Is Bicycle Victoria (membership) worth it?

Real bike security!

It’s with some regret I report I’ve let my membership of Bicycle Victoria (BV) lapse. I had a call last week from one of BV’s sales people asking me if I would front up $150 to continue my family membership for another year. I said no.

In 2009 my family membership was $120. Last year it jumped to $135, this year it’s $150! That’s more than 10% escalation per annum. Why is this sort of increase necessary? I could downgrade to a two person household membership for $125 or a one person membership for $105 but in my opinion that’s still too much — and in any event I wanted a family membership.

I know some will say that’s what effective lobbying and community education costs in this day and age. What’s a hundred and fifty bucks, they’ll say, in the scheme of things when you compare it to the good works BV does? I know the “if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys” argument. And some will say I’ve lost access to BV’s third party property insurance and legal defence services. But it’s still too much.

Most every non-profit I see these days is a “professional” organisation with the culture that implies – relatively high salaries at the top, expense accounts, frequent travel, and so on. Many function in part as out-sourced providers of government programs so perhaps it’s not surprising that they tend to mimic public sector standards and practices. While I have no reason to doubt the competence and dedication of BV’s staff, I fear it’s becoming more about bureaucracy than bicycles.

Have a look at BV’s web site to see just how many paid staff BV has. This is a big organisation. Annual revenue is $11.7 million. There’s the CEO and seven general managers. Then there are seven teams. There are five staff in the Ride2School team, seven in the Facilities Development Team, six in the Riders Team, four each in the Finance and the Publications teams, five in the Events Team and three in the Rider Services Team. Some of these staff are supported by “behaviour change” grants to deliver particular programs on behalf of government. Perhaps some of them are part-time, but I don’t think there’s any doubt this is now a big organisation.

My interest in supporting BV is not how big it can get, but what it can do to improve conditions for cyclists. The key to that is lobbying state and local governments and educating the community about cycling. That’s a task that requires a coordinator to act on behalf of cyclists because it can’t be done by the market. So we need a BV in some incarnation. But like so many organisations, BV seems to have grown to take on a raft of other functions, many of them aimed at generating more revenue – in fact membership fees now make up only 19% of BV’s revenue. But more revenue for what?

The 2009-2010 Financial Statement and the 2009-2010 Annual Report indicate that close to half of BV’s expenditure goes on conducting rides. These are a big focus of attention – they account for 48% of expenditure (and 58% of revenue). That’s nice, but my membership fees aren’t needed to conduct operations that cover their costs and could in any event be mostly left to the private sector. Nor am I interested in forking out $150 a year so the government has an organisation that can deliver behaviour change programs on its behalf or so that BV can provide consulting services on a commercial basis. And quite frankly if it wasn’t “free”, I wouldn’t choose to buy the bi-monthly Ride On magazine, which is essentially a promotional vehicle with little solid content.

Nor am I convinced that all of the “non-market” activities BV performs justify all of my household’s $150 anymore. They probably did once (and I’ve been a member since 2001) but circumstances have changed. Relevant state and local government agencies generally have competent personnel working on a range of cycling matters these days. BV’s Annual Report brazenly links its brand to every cycling initiative undertaken by the State, as if BV were solely responsible for these achievements, but I don’t believe the existence of BV is a necessary condition to make them happen. I would never have joined if I didn’t think BV made some contribution but this appropriation of all the credit is shameless.

What I would really like to know is how much of BV’s effort actually goes into lobbying and into advancing the welfare of cyclists i.e. activities that can’t be funded from other sources, or essential activities that can’t done by anyone else. I wonder if such a large organisation is necessary to deliver these core functions. And I also wonder how much senior management and board attention is distracted by the many essentially commercial activities that BV now engages in.

Most importantly, I wonder how much more BV, with all its staff and money, achieves in improving my welfare as a cyclist than it would if it were a lean and hungry, essentially voluntary organisation like the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA). Membership in the PTUA is $25 per year for an individual, compared to $105 for BV. There’s a committee of management mentioned on the PTUA’s web site, but I don’t see any mention of a CEO or even full-time support staff (but if there are, I doubt there’re many). I don’t know what the membership of the PTUA is but I suspect it doesn’t come within cooee of the 45,000 that BV claims in its 2009/10 Annual Report. I wonder how much less effective BV would be if it slimmed down and reduced its annual membership fees to (say) $50 for an individual and $75 for a family. My suspicion is not much.

I did have some initial misgivings about letting go the “free” third party insurance cover that comes with membership (what if I damaged someone’s Merc?), but I think the odds are miniscule that I’ll be in an accident where I’m (a) in the wrong and (b) my bike does significant damage to someone’s property. The kind of organisation I think is worth belonging to isn’t one who sweetens the deal with “free” insurance, but rather one that gives me some objective advice about whether that sort of insurance is even worth bothering with in the first place.

So I’ve let my family membership lapse. I believe there’s a place for an organisation like BV but I’m simply not persuaded the core lobbying and community education task commands $150 from my household. If BV wants to cut fees to more sensible levels — and explain why its raised my membership fees by 10% two years running when it has an accumulated surplus of over $3 million — I’ll consider rejoining. But before I did that, I’d also want to look at some matters I haven’t discussed in this post, like BV’s effectiveness, accountability and transparency (issues I’ll have to leave to another day).

10 Comments on “Is Bicycle Victoria (membership) worth it?”

  1. RED says:

    Ah, the fate of NGOs everywhere, to be co-opted by the very organisations they are supposed to be fighting against. Environment Victoria are another organisation that are too busy taking government money to effectively criticise them.
    And what about all the NGOs that take government money to provide social services? They operate at cut-rate prices by paying their staff far less than they’d get elsewhere. All those ‘poverty stricken families’ on $150k plus a year might have to start paying a living wage to their childcare workers at last!
    The community sector is hopelessly compromised …

    • Tor says:

      I share similar concerns about BV, and find them a relatively weak advocacy organisation. However I think that to extend this assessment across other NGOs is a bit rich.

