Saturday, December 27, 2014

Can Impact Investing Benefit Bicycle Programs?

I’ve spent the last few days studying up on the latest in the impact investing world to see if there are any new opportunities for One Street and our partners. Let’s just say, I’m glad to have resurfaced. I suppose it’s no surprise that an industry that is springing from the financial industry has entrenched itself in so much jargon and so many self-congratulating events. In recent years, I’ve also attended some of these events only to be disappointed by their lack of vision and ability to reach into the communities they claim to want to support.

Even so, through the blinding glitz and endless mazes of the websites, I did hit on a few organizations that seem to genuinely want to shift the world of investing toward supporting social enterprises that are changing the world of business. The general idea of impact investing is to invest in social businesses that ideally include all of these elements:

  • Producing products that help alleviate a social problem such as water pumps for clean water or sturdy bicycles for transporting goods,
  • Providing job training and jobs for impoverished people, and
  • Ensuring that the products they produce help lift those same impoverished families out of poverty.

One Street’s Social Bike Business program, which includes our Bike Shift Levers, is based on these social business principles. We look for local partner organizations who also strive toward this three-fold vision.

So, I was hoping that circling back to the impact investing community would land me on likely partners for us as well as our bicycle program partners around the world. Time will tell as I prepare to send out a handful of letters to the most interesting impact investment firms. I also dug out some old files that reminded me of a few creative impact investment organizations that could directly help our partners: works much like a crowdfunding platform, but instead of giving your money, you lend it. You won’t make any interest, but you do get all your money back so you can “invest” in another project. All the projects on Kiva are small businesses owned by struggling people around the world. Even a loan of $25 can push them into success. is similar to Kiva as it offers small loans to small businesses and social enterprises, but their loans are larger and the lending system is a bit more complicated.

I also found some very good articles that came out in the last few months. Most claim that 2014 will be the
year of impact investing because of all the energy that has been focused into these efforts. If you want to read about some of the most active and effective impact investing organizations, read:

2014 in Impact Investing: The Big Bang and its Aftermath – Huffington Post, December 16, 2014

As I wove my way through websites and articles, I was also not surprised by the lack of bicycle programs listed in the programs supported. I did find a few and you can bet that those organizations made my list to contact.

Unfortunately, most of the products that were being supported were technology based. Not that there’s anything wrong with that... But we know how much benefit bicycles could bring to an investment movement bent on alleviating poverty.

Do you know of any success stories where impact investment lifted a bicycle program into a significantly higher level of effectiveness? I don’t. The few I have come across over the years seem to show little gain from the investments made. Please share your stories and links. Even just a few great examples could inspire other similar partnerships between impact investors and great bicycle programs.


Saturday, December 6, 2014

Bike Shift Levers in the Spotlight

I am very happy with all the attention our Bike Shift Levers are getting from the press release I sent out earlier this week. All of the articles are creative and the authors each chose their own favorite element of the project:

For Gizmag, the author emphasized the significant need for these shifters for the millions of people who rely on their bicycles everyday (he also fit in lots of photos).

For Bicycling the author gave the project one of its best compliments yet, right in the title: The Simplest, Most Versatile Shifter Ever. I like that!

For BikeBiz, the author seemed just as excited as I am to see these shift levers finally hit production. He has been following the project since our Kickstarter campaign – very cool.

The author of the BikeRumor article kindly noted that purchasing these shifters from us helps support our service to bicycle programs around the world. This article has also created the most buzz so far with lots of passionate comments. I hope these curious readers look into the project more.

The author of the BikeRadar article seemed to like the bottle cap most of the six parts and appreciated the shifter’s simplicity.

I love how each of them took our story and made it their own, adding their enthusiasm for particular elements of the shift lever as well as the project as a whole.

Let me know if I missed any. Great stuff!


Sunday, November 30, 2014

Bike Shift Levers Available for Purchase

For the past few months I’ve focused much of my time on casting, preparing, assembling, and shipping Bike Shift Levers; all of them to our wonderful, patient Kickstarter donors who helped make the project possible. They had to wait a full year before finally seeing their shift lever arrive in the mail. Even though I understood the delays that had kept the mold from being machined, I couldn’t expect these great folks to be that patient. You have no idea what a relief it was to drop the last donor-shifter package in the mail.
Not only am I celebrating the end of that task, I can finally say that these lovely levers, designed for easy production and repair by people who rely on their bicycles, are available for sale! And they are already selling!  

So my casting and production continues, but the stress of obligation has been replaced by excitement to build One Street’s bicycle program support through sales. Two nights ago I watched as these two frames slid into the molten pool, on their way to becoming Bike Shift Levers.  

I’m also looking forward to finally reaching out to potential license partners who can produce these shift levers for their region of the world. Our book for the program, Backyard Aluminum Casting, is also available for sale in our web store at as well as through book vendors around the world. Using that book, anyone, license partner or not, can build their own aluminum casting foundry.

Tonight I posted to our home page our collection of Gift Ideas from One Street . These include the Bike Shift Lever, our books, and even a scholarship fund to help us connect with potential license partners and cover half of their one-time license fee. If you’re looking for a fun gift for a bike enthusiast, a Bike Shift Lever made from scrap aluminum cans and bike frames could be just the thing. Or if your friends and family members are tired of opening gifts, covering a scholarship in their name could be their perfect gift.

I’m so relieved to finally have the chance to offer all of these great resources. Let me know if you don’t see the combination that suits your needs on that Gift Ideas form and I’m sure we can figure something out.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Detroit as Bicycle Business Model

I’ve been intrigued by the potential of Detroit for many years now. Its slip away from car manufacturing and abandonment by motorized corporate investors has torn the city open into a place where just about anything could happen. Bleak, empty factories can glimmer like castles to the right visionaries. And sure enough, many of those visionaries have entered the scene on two wheels.

A recent article in Fortune magazine shines the spotlight on a few of these new bicycle manufacturing and distribution businesses. Another recent article, this one in Bicycle Retailer & Industry News (unfortunately, not available to nonsubscribers), also noted the renaissance of bicycle manufacturing in the former “Motor City.” That article even features a retail storefront called The Hub that supports Back Alley Bikes, a nonprofit community bike program.

