Biketopia has come a long way since its formation in February 2012. We have overcome many obstacles to remaining open and relevant and still face challenges every day to maintain the momentum we built. After the initial push to form Biketopia, the founder fell ill and left the first group of volunteers to fend for themselves, a twist of fate that we are still recovering from. The biggest lesson the current volunteers have taken from the experience of getting our workshop on track and improving the organization's structure has been the prioritization of making decisions a team effort and maintaining a core group of volunteers to provide each other support and inspiration.
Though I took an official directorial role just one year before creating this page, my real engagement began when fellow workshop Spokeland hosted the Bici!Bici! bicycle workshop conference at the PLACE for Sustainable Living, where they were based at the time, just down the street from Biketopia, in Oakland on the border of Berkeley and Emeryville. The time I spent talking with and listening to members of similar organizations changed the way I looked at Biketopia and formed the basis of my efforts since.
While each organization will have to find its own path, there are a few lessons I feel are worth sharing with those starting up their own bicycle workshops. My hope is that others can avoid the kind of missteps that can hinder the growth or cause the dissolution of fellow bicycle advocacy organizations by learning from our mistakes and being better prepared to deal with challenges to come.
So, without further ado, here are some of the pointers that I would give any bicycle workshop nonprofit organization in the process of forming or growing. Take what you can use, leave what you can't.
And keep riding!
Biketopia Community Workshop
Organize Your Organization!
Do your research! There is plenty of information on how to best form a non-profit organization. Nolo and other law book companies have published books on the subject and there is a wealth of information online. One website that is particularly easy to read while being thorough is: http://nonprofit.about.com/od/nonprofitbasics/f/busplan.htm
Reach out to other organizations and individuals doing similar work and spend some time comparing notes. This is best done in person, where the natural flow of conversation allows breakthroughs and inspiration to flow organically. This should happen in the early days, but should continue as time goes on.
Find out where you fit in the greater bicycle advocacy puzzle. If you find your work is overlapping with another group’s work, figure out how you can join forces or better hone your organization to cover a need that is not being addressed. And don’t be afraid to refer possible patrons to the organizations that can better fit specific needs. Your impact can be diluted if you are trying to fill all shoes at once, and helping visitors access the best services creates a loyal following and great word of mouth.
Spend time getting to know the community your space is based in and the needs of those visiting your shop and never stop evolving to meet their needs. Having a space that varied community members feel comfortable spending time in creates a stronger support base and valuable allies.
Create a website if possible, a Facebook page with all the pertinent information if not. Initially it should contain basic information and evergreen posts. Creating and updating content requires real dedication and the initial efforts are best spent establishing something that requires little upkeep to be relevant. This is a good task to give over new fresh talent when you grow, to extend your online presence.
Fund Your Organization!
Stay open to change, new ideas, to what your community is asking for. The most sustainable funding will come from individuals that volunteer for you, patronize your services and find your organization worth financial investment.
Prioritize fundraising, especially creative fundraising. This area is often lacking in small, grassroots organizations like bike workshops whose founders and volunteers often seek an escape from the structures that are built to nurture financial health and mainstream business practices. If the organization chooses not to pursue a core member with these sort of qualifications or has difficulty finding one, a pair or group of volunteers with the most interest and aptitude should be put together to work on it in tandem. Leaving the burden on one disinterested volunteer is a recipe for bigger difficulties down the road.
With that being said, many of the legal hoops an organization has to jump through can appear more daunting at first look. When reaching apparent roadblocks with government organizations and the like don’t be afraid to ask for a work around. Just like with customer care hotlines, there is often a supervisor who can make concessions for your organization and aid you in finding workarounds, especially when you can present proof that your organization exists solely for the public good.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to small business advisors - you are a type of small business, one that has to decide where to use the tools that already exist and where to create your own rules
Develop and Maintain a Diverse Volunteer Base
Create a structure for leadership - identify the small group of dedicated volunteers that have the time and follow-through to see projects through and lead. This is the group that should be driving most decisions and helping keep other volunteers involved in the process. This group, even if it is small, should meet regularly, preferably every week and at least every month or so.
Diversify your staff. Biketopia has benefited greatly from reaching out to unlikely volunteers with different relationships to bicycling. The different backgrounds and avenues of interests have helped set us apart from other organizations and inspired a passionate and compassionate volunteer and visitor base.
Spend time together outside open workshop hours. The bonding that occurs and the low-pressure hangouts relieve stress, reinvigorate excitement about the project and give a place not only to brainstorm new areas of growth, but identify areas in need of change/conflict resolution.
Identify volunteer strengths and personal goals for their place in the organization and honor them however possible. Volunteers who feel useless or stuck in a rut won’t do you much good, but acknowledged volunteers whose strengths are recognized and utilized will continue to do good work for your organization for years to come.
Utilize Your (Human) Assets
Identify your assets - in terms of connections, raw material sources, but most importantly in your volunteers and possibly patrons (of money, connections and knowledge) that you can draw on to follow through on your goals for the organization.
Evolve to Meet Needs But Stay True to Your Mission
Cut through the static - people love to give advice and question decisions, especially when the way you are running your workshop differs from their expectations. Don’t forget that it is the core team that are making the decisions, and generally are the most qualified to do so. It is important to keep this in mind so that volunteers can avoid having emotional reactions and getting derailed from the workshop’s mission.
At the same time, there are few decisions and changes that won’t be inspired by dialog between volunteers and visitors. Being able to sort what is valuable to your organization and what is not is crucial to growing and thriving.