“[During my time in The Calendar,] I met the people that are going to be at my wedding. I met the people that I want my kids to call auntie and uncle.”
You’ve probably heard of the UBC Party Calendar. Maybe you attended a Koerner’s House Party (KHP) or ran into the frigid waters of Wreck Beach with hundreds of other students in its annual polar bear swim. Maybe you happen to follow its viral Instagram account or saw the AMS election endorsements it publishes every year.
The Calendar has become one of the most influential voices on campus, but students may not realize that almost everything about it is an anomaly. It’s a for-profit business with no official affiliation to the university and is run entirely by students — that is except for founder Rob Morton, who started the organization eight years ago and still manages it from afar.
But The Calendar’s rise has not been without growing pains, as some current and former staff members have bemoaned late payments and a lack of financial transparency.
The origin of the UBC Party Calendar is a story Rob Morton has told many times now.
When he began his UBC career in 2009, Morton was hoping to find a vibrant social scene, but he was disappointed by the lack of events on campus.
By his second year, he realized there were many “pockets” of community with regular gatherings, but they were hard to find without having connections. The Calendar was conceived as a website where students could find every event on campus listed in one place.
He bought a “sick” domain name, thecalendar.ca, in the spring of 2011, learned HTML over the summer to build the site and founded The Calendar as a sole proprietorship business. It launched on Facebook in September 2011.
That year, The Calendar only threw three parties. Instead, Morton’s greatest innovation was photography — attending as many events as possible to take photos for social media.
“The idea of The Calendar from a media side is to essentially act as like a giant mirror for campus and reflect all the awesome things happening … back at everyone,” he said.
Especially while sharing photos online was still in its infancy, he found that they resonated “through the roof” on Facebook and later Instagram.
After two years, Morton, Corina Santema — Morton’s roommate and a Calendar founding member — and other contributors started thinking about the longevity of the organization. They began to have “loose” meetings and hired a team with the same organizational structure it has today.
“One of the biggest successes of The Calendar is figuring out how to build roles and structure that can survive 100 per cent turnover, like any university organization,” said Morton.
For Santema, the organization’s first internal director, this started with creating a good culture. Using her experience as a senior student ambassador for UBC Campus Tours, she managed and trained members with an emphasis on team-building, organizing regular meetings, annual retreats and scavenger hunts that have become highlights among Calendar members.
“I think the biggest part with internal that I always tried to do was make sure that anyone who’s giving to The Calendar is getting just as much back,” she said.
This led to the “building blocks of the internal culture”: Calendar-isms, pithy aphorisms that they hand out on flashcards in early meetings for team members to commit to memory like “Yes, and…,” “low-hanging fruit” and “input-to-impact ratio.”
While recent students highlighted that the internal culture of the organization largely centres around partying — which makes some feel uncomfortable — they agreed that members shared special “family” bonds.
“It seemed like you get the friendship of a frat, without having to pay,” said David Zhang, former finance coordinator.
Then and now
The Calendar’s founding vision and the on-campus institution it has become are vastly different.
Today, the organization is much better known for its own parties than the promotion of other events, though Morton said they still try to cover “two or three external events for every one internal event.”
The types of parties they throw have changed too. When the organization started, themed parties were all the rage, but Morton says they have waned in popularity.
Since then, the organization has found its bread and butter: Koerner’s House Parties, held at least once a month at Koerner’s Pub. It still hosts two or three themed parties every term as well.
The Calendar was instrumental in the promotion of many events that have become tradition on campus. Morton would photograph and advertise Pit nights before it developed its own media team, contributing to their popularity.
Throughout these changes, Morton continued to use photography as a community builder and advertising tool. The Calendar now has a team of regular photographers and videographers who are paid to work events, and it has accumulated over 10,700 followers on Instagram.
When its founders needed someone to take the reins after they graduated, The Calendar absorbed Dive Into UBC — Dive for short — an organization similar to The Calendar for arts and culture. It spotlights on-campus events like musical performances, stand-up comedy and story slams.
The company’s internal structure now resembles a typical event-planning organization, comprising representatives, coordinators and directors, with directors carrying the most responsibilities.
In all, it has over 60 members: 5 directors, 18 coordinators and dozens of reps.
After its early success, Santema led an effort to have The Calendar registered with the AMS as an official club with the AMS so that it could continue after they graduated. But after going through the application process, she and Morton realized they were better off unaffiliated.
“I actually gave a presentation, and they just kept asking us questions. At the end of it, I was like, ‘You’re right, I don’t think we should be a club,’” she said, laughing.
Remaining independent from the AMS and UBC gives the organization freedom from “bureaucratic” oversight that no other group on campus has.
It also enables The Calendar to throw open events that draw hundreds of students, like its annual snowball fight or the Harlem Shake that they organized in 2013. The university and RCMP can’t sanction such events for safety and liability reasons — and in past years, they’ve even tried to shut snowball fights down.
“Every year we did snowball fights, we received an email from UBC the night before that says, ‘You have to cancel the event. You don’t have a permit. We’re going to fine you. The police are coming,’” said Morton. “Then the day of, as soon as it happened and no one died … [the university on social media] is like, ‘This is the best thing that’s ever happened to UBC!’”