Between these two articles, I was most fascinated by the second-to-last paragraph in Bicycle Retailer that follows a reality check of low bicycling numbers and a dearth of bike shops:

“Still, there is a prevalent optimism that radiates from Detroiters. Some say that Detroit’s renaissance today is coming from within the residents—which sets it apart from past efforts to ‘save’ Detroit.”

This strikes me as the very sort of example I was looking for in my last post, Does Charity Suck Energy Away from Solutions? Charity is not “saving” Detroit. Detroiters are doing it for themselves. And because of this, I believe they will succeed. And I’m darn pleased that many of them are doing it through bicycle manufacturing. Enabling impoverished and struggling people to develop and implement solutions themselves is at the heart of Social Bike Business. Detroit is becoming a proving ground that shows that principle succeeding.


Friday, November 7, 2014

Does Charity Suck Energy Away from Solutions?

This morning I received an excellent e-newsletter from our local poverty-relief nonprofit, the Coalition for Compassion and Justice (CCJ) here in Prescott. Their efforts to provide warm clothing and to weatherproof houses for impoverished people are so important, especially as winter descends. Incredibly, nearly one third of our county’s children suffer from hunger every day. This has not changed at all over the last 20 years. Their parents, who are struggling to feed their children, certainly do not have the resources to buy warm clothes or repair broken windows, walls, and roofs.
These statistics and the photos of needy families inspire us to help. The jobs are easy—deliver some extra clothing you don’t need or spend an afternoon fixing windows. CCJ and organizations like them have armies of volunteers and donors helping out.

Even as one of their donors of food and clothing, I am bothered by charity programs. I often wonder if even a fraction of the energy spent through one-way charity programs that give to “the needy” was spent working with impoverished people to solve poverty, we would be a lot farther along than we are today.

Leaders I work with through our Social Bike Business Program often bemoan the lack of helpers and donors they have. In order to start strong, these business-minded organizations need help. But their long-term visions of careers through profitable sales don’t yank heartstrings like immediate needs.

How are some of you overcoming this with your social bike business programs? Have you found ways to entice people to help that do not rely on urgent response to people in need? Does your program have good examples of messages that have drawn helpers and donors? If so, please share them in the comments box. Let’s start shifting some of this reactive energy into long-term solutions that help impoverished people lift themselves out of poverty!


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Assembling Bike Shift Levers

Prescott’s unusually wet summer of monsoon thunderstorms finally ended a few weeks ago, which allowed me whole days of casting our Bike Shift Levers. These Bike Shift Levers are designed for people who rely on their bicycles every day with just six common parts, two of which are cast from scrap aluminum. I’m starting production here in Prescott, but soon our partners around the world will get their own permanent molds so they can produce them for their regions.

This summer, I couldn’t cast if there was even a threat of rain because molten aluminum explodes when water contacts it. So I’ve done a lot of casting in these past few weeks to finally cast the shifters for our wonderful Kickstarter supporters. These supporters contributed a full year ago, making this project possible. I’m sure appreciative of their patience waiting for their collector shift levers from Mold #1!

Mold #2 will be back here next week after more refinements at the machine shop. Once I’ve caught up with our supporter shifters, I’ll start casting some for sale with that mold.

Not only am I finally sending these shifters out to our supporters, this ramped-up production offered some fun photo ops. Here’s a pile of shift lever parts in various stages of assembly, some still stuck to the extra aluminum from the mold sprues, others ready for assembly, others assembled ->

Sometimes these casting days stretched into the night, which wasn’t my preference, but at least I was treated to an incredible light show every time the melt was ready to pour – check out that neon pink!:

Here’s a photo of today’s assembly line as I prepared to assemble a batch:

I’ve still got several batches to go before all of our Kickstarter backers are taken care of. This has been a great reminder of how many fabulous folks stepped up to make this project possible. A huge thanks to all of you!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Kickstarter Tips for Success

With two successful Kickstarter campaigns under our belts here at One Street (Bike Shift Lever and Cures for Ailing Organizations) and also having backed five projects myself, I think I’ve accumulated enough bruises and smiles to offer some useful tips. 

First, when considering a Kickstarter campaign, make sure you can set aside an entire month for constant promotion and begging. Kickstarter shows that campaigns lasting more than 30 days have LESS of a chance of succeeding, likely because they lack urgency. You’ll need every one of these 30 days to connect with and respond to your most likely donors.

A Kickstarter campaign can fund many aspects of a social bike business program. For instance, funding a new workbench and accompanying tools would be a great fit. You could even try to fund a building renovation or the purchase of a building, assuming you can reach out to a substantial number of likely donors.

Don’t be deceived by the multitudes of Kickstarter competitors. My first venture into crowdfunding was IndieGoGo. I only convinced 12 of my closest friends and family members to contribute – major bust compared to my experience on Kickstarter! With this limited experience, I can’t claim to be an expert on the others, but I can caution you to investigate them thoroughly. Compare them with Kickstarter’s numbers. The huge number of Kickstarter donors means that most of the people you approach will at least trust the name and many will already have an account that lets them pledge to your project with a few mouse clicks.

All of the Kickstarter competitors I have looked at allow every campaign to take whatever money they raise, but charge an extravagant fee if the goal was not reached. In contrast, Kickstarter only releases funding if the goal is reached (all-or-nothing) and charges a straight 5% fee of the funds raised.

These competitors are rather savvy. Most first-time crowdfunders will be intimidated by Kickstarter’s all-or-nothing concept. But taking less than your goal comes at a major cost to you and a lovely profit to them. On top of that, you’ll be stuck with funding that you cannot proceed with. Your donors will expect you to complete your project because their credit cards were charged, but you won’t have enough funding to do so. Investigate all of this thoroughly before choosing any service other than Kickstarter.

