leaving the show. Even now the memories of the time I spent working with EWB make me smile, and give me goosebumps, because it was so very special. I will miss EWB in a very deep and personal way, because it mattered to me, and to many others.

I want to make something crystal clear here. Not one single person wanted EWB to fail. There is no one person to blame, and I have mad respect for all those who I spent time with at EWB, because I know they poured their heart and soul into everything they did, giving their all for the events and the people of this community. This sad ending, more of an ending with a whimper than a bang, is heartwrenching for anyone who was touched by the people at the heart of EWB, many of whom I am honoured to count as friends.

It is not the time for blame - but I think it is the time to reflect on some of the lessons learned through this experience, because those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

I was close enough to EWB to realize they had a capacity issue, attempting to pull off huge events while relying heavily on a very small number of people. Those people, amazing in every regard, worked so damn hard at every event  I participated in. I think at times, though, the scale of the events compared to the number of people creating them was just too enormous a ratio.  I think understanding the capacity of an organization is crucial to success, and an understanding that must be achieved early in the game.

Volunteers played a huge part in the events created by EWB, and we as volunteers must also recognize that some of the failure of this organization may rest with us. It is so easy to sign up to volunteer and equally easy to just not show up - and I saw first hand how this affected their capacity to deliver the events they promised. When volunteers make a commitment they must be willing to carry it through to the end, because the failure to do so has profound effects.

As a community who goes to events we also must acknowledge our role. We want more and more events, but do we support them? Do we not only buy tickets but do we get involved as volunteers? Do we talk a lot about how great having these events is but then not attend them? Are we TRULY committed to supporting and fostering these events? We need to have some honest dialogue with ourselves, I think, about how important these events are to us, and if we are truly willing to support them in the way they need to survive.

Collaboration matters. A small organization on its own may not be capable of pulling off massive events - but cooperation and collaboration with organizations with more or different resources can achieve success. We need to be willing to explore and embrace those partnerships, putting aside reservations and egos in order to create amazing events worthy of this community.

And in the end I think we have learned that numbers matter. Things like numbers of tickets sold, numbers of attendees (how many bums in seats), numbers of how much cash generated vs. how much spent - these things ALL matter. Art and culture events must be just as sustainable as any business, because if they are not eventually the debts pile up, until we see the sort of sad demise we have just witnessed. The bottom line matters, because without a solid bottom line sustainability is an elusive goal, and failure will eventually follow.

There were other factors too, of course, like perhaps some forward-thinking events that our community just wasn't ready for yet, and perhaps some internal issues about which I will not speculate. Regardless, though, I think we are at a crossroads with the demise of EWB. Events like interPLAY, one of the first events I ever attended when I moved to this community and one I have not missed in twelve years, are now in jeopardy. With the end of EWB we must decide if we value these events, and if we want them to continue - and if we do then we must come together as individuals and organizations to create them, to breath life back into them, and to have them carry on the torch that has now been laid down. We face a challenge - and an opportunity. I know I am up to the challenge - are you? This, my friends, is the time to think carefully, and answer that question, because the future is now up to us.

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