      I’m also bemused that you’ve listed Environment Victoria as an organisation too busy taking government money to effectively criticise them. From what I’ve seen, Environment Victoria have become a very effective campaign organisation, running a major campaign to have Hazelwood power station closed down. I also think that they’ve just suffered a major cut in funding from government precisely because they were so effective in campaigning for change.

      I don’t think that the community sector is ‘hopelessly compromised’. Certainly there are significant pressure upon organisation who take money from government but also advocate for change, however the situation is far from hopeless, and I think a number or organisations do it really well.

      I wish BV would do the same, as with their profile and massive membership they could achieve serious change.

  2. Michael says:

    Interesting article. I joined primarily for the insurance but I have been disappointed by their weak advocacy. It stands to reason that they aren’t going to bite the hand the feeds them and robustly criticise government. Their existence is also probably preventing any other organisation gaining large membership. After paying for BV membership it seems a little too much to join other groups as well, but there is a real need for someone to voice cyclists concerns. I still get more out of my BV membership than my RACV membership. Even though I wouldn’t buy “Ride On” I do actually read it, which is more than I can say for the RACV magazine.

  3. Sam says:

    Alan, you note that rides generate 58% of revenue and use up 48% of expenditure. That means that people who go on the rides contribute to BV’s other activities most of which is advocacy and this is made clear when events are promoted. This is a fantastic way to generate dollars to fund advocacy. If these events were done by the private sector there would be no dividend flowing to better bicycle facilities. (I wish there was a way to operate paid walks and fund a pedestrian victoria…). I doubt the private sector could run the events that BV does. Most of the cycling events in Victoria rely very heavily on volunteers who are happy to contribute time because BV (or Audax to use another example) is a community organisation making a broader contribution to cycling.

    Governments do have people working on cycling these days but mainly because of pressure from BV. There are not many organisations that can claim a membership of 45,000 or generate the sort of letter/email writing campaigns that BV does. As a member and a cyclist I’ve written many letters to politicians on the instructions of BV and quite a lot of them have been successful. The last thing I want to see is a return to the voluntary, non-professional, hand-to-mouth existence that you suggest is the ideal way to get better bicycle facilities. You might want to compare the effectiveness of the PTUA, the Pedestrian Council of Australia and BV.

    You don’t think that BV should claim credit for most of the state’s cycling achievements but you don’t cite any evidence for this. My observation is that BV has been at the heart of most of the initiatives to improve cycling facilities in Victoria and without them (us?) we would have precious few bike lanes or paths on which to ride.

    Maybe instead of being a member, you could make a small annual donation towards their advocacy work.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Sam, my reaction to the claim that activities like rides are funding advocacy work is to ask: why then has the family membership fee risen by 10% p.a. to $150?

      And no, I didn’t propose that BV live a “hand-to-mouth” existence. I said we still need something like BV and suggested a more reasonable due of $50-$75 p.a. With 45,000 members that is still a lot of revenue. Assuming an average due of (say) $30 per member, that would be $1.35 million p.a. That is enough to fund quite a lot of advocacy.

      I give credit to BV for its early work but times have changed and I don’t think an organisation that’s so large (or expensive!) is needed anymore. Time for BV to slim down and focus on core issues.

      P.S. You can see all the things BV implies it was instrumental in achieving (most of them funded by the State) in the annual report I linked to in the post.

  4. Mike says:

    This information should be forwarded to BV. They should discuss at the managers and board meetings

  5. Daniel says:

    Hi Alan,

    PTUA has no fulltime staff. We do have a vacancy for a part-time office manager; once that’s filled, it’ll be the only paid staff. Annual membership has been held at $25 for many years, but will go up to $30 in July. We have about 1000 members.

    On the subject of advocacy, and since another commenter mentioned RACV: do people join RACV for the advocacy, or the roadside assistance? Do they agree with the RACV’s advocacy for things like the east-west road tunnel, the NE freeway link, and so on? If not, should they look elsewhere for roadside assistance? A number of companies offer it.

    • Michael says:

      I joined the RACV for the roadside assistance. I must confess I was ignorant that other companies offered it. For the record I’m not in favour of lobbying they do and will look for alternatives to the RACV roadside assistance.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I’ve never known anyone who joined for any reason other than roadside assistance. I was a frequent user of this service when I was a student. I let my membership lapse for many years until one day my new car got a flat battery and I was at RACV’s mercy. RACV is now a $400 million p.a. insurance, travel and transport conglomerate.

  6. thomas Paul says:

    A few unrelated comments
    – membership funds are not really used to fund rides expenses – kinda the reverse rides make money to fund other stuff
    – BV has argued for less money for cycling cause they thought Vicroads could not spend it well – not something i want to fund
    – Cycling is doing where in places where something like BV doesnt exist – Bogota, Vancouver, Perth and to a lesser extent all the capitals of australia
    – yes these prices are needlessly high, i understand BV asked its members who said they supported and increase in the fees
    – BV employ around 10 full time accountants
    – I am unaware of any of the cycling achievements of any of the board members or senior management at BV – outside BV
    – there are simple things the lobbying effort could do that dont cost much time or money that they dont like presenting cycling individually to all our state mps (only 70 odd in the lower house – would take a month or so) – or mobilising and supporting those on their database who want to lobby
    – Bv is unnessesarily and unproductively hostile to those lobbying for local improvements
    – One can assess the decisions of the CEO in terms of whether it increases or decreases his power
    – I find BV culture to be fat, lazy, arrogant and down right nast

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