For this blog post, I will stick to tips that are specific to Kickstarter. Once you’ve found a quiet month you can devote to your Kickstarter campaign, use these tips to set yourself up for success:


  • If this is your first Kickstarter campaign, allow for at least three weeks to receive approval for your project and for your account where the funds will be transferred. Your next project will only take a few days for approval since everything will be set up.

  • Choose a month without holidays or other likely distractions such as summer vacations.

  • When setting up your campaign:
    • Choose the lowest funding goal possible that will still allow you to complete your project, including covering the Kickstarter fees, promotion costs, and the costs to make and ship the rewards you choose for your donors.
    • Study similar, successful projects on Kickstarter for ideas.
    • Spend the time and money to create an engaging video.
    • Be careful to choose rewards you can afford, but will still entice backers; and don’t forget to add overseas shipping fees to ALL reward levels.
    • Compliment your video with engaging text and images on your page, including a concise budget showing why you need the minimum goal.
    • Put time into writing out the Risks and Challenges part of the page. This gives your project the human touch and makes it believable.
    • Ask Kickstarter support to add any “tags” that match your campaign; for instance they have a “Bikes” tag that brought seven backers to our shift lever campaign.

  • Don’t count on strangers or Kickstarter visitors to pledge. If your campaign creates a great buzz, like our shift lever did, you will enjoy this bonus. But if it never gets past your own promotion efforts, as our book never did, you will have to scratch and scramble for every single pledge. This is most likely! Be prepared.

  • You will be more than busy during the campaign, so write up and prepare everything you can in advance.

  • Prepare lists of potential donors, media, and networkers. Separate these lists for delivery method – mailing, email, press release, blog posts, social media, etc.

  • If your community is likely to support your project, schedule in-person events where you can show off your project in a relaxed, party atmosphere, with computers ready for their pledge.

  • Create a schedule for engaging these lists and events. Some, such as your email and social media lists, can receive your pledge requests several times. Others, such as your media list, should only receive your press release once, so schedule it early in the campaign.

  • Prepare and write out your initial emails, blog posts, and press release. Give them a personal voice because Kickstarter is all about people helping other people. Sell yourself and your personal story along with your project.

  • Invest in a mailing such as postcards or simple brochures since such hardcopies tend to sit around and act as reminders for people to pledge. You can also use them as handouts.

  • Prepare for many varied ways to reach people, including ways to reach the same people through multiple channels. Busy people have to see something many, many times before they will be persuaded to act. You’ll only have 30 days to do this!

  • Do not send any of your promotions out before the campaign is live on Kickstarter. If people go to the link and find it’s not live, they will not bother returning.


  • Engage your promotion plan and stick to it throughout the month.

  • Post your list of FAQs at the bottom of your page within the first week. This offers a fun way to enhance your personal story by showing your interaction with backers and gives you another excuse to post an update i.e., FAQs posted, please offer more.

  • Post at least one update each week of your campaign offering progress, starting each by thanking your backers and always asking them for help spreading the word. Also offer the latest news on media coverage and other developments. Frequent updates also up your campaign’s chances to be featured by Kickstarter.

  • Beware of spammers in your first week. With Kickstarter’s success, they have multiplied. Ignore their calls to promote your project or produce your product.

  • Respond to every legitimate interaction! Thank every one of your backers (Kickstarter has an easy way to message backers through their Backer Report page). Even people who oppose your project will appreciate your response and may become your best networkers. Use their objections to create more FAQ entries. Also, some newcomers to Kickstarter will need guidance on how it works before they will pledge.

  • Some people will have no interest in your project, others will be ecstatic. Don’t get hung up on the folks who aren’t interested. Focus on pampering those who love it.

  • Your backers will be some of your best promoters because they want the campaign to succeed. I know when I back a project, I get nervous for its success and want to help. Don’t forget to ask your backers to spread the word!

  • Some people will only be networkers and will not pledge. Adore them! I can think of a few for each of our projects who contributed significantly to our success by promoting them much farther than we could have.

  • Work hard to reach one third of your goal in the first ten days. There is always a midway lull. By stoking the campaign early, your potential donors who come in at the end will see there’s a good chance of success and this will encourage them to pledge. Without those early pledges, many will expect it to fail and won’t bother.

  • Even if you reach your goal before your deadline, do not announce success until it is over. Donors can reduce and even withdraw their pledges up to 24 hours before the campaign ends. This happened a few times with our shift lever campaign, adding significantly to my heartburn.


  • If your campaign succeeded, send an enthusiastic thank you update to your backers including next steps, and announce your success wherever you had posted the campaign.

  • If it missed, send the news to your backers and let them know your revised plans for funding your project. You can even retry Kickstarter once you’ve recovered.

  • The funding will transfer to your designated bank account within two weeks of success, but get started on your campaign promises immediately, including sending out rewards.

  • Leverage your success to promote your project further and gain media coverage on its next exciting steps ahead.

Kickstarter is NOT for the faint of heart or for those without a full month to devote to their campaign. Prepare yourself for 30 long days of expectation, dashed hope, jubilation, desperation, planning for failure, guilt for begging, and, if everything clicked, exhausted celebration. I’d also recommend setting aside another week for recovery.

If all of this sounds like a nice way to spend a month, go for it! I wish you good luck and emotional stamina. With success it will all be worth it in the end.

Do you have further tips to offer from your Kickstarter or other crowdfunding experiences? Please offer them in the comments box.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Respectful Outreach to Disadvantaged Communities

This morning I found an excellent list of outreach tips in my inbox. I often hear from leaders of bicycle organizations who are frustrated with their lack of success in connecting with residents of distressed neighborhoods. I always start such discussions by applauding these leaders for trying, because too many bicycle projects bypass such neighborhoods. Then it is a simple matter to offer tips to help them build trust and respect with the residents they want to learn from.

Most of the tips I have offered over the years (including a detailed section in Defying Poverty with Bicycles) center on empathizing with these residents who have very little time to spare and who’s time has often been wasted by government-run meetings. In order to engage these important people in your bicycle campaign, you must first show them they are important, that the project needs their input in order to succeed.
This goes for transportation projects like a bike path or lane as well as launching a bike community center to provide bikes and career training for these neighborhood residents. No matter how obvious you think the benefits are, don’t expect your neighbors to see past their suspicion, especially if they believe that your program is just another of the multitudes that have promised great things only to waste their precious time.

