About Bicycling And Auctions

This past Saturday night we went to the Bicycle Transportation Alliance’s (BTA’s) annual awards dinner and auction, attended by about 800 people. It’s called Alice B. Toeclips and it was invented about a decade ago by my awesome friend and mentor Karen Frost, the founding director of the BTA.

I had good conversations with great people at Toeclips, and just one reservation I’ll get to in a minute. I believe deeply in bicycling, and I specifically believe in it as the ideal form of transportation, rather than just recreation. I liked executive director Scott Bricker’s gutsiness when he stated his vision of bicycling as something that can help save the world. Given global warming and most people’s addiction to fossil fuels (not to mention obesity in the U.S.) I think he is right.

So, my reservation? It’s not that Alice B. Toeclips was a fundraiser, because I believe in raising money for good causes, and I enjoy giving. I’ve done successful fundraising myself. But I’m developing a problem, a values-conflict with auctions, with hundreds of feet of tables loaded with goods and services that are luxuries. I know that auctions are a good way for businesses to affordably donate to nonprofits. I get it.

But then it stops being grassroots. It becomes high-on-the-hog. When the live auction starts and the auctioneer is doing the high-powered, hypnotic, show-biz patter to get us to bid higher and higher on luxury items, it feels slick, like I’m in Las Vegas, like I’m being hustled.

I know that grant funding can only take a nonprofit so far, whether from federal, state, or Metro sources, and that fundraising has to then supply the rest of the organization’s budget. But auctions are very expensive to coordinate and produce. I know because I’ve done one. The profit margin doesn’t necessarily put you ahead of where you’d have been if you’d just asked sincerely for straight donations, rather than promoting more consumption of things that well-off people really don’t need.

How do you grow a great movement that can help save the world without buying into the materialism of that same world? I’m open to input.

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