There are so many events to choose from, which means there are some tough choices. For some attendees, part of that choice involves identifying organizers who appear to have the best interests at the community as part of their decision-making and planning. This list includes some of the things I consider to be good indications of ethical organization.
While this list isn’t comprehensive, it includes some signs you can look for to get a sense for whether the organizer is building up and positively influencing the community. It also does not mean an event is unethical for not doing one of these things – but it can be a flag that, for some attendees, may factor into their decision to attend an event.
1 – Most Staff are Paid
For many events, particularly large events, a certain number of workshops can be held to showcase upcoming talent at a lower or contra rate. But, there are some festivals that rely on hungry, young talent working for exposure or little pay to fill the role that should be allotted to paid staff.
To me, the difference is reliance. If your event is reliant on the provision of a particular service (ie, if this person was not doing it, you would be hiring someone to do it), you should be compensating the person. The same goes for support staff.
For example, providing a workshop space for an up-and-coming artist who will be in attendance anyway, along with access to food for the weekend and/or a free pass, can be a fair arrangement. Structuring an event that requires several of your core staff (including teachers or DJs that will be working several hours and form the backbone of your event) to pay their own expenses to come and not compensate them is not, in my view, ethical.
A note about Volunteers:
I exclude general volunteers (registration, door, etc) from this because very often, the pass that comes with volunteering is worth more than paying someone a basic wage to do the same task would cost. For example, I can hire someone online and pay them $15.50 per hour to sit at the door and check wristbands. A volunteer’s discount per hour is often greater than that, when calculated as part of the pass price vs hours volunteering (Americans, these are Canadian dollars – think 30% difference). In this way, volunteering serves as a pathway to access for people who cannot afford an event, rather than extortion to skilled labour provided by people who should be hired as professional staff.
2 – The Marketing is Honest
An ethical organizer should value attendees understanding what the event is, and should not be okay with individuals being unpleasantly surprised when something appears not as advertised. To this end, an event’s marketing should be clear and transparent. You should be able to understand what you are getting, where an event will be, and the experience you are signing up for. While hype marketing (FOMO fodder) is a valuable tool, it should not replace the access to clear, easy-to-understand information that tells you what to expect at the event.
This is particularly important where confusion between two similar things can occur. While unforeseen changes to events can happen, these changes should be communicated clearly and without delay. For example, it is inappropriate to promote an artist before they are confirmed as attending. If an artist has to cancel, there should be clear communication of this, and adjustments made in a reasonable time.
3 – They Support Local
When you look at an event that takes place in an area with a local scene, check to see if their local community is supportive and represented. Events can exist and be successful without a local scene, but to me, an ethical organizer is considering the impact of their event on the place where the event is held. In most cases, there should be at least some representation of local teachers, DJs and community leaders at an event. While there can be unique situations where this is not possible, it’s something to think about in a wider context.
The reason for this is that if there is an existing scene, it is important for community members to see their teachers and community leaders reflected in the event. There may be some rare exceptions, but generally speaking, local artists gain a massive opportunity for growth and to develop a wider platform by being included – at almost no cost to the organizer. It also helps to dissolve barriers in the existing community, and create a feeling of positivity from the local scene to the event.
When I don’t see that local support, it raises questions for me as to why an event isn’t working with the local, existing community – especially if the organizer is not local. As an organizer who is now organizing a second event out of my home scene, it was really, really important to me that the local area be enthusiastic and supportive – and that the local teachers are included and featured as a part of the organization.
4 – The Organization is Honest and Transparent
It should be assumed that an event is for profit unless indicated otherwise. If an event claims it is for profit, then it really doesn’t matter if they make $0 or $100,000; it is a business fundamentally. If an event claims that it is not-for-profit or for charity, it should be absolutely clear where the money is going. Remember: anyone can claim the event is “not-for-profit” without providing proof. “Not making money” or “not taking money home” are also different than being not-for-profit.
For example, our event (Canada Zouk Congress) is considered “for profit” regardless of whether it loses money and even if I take no money from the business in a given year. However, we have also organized an event where all profits were given to charity (Vision Dance Encounter). The reporting and transparency required for those two events are different. For the charity event, we provided proof of the money that was made, and proof that it was donated to charity, after the event. We also held ourselves accountable to a minimum donation, where even if the event was to lose money, we would provide a minimum contribution to the organization out-of-pocket.
What I have occasionally seen are organizations who give the impression that everything they make is somehow reinvested. Even if they do not use phrases like “for the community, not profit” or “non-profit”, they create an impression of grassroots organization without profit. They may use these claims to get free or discounted services (which is appropriate for a charity or non-profit in many cases), or to get other team members to take on disproportionate organizational responsibility for no pay.
However, sometimes, I don’t see any transparency regarding the money’s pathway despite high ticket prices. This, to me, is a red flag.
5 – Accountability is Clear
You should be easily able to figure out who is organizing the event, and they should be accountable for the event. All events need a team, and depending on the event, events can be more community-driven or organizer-driven. But, the accountability should be clear.