This morning’s discovery comes from Jessica Roberts, a Principal at Alta Planning + Design. Alta is a consulting firm that specializes in helping cities implement bicycle and pedestrian projects. Jessica’s tip sheet includes fabulous details. Enjoy!:

  • Host events at churches, libraries, or community centers - should be locations that people are going to for regular activities anyway. Don't host at police department, courthouse, or other authoritarian locations. If you're trying to reach Hispanic/Latino community members, consider circulating at soccer games and inviting people to have an informal conversation about the project.

  • Radio is an important medium that a lot of people overlook. In most cities there is a Spanish language or other culturally-specific radio station that is a central source of information for the community. There may be a morning commute or lunch hour talk session where you an plug your event or project, or better yet get people involved in a discussion.

  • Provide childcare and food. In some communities, it is disrespectful not to feed people a full meal if you are asking for their time.

  • Don't require people to sign in & provide personal contact information - can feel intrusive and like "the government is tracking you." Provide opportunities for people to provide input informally, as opposed to requiring them to submit written comments. Make sure staff are prepared to engage people and take notes after each conversation.

  • Similarly, provide opportunities to talk to people that don’t have an established status. Talking to community leaders or consultants can be intimidating…have some staff hang off to the side looking approachable for people to talk to.

  • Visual recorders can be helpful for visual learners and ESL audience.

  • In some communities it is disrespectful to address elders by their first name, or to "get down to business" too quickly. Greet people warmly when they come in, ask them how they are doing, and listen to their answer before rushing into directions for the event. Ask for guidance and feedback from trusted community members on your tone, style, and format.
  • Use storytelling and personal anecdotes in addition to technical work.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Bike Shift Lever Testers

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of sending out the first Bike Shift Levers cast with Mold #1 to our project donors who had offered to test them out. Getting them cast in my outdoor foundry was a bit stressful because of all the thunderstorms we’ve had around here, but I managed. I was thrilled to finally assemble these cast versions of the shifter and dropping them in the mail. Of course, I kept one of the batch for myself. It has its share of character, but it's doing a far better job moving my front derailleur than the worn out Deore shifter it replaced.

I gave these wonderful testers just one week to install their shift lever, try it out, and report their findings because I needed to send all the changes in for our soon-to-expire patent pending as well as the design of Mold #2. Since Mold #1 has several flaws in its design, I can’t cast any production shifters until I have Mold #2.

Overall, every test result was positive and each of the testers continues to ride with theirs installed. Some found important needed changes to the base that had been mistakenly increased in size somewhere in the design process. Others suggested potential ways of reducing the aluminum used, but for later versions after this design has been put to the test in the rugged situations it is designed for.

A few of the testers sent along photos. Here is Seth in the midst of installing his shifter:

Don installed his on his lovely steel Bianchi:

And Russ took this close up showing some of the character in the shifter he received:

Russ reported that his Bike Shift Lever continues to perform better than the shifter it replaced.

They’re out in the world, shifting away! More to come, especially with the expected arrival of Mold #2 next week!


Monday, July 28, 2014

Kickstarting Cures for Ailing Organizations

If you’ve ever run a crowdfunding campaign, you’ll know why I've been so distracted these last few weeks getting ready for this!

We've launched a campaign to raise funds for publishing our next book, Cures for Ailing Organizations. I know it sounds a bit off topic, but really it isn’t. This book is written for anyone who knows the heartbreak of watching a great organization die. Unfortunately, that includes lots of bicycle organizations.

I wrote this book from my 40 years of experience working for nonprofits and social enterprises in the fields of animal rights, environment, special populations, and, of course, bicycle advocacy. I shaped it around my emergency medical response training because organizations are surprisingly like living organisms. And like organisms they can be revived to thrive once again.

The book is complete. Now we need your help to make it available to organizations around the world. Funding through Kickstarter is meant to cover the costs of final layout, print and ebook publication, and worldwide distribution.

Kickstarter operates on an all-or-nothing basis. If the funding goal is not reached in August, we will receive nothing and will not have the means to publish this book. Every pledge counts toward that goal. The Kickstarter campaign will last only through August.

Secure your early copy by contributing today at by searching “Cures for Ailing Organizations.” You can also go directly to the campaign with this link:

Another way you can help is to forward the link to your friends. Emailing it, posting it to Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn groups would be a huge boost for the campaign because the more it spreads the more likely we are to connect with the people who care about a book like this.

We’ve only got one month to reach the goal!

Thanks in advance for all your help!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

How Low-Income Commuters View Cycling

This article in today’s CityLab issue covers some very interesting topics. I found even more good points in the comments section including several that emphasized access to affordable, durable bikes as an important
part of the solution.

I bristled a bit while reading the article because it focuses on a survey taken in areas of DC where a majority of residents happen to be African American. The authors use generalities like “Our study showed that African Americans were statistically more likely...” Statements like this are easily taken out of context and promote improper perceptions. Even some of the comments make the assumption that the topic is about “people of color” rather than people living in or near poverty.

Poverty is not based on ethnicity or skin color even if racism sometimes contributes to poverty. We must be vigilant about keeping these descriptions distinct lest we contribute to racism.

Even so, the article and the survey it covers raise some important issues. If we can get past the unintentional inequality of the writing, it does offer some thought provoking material. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Blog discovery: Invisible Cyclist

I just received a forwarded blog post from a colleague that caused a rescheduling of my morning tasks as I eagerly read through their past posts. The blog is called "Invisible Cyclist," which immediately caught my attention because of my adoration of the article of a similar name, which I highlighted back in May with my post "'Invisible Riders,' a Timeless Article."

I was surprised that I'd never heard of the Invisible Cyclist blog, as it seems to align very nicely with One Street's work for equitable street design as well as the topic of this blog. But scrolling through their previous posts I could see why it had stayed a bit invisible itself--only one post per year in 2012 and 2013. Now I see four posts in the past month. Looks like they might be kicking in!

