The Alliance for Biking and Walking, part of the country’s web of nationwide biking advocacy groups, is facing a big funding gap and is likely to change in big ways.
Alliance executive director Breen Goodwin, a Portlander, had joined the staff on Sept. 1 but resigned last week, effective Dec. 31. Her plan had been to work remotely for the Washington D.C.-based Alliance.
Since its founding in 1996, the Alliance’s main role has been to provide support, training and coordination for the many local active transportation advocacy groups in the U.S. and Canada, such as the Portland-based Bicycle Transportation Alliance, Community Cycling Center and Oregon Walks.
Rob Sadowsky is the executive director of the BTA and also the past chair of the board for the Alliance. In an interview Monday evening, he said the Alliance’s financial problems became certain “like two weeks ago” and that Goodwin’s formal resignation had come at an Alliance board meeting on Dec. 8.
“It wasn’t like Breen did anything wrong; it wasn’t a bad hire; it was just, at some level, it’s all a crapshoot,” Sadowsky said.
He said the group’s basic choice, given its funding shortfall, was between keeping Goodwin on but laying off program staff, or not keeping her and having program staff keep the lights on until the volunteer board can find more money. Given that reality, he said Goodwin made the decision to quit.
The news hasn’t been reported elsewhere yet.
“It has been a privilege to serve the Alliance over the last few months,” Goodwin said in an email Tuesday. “After careful consideration, I have made the decision to step down. This decision was made easier by my full confidence in the board, staff and leaders within the Alliance community guide us through the decisions ahead.”
She said she has no immediate professional plans.
The national biking advocacy scene has many interlocking organizations. Three years ago, three of them — the Alliance, the League of American Bicyclists and PeopleForBikes (which at the time went by a different name, Bikes Belong) — announced and later scrapped plans to merge. In the years since, Sadowsky said, the Alliance has lost three important pieces of corporate support that added up to something like a third of its $650,000 to $750,000 annual budget: accessory seller Planet Bike, the SRAM Cycling Fund and PeopleForBikes, which is essentially the charitable arm of the U.S. bike industry.
The Alliance also gets money from member dues (each of its 227 member groups contribute 0.1 percent of their budgets), from event fees and sponsorships and from a contract with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to create an annual “benchmarking report” full of state and local biking and walking facts and trends.
Sadowsky said Planet Bike changed its charitable giving after it was sold; that the SRAM fund had deliberately spent down much of the money from a 2008 partial sale; and that the U.S. bike industry that gives out money via PeopleForBikes hasn’t been seeing major growth lately because the U.S. dollar is so strong compared to other currencies. That tends to encourage imports and discourage exports.
(Disclosure: I work for PeopleForBikes as a staff writer with the other half of my time. I’m not privy to or involved in its funding decisions, and that’s not how we heard about this story.)
(2010 photo by J.Maus/BikePortland)
Despite the Alliance’s financial troubles, Sadowsky said, he is “pretty optimistic, more than I have been for a long time, that the environment is really ripe now for some big changes where the national movement is developed.”
Sadowsky has been a longtime board member for the Alliance, and stepped down this year as its board president.
“People are listening and integrating local advocacy in ways that they weren’t, even five years ago.”
— Rob Sadowsky, past chair of the Alliance board of directors
When the Alliance was formed 20 years ago, Sadowsky said, “there was an absence of understanding in the national bike movement about how important local groups like BTA are.” Today, he said, “people are listening and integrating local advocacy in ways that they weren’t, even five years ago.”
For the moment, Sadowsky said, Alliance programs and outreach director Christy Kwan will serve as interim director. The Alliance holds a leadership retreat every two years for bike advocacy professionals, and he said the 2016 retreat will include “smart and fun conversations with partners about the landscape and shared goals and values.”
After that, he said, it’s not clear what the Alliance will decide to do. It’s brainstormed options ranging from the status quo to merging operations with another organization.
The League also has a new top director, Alex Doty, who was previously the head of Philadelphia’s local advocacy group. And another national organization, America Walks, plans to announce tomorrow that its Portland-based executive director Scott Bricker will be resigning. Sadowsky said turnover like that may make structural changes easier.
“We’ve already had some nice and formal conversations with the League, and we imagine doing that with some other partners,” Sadowsky said.
Correction 10:42 am: An earlier version of this post misstated the dues paid to the Alliance by its member organizations.
— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 – firstname.lastname@example.org
CORRECTION, 12:56 pm: The original version of this story stated that Scott Bricker was part-time director of America Walks. That’s a mistake. He has been full-time since 2014. We regret the error.
Michael Andersen was news editor of BikePortland.org from 2013 to 2016 and still pops up occasionally.
I’m curious about the changes at Planet Bike. I’ve always thought they’ve had good, quality stuff at a good price, and it’s even better to learn they’ve been charitable… but no more?
I was too. Sadowsky said he believes they’ve shifted to local giving near their HQ in Wisconsin.
Yeah it’s a bummer. They were a big supporter of BikePortland for many years. They were our sole sponsor for the National Bike Summit for 4-5 years at least.
Speaking of organizations merging, do you all know that the Cascade Bicycle Club and Washington Bikes (formerly Bicycle Alliance of Washington) are merging? They will have shared management and are keeping their organization names to clarify that Cascade will be the 501(c)3 arm, while Washington Bikes will be the 501(c)4 arm. More info here.
Yes – some Washingtonians are holding their breath about the merger…concerned that their cycling club donations for statewide political work will be sucked into a Puget Sound centric focus.
I on the other hand see the opportunity to focus and build on Cascade’s financial and political strength. I have interacted with WABikes since 1997 in its 3 different flavours. I hope Cascade+ is better at delivering the statewide focus than bike advocacy groups (in other states) once they shift from a metro focus to urban + rural…it can be tough thing to do.
I wonder how up front they were with her about the dire state of finances when they hired her. Pretty shady deal hiring someone and then basically firing them 3 months later. If they really didn’t know they had a financial problem until 2 weeks ago that seems to point to even bigger issues. Regardless this will probably make it pretty tough for them to attract talented people in the future.
I didn’t see anywhere in the article that she was fired?
I admit I am reading between the lines, but it didn’t sound to me like they gave her much of a choice. Perhaps the decision really was hers but this certainly sounds to me like a situation where she was given the opportunity to resign or be fired.
It’s not resign or be fired, which are loaded terms and imply fault of the employee — it’s the position is cut because there’s no budget, which sounds like was not her fault.
While the biggest issue for these national groups (and statewide and local groups too) seems to be financial, I can’t help but be curious about what else is going on in the National Scene besides simply the shift of funding on the parts of People for Bikes, SRAM & Planet Bike. I mean, there have been at least 7 staff exits (that I know of) between the League & the Alliance and with the addition of Scott B. with America Walks, that’s at least 8 just since the 2014 Bike Summit in March. I think it is making smaller groups around the nation really curious about what else is happening on the national scene that isn’t so obvious or isn’t being shared. Which could also hurt with individual and organizational support going forward. I’m sure in the end it all comes down to funding but there just seems to be something bigger that hasn’t yet been brought to light.
It’s tough to tell from a distance if the turnover in all these organizations is due more to financial issues, or to differences of opinion about the directions of the organizations, or to staff and management issues. I hope it doesn’t become a distraction from the underlying mission of improving conditions for bicyclists and pedestrians.
One positive is the timing. Since we finally got a five year federal transportation bill signed into law, that will free up time and energy to work on other things for the next couple of years, including rebuilding the organizations if that is necessary.