Will Cascade ditch election advocacy? Members and the Board will decide this month

Cascade Bicycle Club members will gather twice in the next week to discuss a proposal from the Board of Directors to end direct candidate election advocacy.

As we have reported previously, the club is considering moving to a non-profit charity model, which prohibits them from directly funding or assisting political candidates (Full disclosure: My fiancé Kelli works for Cascade’s Advocacy Department).

Some members even started a Save Cascade petition to lobby the Board against making this change and to organize other concerned members. As of press time, the petition had 155 signatures. Former Cascade Executive Director Chuck Ayers (who had some high-profile clashes with the Board at the end of his time) was among the first signers.

There are two member meetings in the next week to discuss the changes, the first of which is today:

The Board will vote on the issue at their March 18 meeting (despite reports in the Stranger that the vote will be delayed until late 2015, Cascade Executive Director Elizabeth Kiker said there will be a vote on March 18).

The Save Cascade petition calls for the following:

Dear Cascade Bicycle Club Board of Directors,

We petition you to:

  1. Keep your current legal and financial structure that allows Cascade to endorse candidates.
  2. Deepen your work in elections to elect pro-bike candidates, including field organizing and donating to endorsed candidates.
  3. Broaden the issues you focus on to include issues of community importance, including public health, good governance, social justice and global warming.
  4. Return to advocating on behalf of the bicycling community and community-at-large in Seattle, counties, the region from Olympia to Bellingham, and the state legislature.

So would the change mark the end of Cascade Bicycle Club’s advocacy? No.

But at a time when bike advocacy is gaining traction all around the region and Seattle moves to a district-based City Council election system, direct, on-the-ground election work has the potential to be a powerful way to impact regional governments. If knocking on doors becomes as powerful (or more powerful) than political elites writing big checks, Cascade and its engaged volunteers could have a lot of influence in the process in Seattle, in city halls around the region and in Olympia.

Why, then, is the Board planning to ditch the 501(c)4? That depends who you ask.

The Save Cascade petition alleges that “a few Cascade board members want to turn the organization into a group that simply provides a tax benefit for riding a bike.” There are also some disagreements among Board members about whether the club should be endorsing candidates at all (several abstain from voting on endorsements for this reason).

But, it’s not entirely that simple. The change itself is drenched in wonky legalese, so bear with me.

The biggest arm of the club is currently a 501(c)4 non-profit. Donations are not tax-deductible, but the organization can endorse candidates and even help organize people to work on their campaigns. The club also operates Bike PAC, a political action committee that can raise funds to spend directly on electoral campaigns. Memberships and most of the major events and rides go through this part of the club.

A smaller part of the club is a 501(c)3 charity, called the Cascade Bicycle Club Education Foundation. This is operated and funded separately from the 501(c)4 organization, but donations are tax-deductible. This part of the club mostly operates their education programs, encouragement programs like Bike Month and great community-building programs like the Major Taylor Project. It also handles a lot of advocacy work (though not on elections).

To give you a specific idea of what the different arms do, the club’s 2013 annual report outlines the following as expenditures for the 501(c)4:

courier08_WEB_ANNUALREPORT_R1-c4sm

And these expenditures for the 501(c)3:

courier08_WEB_ANNUALREPORT_R1-efsmAs you can see, there’s already overlap in what each organization does. Each pie has advocacy and education slices, for example. This creates some messy organizational problems. The Board is tasked with ensuring the structure keeps staff time, assets and finances separate between the two organizations.

There’s also a ton of work currently done by the 501(c)4 that could be done by the 501(c)3. The free daily rides program, many of the big recreational rides, a lot of the non-electoral advocacy and education work, etc. In fact, most of what Cascade does could be done under a 501(c)3 structure, including general bike advocacy work and even ballot initiative campaign work. This is a big reason why the Board is currently considering moving the entire club into one charity organization: It’s simpler and more tax-deductible.

But it also cuts off the club’s ability to ever do direct election work again, at least not without the significant hurdle of reforming a 501(c)4 and PAC.

The Board has a compromise option available. At their March 18 meeting, they will also weigh an option that maintains both the 501(c)4 and 501(c)3 structures, but more clearly defines and separates the two organizations and maybe moves more qualifying resources and programs over to the charity arm of the club.

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13 Responses to Will Cascade ditch election advocacy? Members and the Board will decide this month

  1. Ints says:

    Hopefully they will end up going the compromise route and revise the roles and resources for both their 501 (c)4 and their 501(c)3 arms.
    I like their shift towards a more inclusive advocacy and membership approach, as this is essential to move cycling from an “alternative mode” to the mainstream.
    While the emphasis and focus of each might have shifted since the change in leadership, the need for both still exists.