The blog is indeed inspired by that wonderful article. They focus on street design so far, so not a lot about providing bikes yet. Still, take a look and enjoy their thought process as they and their readers grapple with the many barriers to bicycling for marginalized people.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Appropriate Bicycles

In Defying Poverty with Bicycles I explain why bikes designed for sport and fitted with complex parts are not appropriate for bicycle programs meant to help people who are struggling in poverty.

Sport bikes are fragile, using materials like carbon fiber and lightweight metals that crumble under hard daily use. Their geometry and short wheelbases are designed for quick maneuvers, not transport and certainly not carrying loads. Any shocks, fancy brakes, and other racing gadgets break under hard use leaving such bikes useless.

Steel framed bikes with long wheelbases, durable and replaceable parts, racks and fenders are the basic idea of appropriate bikes for people who depend on them for their daily needs. As an example, here’s a photo of a wonderful Czechoslovakian-made bike I rode around Europe last summer:

 What are your thoughts about appropriate bicycles? Do you know of affordable cargo bikes? Have you had good luck retrofitting sport bikes to become transportation bikes? Please offer your experiences and ideas in the comments box.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Bike Charity Pitfalls

My post in May titled “Are Bike Kitchens Elitist by Choice?” got several comments including a concern about privileged people providing bikes to people they see as different from themselves. This concern was not part of my original post, but it is a major hot button for me. So I was glad to see this reader make the leap, which has inspired this post.
Do an internet search for bike charities and you will find pages of links to programs that claim to provide bicycles to people who otherwise could never buy their own bike. I grimace just at the list! Many send used bikes into developing countries to be given away free. Others invite “the needy” to come to their door and ask for a bicycle handout.

First I have to say that charity is a good thing. No matter how much I criticize charity-based programs, the human tendency toward helping others is something we all must be proud of. There are times when any of us can fall into so much trouble that the only way out is to accept a helping hand.

Problems arise when this kindness morphs into believing we are better than those we serve. Once this separation occurs in a bicycle program, its leaders will make small, but important decisions that begin to do harm rather than good.

Developing countries see the worst of this harm as massive nonprofits fight each other for charity funding that often ends up in the hands of warlords and corrupt dealers. These organizations are so caught in meeting promised goals, they miss the bigger picture—the local businesses that shut down when charity goods flood the market, the disgrace they pile onto communities and whole countries by publishing only photos of people suffering, and the ravenous consumption of funding just to continue the charade.

I recommend two books that do a good job of revealing this horrendous state of charity. One is Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo, an economist from Zambia. The other is The Crisis Caravan by Linda Polman, a journalist from the Netherlands who lays out countless abominations caused by charity nonprofits.

It would be easy to look at these offenses as detached from bike charity programs. But we can’t ignore the flooding of free bicycles into developing countries. We also cannot ignore the undertone of disgrace when those who receive a free bike are treated as incapable of purchasing a bicycle like anyone else.

I understand that many of the people who are in need of a bicycle are in terrible situations and may be seeking a helping hand. These charity offenses would not be occurring if this were not the case. The challenge comes in seeing each of these people as our equal, looking them in the eye and asking how they would like to take part in the program. Make them feel welcome and valued. Show them that their expertise in surviving their hardships can help the program better serve their neighbors.

When addressed with respect like this, many people who come for a free bike will still simply take the bike and leave. Living in poverty is relentless stress that leaves little time to get involved in a bike program. But by respecting and valuing everyone who comes to the program, you will find that some will take you up on your offer. Even those who walk or ride away will benefit from being treated with respect and some will return to take part when their schedules allow.

If you have a bike charity or are giving away bikes through your program, at least look at making this change. Invite everyone who comes in for a bike to take part in your program, even in the smallest way, perhaps just through offering ideas.

Better yet, stop giving bikes away! Put a proper price on every bike and part you provide. Make that price similar to bike shops in your area and ensure that each sale will not only cover your cost of that bike or part, but the overhead it took to sell it. Ask for donations and grants to help subsidize purchases by people who can prove to you that they truly cannot pay full price.

By putting price tags on your bikes and parts, not only are you showing their true value, you will be showing respect to everyone who comes to your program. They are simply fellow humans looking for a bike. Your equal. Your subsidy program can help them make the purchase, but in the end they will be buying a bike just like anyone else. Our book, Defying Poverty with Bicycles, covers the details for setting up a successful subsidy program.

I realize this is a controversial topic, especially for anyone who has spent a lot of time and energy giving away bikes. I’d love to hear your thoughts and criticisms. I’d also love to see comments from anyone who has made a smooth transition from a bike charity to a more egalitarian program that engages even the most impoverished people. Even more exciting would be to hear from bike programs that have engaged bike recipients in leadership positions for their program.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Prescribing Bicycles for Poor People

I came across this recent article from the Atlantic that starts off with a model program prescribing a bike share membership to poor patients in bad health. It was an easy leap for me to imagine a social bike business taking the place of the bike share membership 
The article is also packed with interesting statistics about many of the factors that contribute to the entrapment of poverty. While I am always skeptical of studies done by affluent academics about people they have little contact with, their findings are worth pondering.

Give it a read and don't miss the comments at the bottom—some revealing banter that demonstrates the wide range of perceptions of poverty.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Are Bike Kitchens Elitist by Choice?

Ever since we launched the Social Bike Business program I’ve been attracted to bike kitchens. It’s hard to imagine a better sort of place than these comfortable spaces where young people gather around the shared goal of repairing bicycles. But something always bothers me whenever I visit one.

For those not familiar with bike kitchens, the concept started in Los Angeles in the early 2000s when an eco-village turned an old kitchen into a shared bike repair area. This repair space was stocked with collectively owned tools and managed by volunteers who offered hands-off suggestions on repairs so that visitors would learn bike repair themselves. Word spread quickly about this cool concept and now, just over a decade later, you’d be hard pressed to find a large city in either the U.S. or Europe without something called a “bike kitchen.” Bike co-ops and collectives often follow a bike kitchen model.

