Is Bicycle Victoria (membership) worth it?Posted: May 22, 2011
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).