what are non-profits for? a response to the bta's non-response
Posted Mar 10 2009 3:53pm
Over at BikePortland.org, it's been announced that the BTA (Bicycle Transportation Alliance) has released a "formal response" to the Oregon house bill that proposes charging a registration fee for every adult-owned bicycle. Mind you, the bill was introduced late last week, and today is Tuesday, and it apparently took the leadership of the BTA several days to formulate a response to a proposal that has already been shouted down by bike-riders everywhere and even by our state's right-leaning daily newspaper.
Discussions at BikePortland,org have touched upon the BTA's slow response and/or lack of leadership to events over the last couple of weeks, and have also touched upon the very high cost of attending their biggest event of the year (see my post from a couple of days ago about Alice ).
As part of my ongoing wrestling with whether or not to continue lending my personal support to the BTA, I offered this response, which I have copied from Bike Portland to share here:
A previous poster commented on asking for scholarship assistance to defray the high cost of attending the Alice party, or indeed asking for assistance in any case:
"Scholarships/living lightly [discounts] are embarassing..."
And I replied:
I agree. I believe there are multiple reasons why they are embarassing.
1. If you have to ask, there's a built-in element of shame because of the growing gap between rich and poor in our society. Most non-profits no longer list "living lightly" options in print because if they did so, more people would apply for them and that costs the organization money. To reduce the number of people seeking scholarship assistance, they don't mention it as an option. This is not exclusive to bike non-profits, BTW; it exists in many non-profits as a way to save money.
2. It reflects a growing reality that most bicycle advocacy organizations are really trying to shore up support among middle-class constituents; this demographic exists in a convenient, in-between place. Middle-class people they don't feel they have enough rights and yet are in a financial position to support the organization's increasingly expensive work.
The poor are a much larger constituency but a relatively powerless one; they cannot donate money or organize in ways that would be beneficial to the non-profit's cause. As a result, the poorest [bicycle riders, in this case] are ignored. It's not malicious on the BTA's part but a more likely a matter of simple economics.
3. As a result, people who rely on bicycles as transportation because they have few or no other choices are not a strongly reprepsented constituency for the BTA, or frankly for most non-profit bike transpo advocacy organizations I've volunteered for.
I'm not accusing anyone of anything deliberate or malicious here; I'm simply making observations about the way I see things work. It may be that the BTA is UNABLE to represent me, and others like me (who took up bicycle transportation because other options were not affordable). If that's the case, do I expect them to come out and admit that? No, because to do so would be to put a nail in their own coffin. But not to do so would also be harmful to their image. They're stuck in a hard place that is partly of their own making, a result of their growth; and it may be that the BTA can no longer satisfy MY particular needs as regards bicycle activism.
I still have more thinking to do about this, and I'm still waiting to hear from BTA leadership about where they stand on things. With all the buzz here and elsewhere I expect they'll formulate a response sooner rather than later. At least I hope so.
Unless the BTA has anything new to offer in the next few days, I feel closer and closer to ending my membership in the organization. Interestingly, I am paying a reduced, "living lightly" membership fee -- something I had to ASK for, because it's no longer mentioned on their membership renewal forms -- so it's not as if my support would be all that greatly missed. But still, it's an important decision to me, based on my long history of involvement with the organization. That's why I'm taking my time to think about it, and giving the BTA time to respond to recent events with clarity and leadership. I'm fairly certain that I'm not alone on this fence, and I hope the BTA will speak up soon.