I believe that most bike kitchens share many of the goals of Social Bike Business; that serving the bicycle needs of disadvantage people was once a top goal for them. My question in the title of this post comes from personal experience and my curiosity as to whether the shift I have noticed is intentional.

When I travel, I always buy a used bike to ride during my stay. If the bike I buy needs a specialty bike tool and there is a bike kitchen in that city, I go there first, usually to find it closed or that day set aside for particular sorts of people I wouldn’t describe myself as.

Even though bike kitchens haven’t been available when I’ve needed them, I often like to drop by before I leave their city to see what they do, hang out with fun bike folks, and even help out if they need me. I’ve enjoyed many a fun evening at bike kitchens.

What bothers me is that I rarely see impoverished people at bike kitchens. I also don’t see middle-aged or elderly people nor do I see people of different cultures or even types of cycling. The vast majority have been young people with plenty of income and time to spare, not the faces of the stress and oppression of poverty.

Something is keeping disadvantaged people away from the bike kitchens I’ve visited. The random hours and designated days for certain types of people would be a bit tough to figure out, but not impossible, especially if you’re desperate to get your bike fixed affordably. It could be the hands off, learn-by-experience principle—poverty is not just a lack of money, it is a lack of time as well. When a low-paying job steals your whole day and all your energy, it’s all you can do to get home and enjoy a few hours with your family before bedtime. You don’t have time to learn bike repair by trial and error.

Bike kitchens are fun. They have helped many a young person become a confident cyclist and often find a career with bicycles. This is very important for the growth of the bike culture in the U.S. and Europe.

Should I even worry that bike kitchens seem to have become elitist? Should they? Perhaps this elitism is deliberate as each group of volunteers realizes their limitations and focuses on helping people like themselves. Focusing limited resources is a good thing. Still, I can’t help wondering whether or not this is what most bike kitchens intend. Please offer your thoughts in the comments section.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

“Invisible Riders,” a Timeless Article

Every so often we are fortunate enough to discover a piece of writing that becomes part of us, that continues to contribute to our view of the world. An article originally published back in 2005 in Bicycling Magazine called “Invisible Riders” is one such gem for me. I still draw inspiration and perspective from it as I work to overcome misconceptions about people who depend on their bike every day.

The article is a surprise, not only because it was the first and last of its kind to be published in a bicycle-enthusiasts’ magazine (that I know of...please send links to others if I’m wrong!), but because the author himself had set out to write a completely different article. His subjects for the article are day laborers in Los Angeles, California. Most are illegal immigrants from Mexico and were a bit nervous about taking part.

Most fascinating to me is not what the bicyclists told the reporter, but how the reporter changed as he wrote the article. Before he started, he envisioned an article about changing some of these riders into bike racers and enthusiasts. What he ended up writing was far more profound to him and his readers. We often do not even see these, the most prevalent sort of bicyclists in our cities, and because of this, transportation policies, bike shops, and even bicycle programs often don’t even consider accommodating their needs.

When I taught a university course on social change through bicycles, I made this article one of the required reading assignments. It always caused lively discussions with my students. Some even referred to it well after the course was over as we discussed their plans with bicycles for the future. It truly is a timeless piece and I’m glad to bring it back through this blog post.

Give the article a read. It’s only five pages long. My guess is that you will be as captivated by the reporter’s personal story as I continue to be.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Melting Scrap Aluminum for Bike Shift Levers

Tuesday was my second day using the flower pot furnace to melt all sorts of scrap aluminum in preparation for producing our Bike Shift Levers. These bike shift levers have only six parts and are designed for the needs of people who rely on their bikes every day. Two of the parts need to be cast from scrap aluminum so these shifters can be made anywhere in the world, even places without electricity.

We're still waiting for a machinist to make the first permanent mold, but in the meantime I get to learn all about melting this lovely stuff.
Here's my latest set up for the furnace. I started with a hand pump which worked great, but as a one gal operation I had a hard time keeping the air flow going and feeding the crucible with scrap. The hairdryer was magic!
This was the batch of window frames and other channel aluminum donated by one of my tennis buddies. I also did a batch of just bike parts, mostly cast. You should have seen the crank arms disappear! They were like ice melting in hot water, except the water is this gorgeous silver liquid, mmmmm....
Here's a shot of the crucible full of that silvery liquid and ready to pour.
And here's one of the batches poured into a cupcake pan to make ingots. I did four batches like this in three hours. The other two batches were a mix of lighting fixtures, cookware and other aluminum odds and ends. My earlier batch was all cans. I marked each ingot with its basic content so I can mix thin material with thick to increase the quality when I pour them into the mold. Each of these ingots contains enough aluminum for two shift levers when I remelt them.

I don't have to make ingots first, but it's a great way to learn the furnace, reduce the massive scrap pile I've accumulated and have fun with this mesmerizing stuff.

Stay tuned because I should have our mold later this spring and get to post photos of our first shift levers.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Danger of Fiscal Sponsorship

I am stunned by the number of organizations I encounter that operate under the umbrella of another organization. Beware! This arrangement will strip your branding and will leave you at square one to restart your organization if you ever do break free. This excerpt from page 39 of Defying Poverty with Bicycles shows why you should avoid fiscal sponsorship:

“...In the U.S. and some other countries, the leaders of a new organization can choose to avoid incorporating by asking an incorporated nonprofit to become their ‘fiscal sponsor.’ This can look very enticing to new leaders who are already overwhelmed by all the tasks required to found an organization.

But don’t be deceived! Fiscal sponsorship becomes a cozy arrangement that is very difficult to escape. The most harmful problem with fiscal sponsorship is that the ‘mother’ organization must be mentioned in all communications. Also, all checks and credit card payments that go to your organization must be made payable to the mother organization, not yours. This means that all of your donors, grantors and customers will relate their experience with your program to the fiscal sponsor. If you and your fellow leaders eventually manage to break free of this fiscal sponsorship (and that’s a big if), none of these important people will have any connection to your organization. In other words, once you break free and incorporate your organization independently, it will be as if you are starting from day number one.

