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Cascade Bicycle Club may drop endorsements and direct election advocacy

Kiker speaks at the opening of Cascade's new office
Kiker speaks at the opening of Cascade’s new office

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.”

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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:

From the Alliance for Biking and Walking’s 2014 Benchmarking Report
From the Alliance for Biking and Walking’s 2014 Benchmarking Report

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: Cascade released a statement about the proposed change, including a link for people to send feedback.

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.

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15 responses to “Cascade Bicycle Club may drop endorsements and direct election advocacy”

  1. I suspect that advocacy without the benefit of endorsements would be less effective advocacy. Politicians care about votes. I hope that this change doesn’t happen.

  2. Congrats, Tom! And good coverage.

  3. Chuck Ayers

    A move like this makes no sense unless (a) an organization is cutting back on its advocacy or (b) it thinks its power-base from which it can do effective advocacy has changed. I’m more likely to believe the former. If it’s the latter, I think it’s misguided in this day and age of power electoral politics. The rationale for thinking about the change also doesn’t make any sense. Managing several orgs, a C-3 and C-4 as well as a PAC is not rocket science. CBC has done it for years and any competent staff can manage it and any competent board can oversee it (I’m the treasurer of one and it doesn’t tax us). Furthermore, why would you choose to restrict funds by moving them from a C-4 to a C-3 when you can already support the C-3 as much as you want with C-4 money? As for improving donations and fundraising, CBC already has a C-3 in good standing. Why would getting rid of the C-4 make any difference unless a donor demands it. In that case, you tell the donor “no thanks.” I’m scratching my head over this as I was the first time CBC contemplated this a year or so ago. Maybe there’s something else in the works with sister organizations?

    1. I agree with Chuck. I also think that, even if Cascade is considering ceding statewide advocacy to WABikes, WABikes still has a much smaller reach.

      Organizations that work on behalf of pedestrians, transit and bicyclists already cooperate and Cascade is by far the biggest. We need Cascade to be most effective at making our roads safer for everyone.

      This makes no sense to me. Would the Koch brothers decide to stop what they do because another conservative advocacy organization exists? I think not.

  4. GlenBikes

    Can someone comment on who is proposing this and what their goal/agenda is? Are there key players on the board? A vocal group of members? Staff who are unhappy with the current bookkeeping requirements? Someone who wants to decrease the advocacy work the club will do because they want the club to focus more on rides?

    It seems (at least to me – but I don’t know the history behind where this is coming from) like this is a bad direction that most members and staff would be against. So I assume there is someone or some people pushing it.

  5. Josh

    I suspect Cascade could get good mileage out of rating rather than endorsing candidates if they invest in publicizing and promoting their ratings, like the Seattle Municipal League candidate ratings. But doing a good job of that may require more staff time than maintaining multiple sets of books.

    For endorsements, there’s plenty of internal staff time on reviewing candidate credentials and positions, but the published product is essentially a list of names.

    For evaluations, that detailed internal evaluation of each candidate needs to be polished into a credible finished product. Instead of “Vote for X,” credible evaluations require you to publish “We find X well qualified because …” and “We find Y poorly qualified because …” and “We received no response from Z”…. all proofread and fact-checked and vetted to a level that preserves the credibility of the publishing organization.

  6. Chuck Ayers

    Hopefully Cascade will make public the feedback it receives – for the sake of transparency.

  7. Kevin

    If this step is taken, then Cascade should should work with other partners to help incubate ‘a’ BikePAC, not Cascade affiliated. There are plenty of bike-supporting groups and entities that could band together and create this independent PAC, and draw funding from supporters around the state (and beyond). Unless I am missing something, nothing would prevent someone from setting up such a thing. Would this be a perfect place for Chuck Ayers and David Hiller as principals..??

  8. […] – I’m always more willing to look at a candidate who Cascade endorses, and occasionally they’ve tipped the scale for me, so it would be sad to not have that any more. […]

  9. Dave

    I’m a Cascade member and the retreat from endorsements is the only thing that could make me pirate-ride STP.

  10. […] Dropping endorsements: The Cascade Bicycling Club may choose to drop their elections endorsements for candidates. […]

  11. I want Cascade to be as powerful and effective a political player as it can be. I also want the organizational structure to be practical and proper. I suspect that letting go of the c4 may be a necessity, not a choice. Maybe we aren’t talking about pressure from anybody, inside or outside the club, but a reality of tax law and legality. I can see why so many are suspicious, or confused, I am suspicious and confused about Cascade all the time. What I am saying is that I believe that there is a little more going on in this story and, (I cannot believe I am saying this) I’d be careful about armchair EDing this one before all the facts are in.

    So happy for Tom and Kelli! Yay!

    1. James

      Davey, if it were a matter of tax law and legality Cascade would probably be consulting with their lawyers in executive session. No, the Club has effectively managed both the c3 and c4. This is a matter of a few board members who really want the Club to move away from lobbying and elections because they are personally squeamish, and hopefully the others will not be complacent. It matters who gets elected and Cascade is able to reach tens of thousands of people. As a member I think it’s their duty.

  12. Merlin R Rainwater

    Tom, I appreciate this discussion of the decision facing Cascade regarding its nonprofit status. However, you overstate the importance of electoral endorsements and election campaigns in the national attention Cascade’s advocacy work has attracted. You state:

    “Its 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).”

    The League of American Bicyclists article you link to does not mention candidate endorsements, and none of the ALI graduates mentioned in the article (including me!) are working on election campaigns or running for office. The curriculum of ALI used Cascade’s campaign for a walking and biking bridge at the Northgate Light Rail station as an example of a successful campaign. This campaign could be carried out by a 501(c)(3) organization. We learned that this model could also be applied to election campaigns – not possible for a 501(c)(3) – but that was only a small part of the ALI curriculum.

    As you know, I’m a member of the Cascade Board (thanks in part to your endorsement of my candidacy! glad you’re not a 501(c)(3)!). In order to participate in the important decision about the Club’s nonprofit status, I need to carefully evaluate the value of those activities that would be eliminated if the status changed, and I want your readers to have an accurate picture as well when they weigh in on this decision.

    Always your fan,

  13. […] 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). […]

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