  2. Geronimo says:

    Their board has a stewardship responsibility first and foremost – good on them for realizing that playing fast and loose with programs and expenditures is a risk that they shouldn’t be taking. The model of a C(4) with a “captive” C(3) was adopted by a lot of socially active membership organizations in the 1970s and the problems with that structure are well known – just ask The Mountaineers. It looks like they are spending over 16% of their revenue on administration – plus whatever administrative costs are buried in the program categories. If this conversion lets them spend more effectively then it is for the better.

  3. I really appreciate the current ability of Cascade to do direct election advocacy so am not in favor of this change. Pressuring candidates with an endorsement seems so productive.

  4. Peri Hartman says:

    There are several ways to do advocacy besides endorsing candidates. There’s lobbying in Olympia (or Seattle or…). There are public education programs – such as getting interviews on TV or other media. There are community events.

    All of these are important and, frankly, I’m not sure how much effect endorsing a candidate makes compared to educating people and getting them to see your point of view.

  5. Peri Hartman says:

    x

  6. Demian says:

    Being able to endorse and campaign for candidates is a very powerful part of Cascade’s advocacy and should not be given up. It’s clear that candidates work for and value such support and it has been crucial in shifting both the political norms to be much more bicycle friendly. Giving this up will allow politicians to give lip service to supporting cycling without doing anything or even making things worse.

    • Peri Hartman says:

      Think about this: who reads the CBC endorsements? Probably not the general public. I assume mostly CBC members read the endorsements. And, of those members, I’m going to assume most have already know which candidates support biking and which don’t. I’m posturing that the endorsements have little effect on the CBC members.

      On the other hand, the general public might see CBC listed as an endorser of a particular candidate. Based on that candidate’s view of cyclists, it could influence his vote either way. It’s not a simple win for CBC.

      That’s why I’m pointing out that some of the other advocacy by CBC may be more valuable.

      I could be wrong on my assumptions. Feel free to challenge !

      • Tom Fucoloro says:

        It’s not just the endorsements themselves. Think about what Cascade can do with that power: They could send out targeted email blasts to people telling them specifically who on their localized ballot they should vote for. That’s pretty powerful, and Cascade’s giant email list allows this (they did this last fall, and it was pretty cool).

        Or they can reach out to contacts and volunteers to organize a door knocking campaign in a candidate’s district. A dozen people out speaking with voters could flip a close race, especially in small districts or small suburban cities.

        Or they could create a new popular bike event that supports Bike PAC. If they can turn out a thousand people to pay $50 for a ride, that’s $50,000 (minus event costs) to invest directly into campaigns. That’s a good chunk of money, especially for a local race.

        And there’s probably a lot of ideas I’m leaving out. The point is, Cascade would be forever abandoning the ability to explore any of these ideas if they shut down their 501(c)(4).

      • Anne says:

        Anecdotally speaking, I have known non-Cascade friends to look at the endorsements for voting tips. I’m also not a member of several groups whose endorsements I consider when voting.

        CBC can, and does, do “other” advocacy in addition to endorsements. I’m missing why it has to be either/or. It’s a shortsighted move for the country’s richest bike organization to give up earned power for even more money.

        To the best of my knowledge, our area has several 501(c)3 organizations — Bike Works, Washington Bikes, Seattle Greenways, Familybike, the Cascade Education Foundation and probably more — but only one 501(c)4 that can engage in electoral politics. Giving that up would be a loss for bicyclists.

      • Josh says:

        I assume mostly CBC members read the endorsements. And, of those members, I’m going to assume most have already know which candidates support biking and which don’t.

        I fear you’re vastly overrating the political awareness of the average Cascade member.

        Sure, there’s an active core constituency that knows who supports what, but I suspect, if you actually polled the general membership outside of election season, most could not even name half the members of their city council, let alone articulate those electeds’ positions on particular issues.

        That’s not to say outright endorsement is the only solution to that particular concern. Done well, candidate rankings can be effective in highlighting those who support or oppose an organization’s views. But I don’t think it’s safe to assume members know without being told.

  7. Josh says:

    Endorsements are more powerful with the electeds/candidates themselves than ratings.

    If all of my opponents rank low on your rating, I don’t really care what my rating is, either, it’s not going to be much of a differentiator. Likewise, if we all rank as qualified or well-qualified, there’s relatively little value to me as an elected.

    But if you’re going to endorse just one candidate in the race, I want to be that one, and I’ll take the time to go through your screening process as a result, which means you get face time with me during campaign season, and you get me on the record saying thing’s you’ll remind me of if I don’t follow through.

  8. Kevin in Ballard says:

    If CBC gives up the (c)(4), can’t a conglomeration of people loosely aligned form a BikePAC and do just what Cascade does now? Would it be easier to raise money for a BikePAC if it wasn’t tied directly to CBC, and contributors felt that they were simply contributing to an entity that works solely to elect bicycle-friendly candidates? I’m not speaking rhetorically, really not sure about this. If the above is true, then someone like Chuck Ayers would be a great person to be in the middle of this…

  9. Pingback: Cascade Bicycle Club will not ditch political advocacy | Seattle Bike Blog

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