The other danger of fiscal sponsorship is that the fiscal sponsor, or mother organization, does all the administrative work, including taking the credit for your organization, and simply charges a fee such as ten percent of all income that comes to your organization. This is of course fair because otherwise an established nonprofit could not justify taking on the burden of being a fiscal sponsor. Also, because of the high level of responsibility they have for your organization, you and your team will have to hand over some leadership of your organization to them.

Once you and your team have settled into this arrangement, most of you will be tempted to remain there in order to avoid the responsibility of learning how to do tax returns and sending reports to your funders. I know of some nonprofits that have operated under fiscal sponsorship for more than a decade and I can easily bet they will never break free. They will also remain small—the ones I know of are either run by volunteers or have just one, underpaid staff member.

The most important danger of fiscal sponsorship in regards to Social Bike Business is that it will not allow the full implementation of the program. No fiscal sponsor would take on the responsibility and administration of such a complex program. Then consider that everything that includes the name of your organization must also show the name of the fiscal sponsor in order to give full disclosure. Imagine the sign you’ll hang on the front of your bicycle community center... with two names. Imagine your brochures, business cards and custom price tags, all with two names of the organizations that run the program. Would you shop at a place with such a suspicious dual personality?

My recommendation regarding fiscal sponsorship is: Don’t do it! And if you’ve unfortunately slipped into this cozy yet dangerous situation: Get out as soon as you can!”

Monday, March 10, 2014

Do We Need a Third Bike Industry?

Even the most casual observer will recognize two distinct bike industries: one enticing with the latest and greatest, the other enticing with the lowest prices. The first is the one I featured in my December post, Planned Obsolescence in the Bike Industry. This is the bike industry that has most blatantly forgotten people who live in or near poverty. Their obsession with high-tech, high-priced, fragile, disposable bikes and parts has segregated bicycling from the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants.

The other bike industry does not consider itself a bike industry. These mass merchants make and sell appliances, yard equipment, plastic swimming pools, exercise equipment, electronics and toys right alongside their bikes. In fact, if you want to find a bike in one of their stores, check the toy aisle. Their bikes and parts are just as fragile and disposable as those from the other bike industry. The main difference, besides missing those few months of noteworthy performance before they break, is the price. While I have to say this second, mass merchant bike industry does indeed recognize low-income patrons as their main customers, all they care about is wresting those few dollars from their wallets. Providing bicycles and parts designed for their needs isn’t part of their equation.

When I first began discussing Social Bike Business with our founding board, we assumed that every element would eventually become part of the first bike industry I describe above. Social bike shops would simply be another sort of niche shop along with those serving road racers or mountain bikers or triathletes. Social bike business career training programs would welcome those aspiring to serve high-end riders right along with those wanting to serve their low-income neighbors. The bikes and parts designed and manufactured through the program would be sold alongside the fragile jewelry-like parts in wholesale catalogs and bike shops.

I’m still holding out for this vision. Our Bike Shift Lever will hopefully be the first of many such bike parts to find its place in these channels.

Even so, as I watch this first bike industry veer even farther into elitism I have to wonder if a third bike industry is needed or would even work. A social bike industry focused entirely on the needs of impoverished customers would require its own channels just as the other two bike industries have created for their products. At first this seems a gargantuan task until we look at other socially designed productions such as for irrigation, medical supplies, wheelchairs and drinking water. Even some of the social bike programs in place have created their own supply channels already, out of necessity. Connecting a few dots with like-minded partners would result in local manufacturing and supply channels that would reach most areas of the world.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Should we give up on our wayward bike industry and focus on partners who truly want to serve the 80% of the world’s population living in or near poverty? Is our time better spent working with people who already have these ideals or trying to convince those in the established bike industry to add this new customer base along with products that serve their needs? In other words, do we need a third bike industry?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Handouts for Rich and Poor

This video takes on many of the uncomfortable reactions toward poverty programs such as free food, monetary assistance and other handouts. Interestingly, it shows completely opposite reactions when massive corporations receive handouts many times larger than those going to struggling people. The complete lack of any stigma over corporate handouts is very disturbing.

While social bike business programs are not at all about handouts, I still find it an important discussion because social businesses are not yet understood to be different from these programs. We often have to face similar, though misguided reactions from people tired of charity handouts.

Unfortunately, the video doesn't move much past revealing this disturbing situation. Take a look, see what you think and if you have further thoughts please offer them in the comments section.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Contest Trap

Contests and competitions for social business ventures seem to be multiplying along with fast-pitch TV shows like Cupcake Wars, Shark Tank and American Idol here in the U.S. After an arduous application process, entrepreneurs tap dance a lightning-fast show for a panel of judges who declare whether they move on or lose. Over one hundred social venture contests serving North America are listed here. Hundreds more serve other continents. Each offers tantalizing funding and support to captivate any social entrepreneur with visions of a triumphant win. The numbers prove their effective marketing. Each boasts thousands of applicants each year.

These contests used to not bother me. The few I’ve investigated did not warrant the amount of work compared to the potential of winning; easy enough to ignore. But troubling accounts from contestants keep coming my way, many from social bike business ventures. Most tell of months of work only to be rejected. Others tell of hopeful climbs to the brink of winning, including time-consuming and expensive trips to pitch their idea again and again, only to be dropped from the final group.

The worst stories come from young entrepreneurs in developing countries who have stopped their work in order to join the “contest circuit.” Such entrepreneurs fit the profile of the ideal contestant and because they have a good chance of winning, find that their time spent generally nets a good income. The problem is they have no time left for their projects.

These contests bring all the disturbing elements of most charitable grant proposals including arduous application processes, unwieldy demands from the funders, disrespectful communication barricades, and cold rejections. On top of all this, they add this song and dance element.

This audition process is absolutely appropriate for Hollywood roles, American Idol and pitching nonessential products. Such industries depend on talent to increase sales. Like any for-profit venture, the bottom line requires that mediocre stars be jettisoned. This is sad for these talented folks, but such industries can only handle so many stars. There is no comparison to the flood of talent we need to combat poverty and suffering.

