Can a professionally run mountain bike organization also be a socially vibrant club?
Or, as one Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance member put it at a sometimes painfully frank board meeting Monday evening, “Are we turning ourselves into a fund-raising group for mountain biking or are we a mountain biking organization that needs to raise funds?”
Drawing a number of Evergreen’s “old guard” — longtime members who carried over from the Backcountry Bicycle Trails Club (BBTC) days — the board meeting bared some long-simmering concerns over the direction of Evergreen and raised some new questions about the future of the group.
The genesis for the airing was discussions at the Kettle Crest gathering recently, as well as Evergreen’s grim financial picture. A number of issues also were raised in a posting by Len Francies to the Yahoo! list, which Tim Banning, Bob Hollander and others picked up on.
Then there’s the money outlook. Discussions about the need to strengthen the organization led to the hiring of a club executive director and staff to represent Evergreen’s interests in the larger community. Despite criticisms over an abrupt and uncommunicated name change, things rolled along pretty well, with the Colonnade project in particular netting local and national publicity for Evergreen. Improved access to Snoqualmie Middle Fork Trail, Duthie Hill, Paradise Valley and the projected Olallie network also proceeded.
When the economy began to tank, however, Evergreen ran into tall budget problems — hardly unique to it, of course, but daunting nonetheless. At Monday’s meeting, executive director John Lang reported that an emergency summer capital campaign (composed of board-matched grassroots funding) had raised an eye-popping $37,000, again a first for Evergreen.
But…some of that money is still in pledge form, and the club continues to lose funding it counted on from other sources. Lang particularly cited support from bike manufacturers and vendors. Big names like Specialized, Trek, SRAM and others, suffering in the current economy like everyone else, have thrown what philanthropy they still have available into the IMBA pot. Evergreen’s argument that it supplies many of the services of IMBA at the local level, and therefore needs separate funding, so far has not made inroads with these supporters.
Bottom line, literally: Evergreen probably has funding to carry it through the end of the year. Beyond that, things look dicey.
In the context of uncertain financial outlook, several speakers suggested that Evergreen should focus on strengthening itself internally first so that a unified front and energized volunteer membership can help evangelize to the larger community.
Several challenges were cited:
1. Alienated veteran members, some of which have left Evergreen altogether, need to be re-welcomed.
2. Volunteerism needs a way to function. Bob Bournique noted that two dropped projects this year, a Poker Run and 24-hour ride, could have been pulled off with volunteers, and could have raised money for Evergreen, had they not been cancelled by leadership. Bournique also noted that volunteers have “nowhere to go” in the current organizational hierarchy of the group, where they could be providing secondary and tertiary leadership roles.
3. More communication, and a different style of communication, is needed. Participation by leadership and board members on the Yahoo! group, use of Twitter and Facebook and other Web tools could enhance visibility with members and the general public. When issues are raised on the Yahoo! list, leadership needs to get involved.
Board members countered that leadership has tried to improve communications via Web announcements on the Evergreen site, and an e-mail newsletter. (Apparently the newsletter doesn’t reach all members, which Jen Lesher acknowledged correctly as a “database problem.”) But “announcements” are different from “give and take,” one member noted. Tim’s great suggestion: Set up an Evergreen online forum (which is quite different from a Yahoo! group).
A suggestion was made to publish minutes of board meetings as one way to keep members apprised.
4. Evergreen leaders need to get out on rides. Bob mentioned that there is member sensitivity to the fact that John is “not a mountain biker.” Whatever John’s leadership qualities are, and no one seemed to impugn them, it is in fact unusual to have the titular leader not emerge from the community. How big of an issue this is to general membership is open to question, and board members are of course active riders.
5. What happened to the ride calendar? Hardly any of the big weekend rides that used to crowd the calendar this time of year are making it onto the Web site. A lot of group riding has gone off-list, partly because the membership is fragmented and there is no way for new to merge with old.
My take: Much of Evergreen’s current straits can be blamed on the evolution of mountain biking in general. There’s a nation-wide movement to unify trail user groups — call it multipartisanship — in hopes of improving access for all. The Mountaineers and Washington Trails Association went through similar spasms as they became more “professional,” and the name change to Evergreen sprang in part on a need to “legitimize” the club in the eyes of government agencies, public forums and other user groups. Len Francies pointed out on a positive note in the Monday meeting that the name change has resulted in “instant recognition” of Evergreen where before BBTC was a head-scratcher to most of the public.
But while professionalism is a necessary step, it doesn’t have to be at the exclusion of the fun part of mountain biking: The riding. There are plenty of examples of successful mtb organizations which also do lots of advocacy, trail work, public volunteering and other outreach, while still getting in regular rides together.
What struck me, listening to Monday’s discussion, is that on a macro level the club is feeling its way through the Obama revolution, where fund-raising relies less on Big Money than on many modest contributions from many sources raised through social networking tools, and where communication must flatten to peer-to-peer, rather than an Olympian “thus shall it be” approach.
Is it in the DNA of Evergreen to adopt a flatter, more networked approach? In post-meeting discussions, I found people focusing on that question. The membership will have another shot at addressing these and other issues at the end-of-August board meeting, being dubbed a Town Hall, time and place yet to be formalized. We’ll keep you posted, and in the meantime don’t be shy about raising the noise level on the list and elsewhere!
“I see we have a lot of passion,” Jen said at the close of Monday’s meeting. “That tells me we have incredible energy and enthusiasm to work with.”