Cascade Bicycle Club is currently considering major changes to their organizational structure that could end their ability to endorse political candidates or directly assist in their campaigns. This would be a significant change in the club’s advocacy goal to “educate and elect leaders, no matter their political stripe, who will prioritize passing laws and funding for improving bicycling in the Central Puget Sound Region,” as stated on their elections webpage.
“This doesn’t reflect a shift away from advocacy work, which is why we want to look at this carefully,” said Catherine Hennings, who just took on the role of Cascade Board President this month. “Our commitment to advocacy is as strong as ever.”
But the change, which we first reported back in November 2013, would definitely impact the kinds of election work the club does. Currently, most of the club operates as a 501(c)(4), though Cascade’s Education Foundation is a separate 501(c)(3) with its own Board. Cascade’s (c)(4) also operates Bike PAC, a political action committee that “complements the election work of the Cascade Bicycle Club to help elect pro-bike candidates.”
But the Board could decide to switch to an entirely 501(c)(3) model, an idea they will discuss and potentially vote on during their March 18 meeting.
As a 501(c)(4), Cascade can openly endorse candidates and even help their campaigns. They can lobby members and the general public to vote for them or even organize hands-on campaign work, like phone banking or knocking on doors. They can help candidates craft strategy and share other resources to help them succeed.
Cascade is somewhat unique among bike organizations in the nation for having a successful 501(c)(4) that is funded in large part by extremely popular events (like the annual Seattle to Portland) and strong enough to actually influence elections. As we reported previously, Cascade is so much larger than any other local bike/walk advocacy in the nation that it puts Seattle in a league of its own:
So Cascade has the added pressure to forge its own path, since there is no larger bike/walk advocacy group to follow. It’s direct elections work definitely turns heads, which is why its Advocacy Leadership Institute is a featured highlight of the upcoming National Bike Summit in DC. In past years, ALI students have learned about campaigns by directly working on them, something that would likely not be possible as a (c)(3).
This style of direct contact campaigning will only be more important under Seattle’s new district elections system for City Council, where knocking on doors may be relatively more powerful than it would be in a citywide election system. Cascade is uniquely prepared to be influential in the new system.
There are some benefits to shifting the whole club’s operations to one 501(c)(3) organization. For one, contributions would be tax deductible. And, of course, it would a whole lot easier to administer and run. The club currently has to be very careful not to allow resources to bleed between the organizations so, for example, funding can all be properly accounted for in the correct organization.
“It’s not an easy structure with these two separate organizations,” said Hennings. The club needs to make some changes to make things work better, but the question is whether to take steps to further clarify the two organizations or whether to merge them into one (c)(3). Or, there “might be other options, something creative we haven’t thought of,” said Hennings. The Board has tasked itself with researching options before the March meeting.
Both Hennings and Cascade Executive Director Elizabeth Kiker said this potential change does not represent a move away from advocacy, since a 501(c)(3) can still do a lot of advocacy work. They can participate in campaigns to pass ballot initiatives, for example. They can also send questionnaires to political candidates and post their responses or hold candidate forums, similar to the one Seattle Neighborhood Greenways held during the last mayoral campaign.
Most other bike/walk nonprofits based in Seattle are 501(c)(3) organizations, including Bike Works, Washington Bikes and Feet First (Seattle Neighborhood Greenways operates under the Seattle Parks Foundation’s 501(c)(3) umbrella).
“The board is not going to do anything to shrink Cascade’s influence, they only want to grow it,” said Kiker. “There’s still a lot of advocacy work we can do as (c)(3).”
Hennings said the board is also wary of changing a structure that was put in place decades ago and has been successful.
“We want to be really careful about this,” she said. “There’s a lot of history around the way the club was organized to begin with, and we don’t want to rush this.”
Hennings said there will be a couple open houses for members so they can have a say in any potential changes. They will also speak with other stakeholders including elected officials, some of whom sit in seats Cascade helped win.
UPDATE #2: Publicola reports that the local 501(c)(3) Transportation Choices Coalition — which advocates for biking, walking and transit — is currently considering the opposite move by launching a 501(c)(4) and PAC.
Full Disclosure: My fiancé Kelli works in Cascade’s Advocacy Department as Field Programs Manager. Also, I’m getting married. I guess I haven’t told you all that yet.