This win/lose game is no way to treat social entrepreneurs who have pledged their lives to helping our world. Rejection takes a heavy toll on passionate people and sends many away from the sector forever. There are too many problems yet to solve for us to rely on the most talented at pitching a project. Shy, awkward and introspective social entrepreneurs are just as likely to make an impact as those with an appealing stage presence.

The movie Moneyball offers some inspiration. It tells how the Oakland As baseball team shook the scouting world one season when they skipped over the most talented players and spent their budget instead on mediocre players. Each of these players had a particular gift that complimented the team as a whole. Their investment paid off and other teams soon followed.

Social business holds a far more important role than entertainment, cupcake sales or sports. Instead of punishing many thousands of social entrepreneurs each year or worse, distracting them away from their good work with promises of stardom, we need to reshape our support systems. We need to value the special gifts of every committed social entrepreneur and help them find their best role within the tremendous efforts ahead.

With so few social bike businesses underway, none of us can afford the distraction of such time-wasters. Have you taken part in a social venture contest? What was your experience like? Do you have ideas for creating a better system that offers assistance without disgrace? Even gentle ways of redirecting this contest fervor could go a long way. Please leave any comments that spring to mind.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Highlighting Successful Program Models

This is a topic I plan to return to regularly because there is nothing like a visit to a successful model to show how a program element can work. Social bike businesses rely on sustainable business practices in order to serve disadvantaged people with bicycles for the long term. Today I’ve chosen two program elements important to this principle—normal business hours and bicycle careers—along with programs that are doing a particularly good job with each.


Normal business hours establish a social bike business as reputable in their community. While many bike programs survive with hours convenient only to their volunteers, those that commit to opening at least six days a week during the day like most bike shops will draw customers and significant income beyond their small circle of friends and enthusiasts.

This requires hiring employees, because volunteers should never be expected to perform duties that are critical to the success of the program. This would put undue stress on volunteers who are justified in prioritizing personal problems over the bike program’s needs. On the other hand, an employee is expected to solve personal problems outside of work hours if they expect to keep their job. Once normal business hours are set, employees will have to open and close the shop on time to build trust in the community.

Today, I would like to highlight Bikes Not Bombs in Boston as a nice example of a social bike program that has found that balance of good works through bicycles while maintaining a professional and reliable bike shop.


Comprehensive social bike programs always include career training, job opportunities and guidance for disadvantaged people who want to open their own business using bicycles.

Today I want to highlight Bicycling Empowerment Network Namibia for doing all of that and more. BENN works with partners all over the world to bring bikes and parts into Namibia that become the start up capital for Namibians to launch their own bike shop. To date BENN has helped these local business folks open and succeed with 32 bike shops throughout the country.

They also work with the unique dreams of each entrepreneur. Some prefer to open other sorts of businesses that can be transported with a bicycle, perhaps a mobile fruit vendor or even a farmer desiring to transport harvests to farther, better markets. BENN also offers ongoing bicycle mechanic training so that graduates can either open their own bike shop, become a mobile mechanic or find a job in an established bike shop. All of these program elements combine to lift BENN to the top of the success stories we’ve learned about, especially regarding career training and support of new bike businesses.
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Have you benefited from the program services of either of these or similar programs? Do you know of other programs that I should consider highlighting in later posts? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Prescott Teen Center Sheds Light on Starting a Social Bike Business Program

Last week I met with Courtney, one of the founders of The Launch Pad, a new teen center here in Prescott, Arizona. Barbara, a One Street volunteer who suggested the meeting, joined us. The three of us sat in the back corner of the center’s small low-ceilinged room in soft, homey chairs around a warm lamp centered on a kid-sized table. More comfy chairs, a few game tables and a kitchenette filled the rest of the space.

Bikes need a lot of space!
As I had steered my bicycle onto the back street and spotted the tiny bright orange building of the teen center, my heart had sunk with the realization that there was no room for any sort of bicycle program there. But as Courtney described their upcoming plans, my hope returned. She showed how their current location, while affordable was not serving the needs of even the dozen or so teens that attended each afternoon. Their mission revolves around creating a place where young people collaborate to create career opportunities and projects that benefit the community. Courtney noted that Social Bike Business fits perfectly. But in order to reach that high, they have to draw dozens if not hundreds of teens to engage in the center’s activities. Their tiny, bright orange building is just a stepping stone to much grander plans.

Courtney explained that all the partners they had approached so far, from school districts to business owners to city officials had expressed even more support than they had expected. These partners blurted out grand dreams of a massive building where multiple projects and classes could take place simultaneously. While Courtney and her fellow board members have been careful to take reasonable steps toward success, their partners seem ready to charge ahead full steam.

This brink between the frustrating first steps of starting an organization and its first leap into successful results can be a tantalizing yet dangerous mirage that swirls and shifts just out of reach. After a year of these partner discussions, the teen center has not received any significant funding or any commitment from a building owner yet. Without that larger space, they cannot approach any more schools and bring in the young folks they need to drive their programs, including bike programs.

Over the past six years since One Street launched our Social Bike Business program I have answered countless calls and emails from bike program leaders at this same frustrating stage of launching their program. The guidance I give is to not be dazzled by promises that do not include commitments and to only take the steps ahead that are certain. This doesn’t mean avoiding risks. Even the steps that seem certain bring risk. Rather, the leadership team’s job is to assess the sincerity of every offer, whether it be a donated building, a contribution of funding or an endorsement from city officials before focusing their limited time or resources in that direction.

With such a deluge of support as this new teen center is receiving there will certainly be substantive offers among the many vaporous offers to help. Courtney and her team are sorting them out and focusing their energy on developing relationships with those partners who are truly ready to help lift their vision into reality. The tough part will be showing appreciation to and keeping those other excited yet uncommitted folks under their wing so they can help later on. I hope to highlight some big leaps forward from Courtney and her team in later blog posts.

Are you at this frustrating stage of starting a bike program that provides appropriate bikes and careers to disadvantaged people? If so or if you’ve experienced similar frustration, please leave a comment with further tips for readers to get through it and onto the fun of results.