Introducing Bikeside, 501c4!
Welcome to Bikeside! Bikeside is a new organization for bike activism – this isn’t just Westside Bikeside anymore – we dropped the Westside and we’re building an organization. If you’re reading on a reader, click through and check out the new website.
Our mission, simply, is to make LA safe for cyclists. We’re going to do that with the same brand of hard hitting, assertive and insightful activism you’re used to getting from the Bike Writers Collective. Therefore, it’s fitting that our board of directors consists of four members of the BWC: Enci Box, Erik Knutzen, Stephen Box, and myself, Alex Thompson.
We are a pure lobbying organization. Parties, bike rides & film screenings – all these things are secondary to our main purpose: making policy change. We are not a non-profit, but a similar entity, known as a 501c4. Traditional non-profits are legally prohibited from doing substantial lobbying, and cannot take part in elections. Bikeside can. Our focus is pressuring City Hall to shape up and make the changes we need to be safe and secure as cyclists – and our ability to do that is unique, due to our 501c4 structure, within the Los Angeles biking community.
Lobbying doesn’t mean carrying a suitcase full of cash to council offices. With Bikeside not having a lot of money (we are totally accepting donations though!) that would be FAILsauce. Instead, our currency is your participation. Support is important too, but if we can choose between a letter of support, $$$, and your participation, we choose participation. We want you to volunteer.
If you do, I can promise that it will be worth your while. Bike activism has taught me, and my fellow board members, numerous lessons that have enormous value personally and professionally. As a Bikeside volunteer, we will train you to maximize a variety of tools such as Google Docs & Twitter to achieve change. There is a huge difference between someone who is passingly familiar with these tools, and someone can make them work together to their benefit – we can teach you those (marketable) skills. We will also teach you political skills such as framing the debate which have many applications. And, if you prove yourself, we will offer you opportunities to lead your own initiatives to improve LA for cyclists, under the Bikeside banner. That means, if you Make It Happen, we’ll put resources at your fingertips that normally would be difficult to get ahold of.
Why did we create Bikeside? Three reasons (there’s always three – ask Stephen Box.) First, we wanted an entity – aka a corporation – that would allow us to collectively own assets and take donations to support bike activism. Secondly, because many of the existing bike organizations that can do that tend to take a softer line on bike issues than our founders prefer, we needed a new one. We wanted a place for a more assertive style of activism. Finally, of the existing LA bike organizations that do political lobbying, none can legally spend a majority of their time lobbying for change.
“But I thought that LACBC and CICLE lobby the City?!” Yes, they do. However, as 501c3 non-profits, these organizations can only spend an “insubstantial part” of their time and resources on lobbying. In other words, translating that negative, they may not spend a substantial part of their resources on lobbying (which is sometimes defined as 20%.) Non-profits often play fast and loose with the definition of what “lobbying” is but it’s a dangerous game to play. Non-profits are hamstrung when it comes to lobbying, unless they break the rules.
Bikeside is what’s known as a 501c4. It’s an organization type that’s defined in the same section of tax code as non-profits. There are similarities, and there are differences, but the key take away is that 501c4s are designed to lobby for policy change.
Where a non-profit is only allowed to do a little lobbying, Bikeside can spend unlimited resources on lobbying. Where non-profits cannot endorse candidates in elections, Bikeside can endorse candidates, and campaign for them. Bikeside will make endorsements for these November elections, and we will be very involved in the City elections next March.
One downside, really the only downside, is that where contributions to non-profits are tax deductible, contributions to 501c4s are not. That means that 501c4 orgs are less attractive to foundations, and 501c4s cannot work with the government. However, the reality is that most people don’t itemize their taxes, so the tax deductible thing means little to the smaller donors.
Taking government funds, it’s a good way to get funded, and non-profits are configured to do it. That’s how many of the advocates at LACBC get their salary paid. However, it can be a problem for a movement. When your salary comes from LADOT, or MTA, and you’re tasked with keeping them honest, that’s a conflict of interest. Sometimes the temptation to withhold criticism so that your grant money isn’t jeopardized ruins organizations; their willingness to stand up for what’s right is compromised and suddenly public discourse becomes tepid and timid.
In a way then, 501c4s are well immunized against that dangerous form of corruption. 501c4s can’t really compete for government money, and therefore they rarely experience that deep conflict of interest.
The ACLU, Sierra Club, and the NAACP all have a 501c4 component to them. So does the NRA. Not all of these organizations are good, but they are all very effective.
Bikeside is joining the fray. Our website is a little rough, and right now it’s just Westside Bikeside moved to a new domain. However, pretty soon it will be all polished up, and we’ll have regular postings here from some of your favorite writers. Bikeside is also collaborating with the Bike Writers Collective to produce LA’s Best Bike Plan and the Backbone network. We’ll also be building a record for key figures in LA politics, keeping track of how they perform on bike issues. And, Bikeside is working on a campaign to stop Hit & Run. Plus, we’ve got an ace up our sleeve that we think you’re really going to love!