And operating as a private business allows it to take financial risks most clubs and businesses can't.
“If someone was trying to buy it and run it as a business, it would fail within a couple of years because the part that makes it special is the campus culture,” said Morton. “… The freedom to be a student organization and make mistakes and say yes to dumb ideas … [like] giving away pizza at midnight, which doesn’t make financial sense at all.”
According to Morton, this willingness to skirt authorities and business norms is essential to its identity.
“The Calendar is punk rock, man,” said Morton.
But Morton claims The Calendar and the university have a good working relationship. In the summer of 2018, Morton started working full-time for UBC as the manager of the Life Building, but he left the position when his contract ended a year later. In recent years, executives have even been invited to President Santa Ono’s house for “Breakfast with the President.”
UBC Media Relations denied any official affiliation with the organization and declined to comment for this story.
The AMS also denied all affiliation, though VP Administration Cole Evans said, “The AMS is always a huge supporter of positive, energizing, student-driven initiatives.”
Show me the money
But while Morton and Santema believe The Calendar’s structure has been essential for its success and longevity, some members believe it could be improved.
The Calendar is a private, for-profit business known as a sole proprietorship, which means all its funds are managed by its owner. Morton declined to reveal the company’s value or his exact salary.
“All of the AMS Events director roles [make] way more than I’ve ever made,” said Morton, “... but it’s not very much and it seems too personal to put in a newspaper.”
Aside from photographers and videographers who cover events and reps who work the door or coat check, directors are the only paid positions in the organization. They receive an honorarium each semester.
Not everyone is pleased with this arrangement. Some members pointed towards a lack of financial transparency and inadequate compensation for their work.
Bruno Martin del Campo, a recent film and TV production graduate, started out as a rep then moved to the media portfolio. Although he enjoyed his first year at The Calendar, he started to question its financial operations.
“I used to be sometimes confused about how much everyone is getting paid,” said Bruno. “Especially for students, we’re all starting out and it sometimes feels like it can be very easy to take advantage of us.”
Third-year arts student Tiffany Wong worked a few months as a coordinator for the Dive portfolio, but resigned due to concerns about the culture and financial system.
“I just have seen a lot of my friends get mistreated by the Calendar hierarchy,” she stated. “The amount of work that they’re putting in for The Calendar is basically a full-time job … but The Calendar is not keeping up to its promise of reimbursing them.”
“I think they should be more upfront about the fact that they’re a for-profit company,” Wong added, “and … students should not be working for a for-profit company for free.”
This was also true for older generations of members.
“It sometimes felt like it was a bit unfair how they organized, how some people were getting paid, and others weren't,” said Margot Kimmel, an arts student who graduated from UBC in 2015. “Sometimes I felt like I was doing even more work than a director.”
“I also always wished that they were more transparent with how the finances were working,” Kimmel added. “We were always told that all the money goes back into the events, goes back into The Calendar, and none of us really knew if that was true or not.”
Despite these criticisms, Santema and Morton said transparency is something they value within the company.
“It should always be very [transparent],” said Santema. “We have job descriptions, we have time commitments, we have what you're compensated on those job descriptions. So people, when they sign up, they know that that's what they’re entering into.”
Khaled Nasseri, who served as a rep for The Calendar for three years, agrees that there should be more financial transparency, but he thinks its leaders are open when asked.
“I think that people who have concerns and voice them usually are answered,” he said.
For others, the learning experience alone makes it worth their time.
“I would do my job without getting paid,” said Danika Coulbourn, the outgoing external director. “I love it. And I think with what I’ve been able to contribute to campus, I wouldn’t even ever ask for money.”
Laurila McCullough, the outgoing finance coordinator, is not paid, but she still agrees.
“I realized that on those days when you’re like, ‘My degree sucks and I’m never going to do anything in this that I love’ … you have skills that people appreciate and that you can bring elsewhere,” she said. “It’s going to be okay, [even] if this degree isn’t.”
Another issue, particularly for photographers, was the delay of payments. Some reported not being paid for a whole semester’s worth of events until months later, amounting to hundreds of dollars.
McCullough and Morton both acknowledged the problem.
“Probably one of the things that we really don't do well is our bookkeeping and invoices and stuff,” Morton admitted.
The difficulty, McCullough explained, is that requests for payment must go through a long chain of command. Reps have to contact their directors, who then contact the financial coordinator, McCullough, who then meets with Morton to dole out all payments in one sitting. Because Morton possesses unilateral control of his company’s finances, but also works full-time outside of the organization, it is difficult to keep up with paying dozens of people.
McCullough believes that a big part of finding a new solution is recognizing that The Calendar must adapt to fit its growing numbers. She and Morton have already met to discuss how the process can be improved, and they will implement a new invoicing system for the upcoming year.
Morton, now 29, finds his job becoming more logistical and less hands-on, since he has recently made the “sacrifice” of no longer attending parties. But he still attends meetings and keeps close tabs on his directors with weekly “check-ins.”
He doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon.
“They do life, school, Calendar, and I do life, work, Calendar.”