Guys to Know – John Melleky CEO, Fiesta San Antonio Commission

San Antonians love Fiesta, but they may not realize how much planning, fundraising and hard work it takes to make the annual fest a fun and successful celebration for all who participate. While the individual events are run by various nonprofit organizations – currently about 100 – it has been the job of the Fiesta San Antonio Commission to oversee, coordinate and promote the entire festival since 1959.

Itself a self-supported nonprofit, the Commission is a membership-based entity, governed by a volunteer board. It currently has 1,200 members, including all the Participating Member Organizations or PMOs (the nonprofits that run the events) plus businesses and individuals who choose to become members.
John Melleky, CFRE, has been the Commission’s CEO since January 2012. Prior to moving to San Antonio, he served as executive director of the Society of Cardiovascular Anesthesiologists Foundation in Richmond, Va. He also worked for the event-production firm Veronica Whitehead & Co. setting up conferences for the Fortune 500 Forum, Time Warner and others. As both professional and volunteer, Melleky has devoted his career to event planning, fundraising and organizational management. He loves Fiesta and is currently leading the way to take our Fiesta “to the next level.”

Q. What attracted you to this job?
I had been to Fiesta in 2009 while I was in my previous position as head of the Society of Cardiovascular Anesthesiologists Foundation. We were here for our annual conference. I knew about Fiesta from the International Festival and Events Association (IFEA) and decided to stay longer to go to some of the events. Then a few years later, (the Commission) did a national search for this position. What interested me was that it combined all the areas that I have been working on: association management, memberships, fundraising and corporate sponsorships and events. I thought it would be a great opportunity to work for one of the largest festivals in the country.

Q. What is it about Fiesta San Antonio that distinguishes it from other popular fests?
What makes it unique is that over 100 nonprofit organizations run events over a period of 11 days all over the city and keep all the proceeds from those events. They pay a small fee to the Commission, but they keep all the rest. Then the money goes back into the community through their own programs (scholarships, historic preservation, social services, etc.) It’s the only festival like it in the world.

Q. If the participating nonprofits keep most of the proceeds, what are the Commission’s sources of income?
We have several: membership, corporate sponsorships, the Fiesta San Antonio store and Fiesta Carnival, and we sell licenses to 90 nonprofits (other than PMOs) that sell street chairs for the parades. We give away about 50 percent of what we raise. We provide $150,000 to some of the PMOs to help them run their events. In addition, we provide another $250,000 in goods and services to two street parades. Then we provide another $500,000 worth of tickets to street chair organizations (churches, Boy Scout troops and civic groups) to sell and make money. When you add all of that up, it’s almost $1 million. So we are actually operating very leanly.

Q. You have created a strategic plan for the future to take Fiesta to the next level. Could you tell us about that?
The strategic plan was adopted in the fall of 2012, and we have just completed the first year of implementation. What we want to do is to grow Fiesta. There are five key areas. First we want to create a strategic culture for the organization. We looked at our bylaws’ efficiency, making sure we are up on the current trends in nonprofits throughout the United States. The second goal is to tell the Fiesta story. With 100 nonprofits, there are so many stories of people who benefit from Fiesta. That’s the human face of Fiesta. We want to tell that story here in San Antonio but then also regionally, nationally and internationally.
The third area is to strengthen the relationship between the participating nonprofits and the Commission. We are here as a resource center for those nonprofits. We want to be able to provide benefits to them. For instance, we have started an advertising co-op for them. They can each put in just a little bit of money, and with all that money combined we can do media buying for all the events. We’ll also do sponsorship co-ops through which we could bring our sponsors (to partially sponsor individual events.) This year we provided $68,000 in this type of grants to participating nonprofits. The fourth area of our plan is to improve community outreach — how do we get the millennials involved as volunteers, for instance, and developing youth programs. Finally, the fifth part is to strengthen our financial position.

Q. The plan includes a new entity, the Fiesta Commission Charitable Corporation. What is its role?
The Commission is a 501(c)(4) organization. So when people donate money to the Commission, it’s not tax deductible. The Charitable Corporation is the 501(c)(3) side of the organization, so it’s another avenue to create a revenue stream. With that in mind, we are now looking at what we have been funding that’s charitable in nature. For example, we pay for the barricades for the street parades. That is essentially a public safety program. We fund the Miss Fiesta program, which is now an internship, as part of the Charitable Corporation. And there are other programs in health and wellness, environment and culture and history that fall under the charitable umbrella.

Q. Why did you take over the Miss Fiesta program?
The nonprofit that was doing it wasn’t sure it wanted to continue. Miss Fiesta is such an iconic part of the celebration that we looked into what we could do to take it over. Now, she is an intern with the Commission who is chosen on the basis of a project proposal she submits dealing with one of the charitable areas we mentioned.

Q. It’s gratifying to learn that no alcohol-related deaths occurred during Fiesta in the past few years.
That’s one of our charitable programs as well; it’s called Fiesta Safe Rides. We work with Silver Eagle Distributors, TxDOT, Yellow Cab, the city police and others to provide free $20 vouchers for cab rides either to or from Fiesta events.

Q. What Fiesta events do you personally attend?
“This year I went to 104 out of 108 events.” (laughs)

2015 Fiesta® will run April 16 – 26

By Jasmina Wellinghoff
Photography Janet Rogers

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