By Sam Ollinger / BikeSD
In early 2009, three strangers met on a bicycle ride and began talking about the lack of a cohesive gathering space to talk about bicycling issues. These strangers (Will Karstens, Thom Bahde and me, Samantha Ollinger) went on to found BikeSD.org – a blog that would serve as a single source of news about bicycling in San Diego. Little did I know that BikeSD the blog would eventually turn into one of San Diego’s largest independent member based advocacy organizations.
Karstens, Bahde, and I wrote on BikeSD.org for nearly two and a half years about all bicycling issues: how bicycling was portrayed in local media, the breathtaking beauty one would witness on an early morning ride, the sorts of bike infrastructure that was (or not) being implemented in the city, and more. Slowly the blog became a credible source of information in the San Diego bicycling community. Many strangers assumed that the individuals behind the website were part of a credible organization and none of us bothered to correct that misperception, but instead we embraced it and rose up to become advocates. We appeared in local media, spoke up against dangerous road conditions and told stories of San Diego’s victims of road violence. It seemed that people were hungry for our blog’s information thus creating “a labor of love” for the three of us.
The Birth of the Organization
After Karstens and Bahde both moved away from San Diego, I was unsure about what to do with the blog. In 2012 – two friends, fellow riding companions and occasional blog contributors spoke about converting the blog into a professionalized non-profit advocacy organization. I had no big vision beyond keeping an organization running in an all-volunteer capacity. And with encouragement from a dozen or so close confidants, friends and bike advocates – I decided to commit and steer BikeSD from a blog into a non-profit organization.
Back in May 2012 when our attorneys filed our incorporation paperwork, I had no idea what I had committed to. My assumption going into this was that I’d show up to a handful of meetings every month and make a case that would be along the lines of “don’t forget about us bicycle riders!” In addition to having to master the micro environment of this type of organization and my own leadership growth; I also had to understand and absorb the dynamics of advocacy. But while I remained the visible head of the organization, what the public couldn’t see were the many, many volunteers and advisors and mentors who guided every step of BikeSD’s and my journey.
A year after we launched, I went after every single low-hanging fruit and some far reaching ones too. We got political support for the issue and made bicycling a discussion in the mayoral race, became a city that adopted progressive design guidelines on transforming our streets (NACTO), implemented road diets, and more. Not knowing much about the dynamics of advocacy I approached the issue with a simple idea: what happens if I try and give this my best shot? Advocacy is an imperfect art. It requires dedicated, sustained effort and nerves of steel. Doing this work has been one of the most challenging, most difficult, most gut-wrenching endeavours I have ever attempted. But the work has to be done. Not just for the obvious environmental reasons but simply because bicycling makes our cities better places to live, work, and play.
A Professional Organization
Leading the emergence of BikeSD opened my eyes to a huge hole in our the organization’s advocacy approach – in order to win and attain changes on the ground, we as an organization had to grow and become professionalized. The status quo embedded within our societal culture and our national resistance needed to change
In the spring of 2014, we knew that BikeSD couldn’t sustain itself on the sheer passion and gumption of its many volunteers. We had to become a professionalized organization and begin to incorporate the broader San Diego community into our work. If we were to be successful in meeting our mission we needed to begin the process of professionalizing our organization. We began the process by going through a branding and marketing makeover, creating a business plan, hiring our first staffer and beginning work on our first five year strategic framework. It was time for me to collaborate with my board to set the governance and future direction of the organization.
Are you curious how we brought the leadership together around a common vision and a rapid-paced strategic planning process that resulted in action? Stay tuned to post 2 in this series.