An organizer has a responsibility to be the decision-maker of their event. If a team member has domain over a certain area, that accountability should be clear. What I sometimes see are organizers whose accountability is not clear; problems are offloaded to a staff or team member, with the organizer avoiding responsibility for the choices and issues associated with the event. If you see an organizer who does not appear to be willing to take accountability for their role, it is a red flag to me.
Accountability also means doing the tough work when it comes up. It means that you are responsible for having a code of conduct, processes, and policies in place to have a safe event. It’s not fun – but it’s part of the ethics of organization.
6 – They Ask for Forgiveness, not Permission
You may have heard this phrase as a positive – and in some sectors, where harm is not on the line – it is. But, if an organizer stands to create unrealistic expectations by ignoring rules and hoping others will bend back to cover their mistakes and mitigate the harm from those decisions… it’s not ethical.
Things happen. All organizers know this. I’ve had a ballroom ceiling leak, preventing pro flooring from being installed. I’ve seen power outages, hotel booking issues, and more. This is not what I’m talking about.
What I am talking about is organizers who overpromise and underdeliver. This can include not planning elements of the event sufficiently, not having reasonable contingency plans, not delivering on their professional responsibilities, or significantly changing the deal without consent… and then asking for forgiveness from the attendee or staff member.
For example, if an organizer is expected to fulfill certain requirements as part of a contract or an agreement to host a competition, it’s not appropriate to ignore what does not suit them and just ask for accommodation later. If they need to meet requirements to offer something, they should figure out whether they meet those requirements before offering it.
An organizer should be proactive in their organization of an event, and if something goes wrong, accountability demands that they are the ones on the hook for the bad press (just like they are for any good press).
7 – They Build Positive Relationships… and not only with stars
Ethical organizers care about the wider ecosystem of dance. This means understanding that working with other professionals (especially those close to the city) is an important part of running events ethically. While some organizers are great at cozying up to those who can give them something, a really big thing I look for is how organizers treat those who are not poised to offer them something back.
Granted, dance is not without drama. There are people I struggle to get along with because their approach is diametrically opposed to mine. There are times where I have communicated poorly, which can result in misunderstandings and bad feelings. But, ethical organizers should be working to strengthen relationships with their fellows as much as possible – and where they can’t have a great relationship, to have at least a neutral one for the purposes of organizing ethically.
Additionally, it is a red flag to me when I see organizers trying to bend rules or norms to their benefit when bending those rules may cause harm to the wider community. This can be done through finding loopholes, pressuring others, or involving third-parties to try to intervene and reach their goals. This destroys relationships, and creates a pattern of bully-like behaviour that can disrupt and destroy the goodwill in the community.
A Note about Safety, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion
I believe that any ethical event should have a strong intention towards promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion in our communities. That does not mean that organizations have to use all the right words and do everything perfectly – but it does mean caring about the wellbeing of their attendees and staff in having a safe environment to exist and promoting the evolution of inclusive values within the community.
This work is difficult, and even the most well-meaning organizers will mess it up. They may miss representation in their marketing materials, but work to have diverse staff. They may have only male DJs, but make sure that there’s a professional behaviour clause in the contracts and have a good complaints and escalation process. They may support staff in using inclusive language, but post something a little bit in bad taste.
To me, the overall intention and openness is the core of ethics here. Does the organizer keep trying to do better, or do they claim people are “too sensitive”? Do they care to listen and work to do better in the future? This filters back into three of the seven signs: accountability, transparency, and building positive relationships. This is why it is included as a note and not its own area – it is something that permeates multiple areas and should be engrained on a wider level.
But, an organizer simply saying it’s a value without walking the walk is not ethical because it fails in those areas. Conversely, an organizer walking the walk without it being explicit and loud about it can be very ethical.
When we support events, we enable the behaviours supported by those organizers and staff. So, when you see values you like, the best thing that you can do is support those events – not only by attending, but by talking about them, sharing their posts, and commenting on things. It’s even better if you tell them why you are supporting because it reinforces the behaviour and invites other organizers and events to follow suit.
Attention and success reinforces behaviour. In some cases, even negative attention or controversy can create success – which means that the bad publicity is a net positive. So, except in limited cases, the best thing you can do is shine a spotlight squarely on what you do like and value. Frequently. Often. Loudly. This is the reality of a world that is increasingly driven by online success.
I would love to see our community focus our intention and energies at least 50% of the time on building up the values we want rather than punishing those we don’t. I’d love it even more if those moments were not primarily about whose dancing we like – but who we see including the forgotten, championing great values, and setting good examples. I’d love if we could point to all our major events and artists and say “they are an amazing professional example – not just a fun event/great dancer.”
So join me. Let’s create a culture of support and hold all of our professionals to a high level of ethics and professionalism.
For more tips on how to build a culture of positivity that includes both positive and constructive feedback, see the next article coming soon.