Starting a Local Advocacy Organization
By David Hoffman
In this multi-part series on bicycle advocacy, Urban Velo gives you the tools to make a change in your community.
What You Need to Know
Bicycle advocacy takes many forms. There are “traditional” advocacy organizations like the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation (www.biketraffic.org) and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (www.sfbike.org), who largely work to integrate bicycling culture and infrastructure (bike racks, bike lanes, etc.) into their respective cities, as well as “non-traditional” groups like Critical Mass, protest rides and such which are generally not organized, but aim to raise general awareness. For this series we’ll be focusing on the traditional organized advocacy organizations. This is not meant to marginalize other forms of advocacy – all have a place and purpose.
More than anything, people and groups who start successful advocacy groups have three significant characteristics: a desire to make a change, good organizational skills, and patience. Don’t worry if you think that you don’t personally possess all three traits in spades – you’ll need more than just one of you to be truly successful – and that’s why they’re called “advocacy organizations,” not “advocacy islands.”
Desire to Make a Change
Here’s the first test: do you ever find yourself irritated at the lack of bicycling facilities (racks, bike lanes, good parking, signs, etc.) around you? Do you spend any time thinking, “Gee, it would be really cool if…”? Do you ever experience feelings of jealousy or envy when you bike in other cities? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you’re in good company with tens of thousands of other bicyclists out there. If you couldn’t truthfully answer “yes,” please send us your exact location – we’ll be moving there shortly.
Good Organizational Skills
Your fledgling organization will need to stay organized in order to remain effective. There are a couple of things that you’ll need to stay on top of: regularly communicating to your constituency (this includes people who sign up for a newsletter and visit your website) as well as local officials and decision makers, and you’ll need to make sure your organization makes an appearance at as many meetings that you can where public input is possible. Your communications should be designed to inform and educate.
This is perhaps the hardest and most important characteristic to develop for your organization, and often goes hand-in-hand with developing good political skills. As bicyclists, we all want change NOW! But you’ll quickly discover that immediate change (though wonderful when it does happen) is usually the exception rather than the rule. In most cases, you’ll be working with local bureaucrats and politicians. A good deal of your time will be spent educating these people and building political will for your cause.
The Dirty Inner-Workings
Oh yeah… there are a couple of other things that you’ll need to make your organization “bona fide” in the eyes of your local city: bylaws, a board of directors, a ton of seemingly unimportant paperwork, and non-profit status. Don’t let any of these things stop you; none of them are insurmountable, and in the big picture will all be easier than you think. We’ll cover the nitty-gritty of the steps and resources needed to get all this done in the next installment. For now, just focus on…