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How To Build A Trails Coalition: The Pikes Peak Model
Learn all the details of developing an advocacy organization for greenways and trails
By Skye Ridley, Executive Director emeritus, American Trails
The Pikes Peak Area Trails Coalition is a nongovernmental, nonprofit organization working to create and maintain a regional trails network of over 200 miles of urban, mountain, and rural trails.
Since we incorporated in 1990, we have built a strong organization with over 600 members and helped bring over a million dollars for trails into the region. We are the "umbrella organization" for 50 community organizations, 50 businesses, and 500 individuals and families. We have created a political climate in which decisions to allocate public funds for trails are now supported by both the public and government officials.
How have we accomplished this? What did we do right, and what are the pitfalls? If others want to create a similar organization, what steps should they take, what should they do first, and what can wait until later?
This article provides advice for those who would like to benefit from the Trails Coalition's experience and build their own trails coalition.
Write a Trails Master Plan and Get It Adopted
The most useful and important action taken for trails in our area was writing a master plan for trails and having City Council adopt it.
A citizen's advisory committee and the city parks and public works departments, helped by consultants, prepared a trails master plan for Colorado Springs in 1986. City Council was persuaded to adopt it by ordinance. That approval lends credibility to the plan and draws support from council members, business leaders, and community organizations.
The geographic area covered by the plan was comprehensive. The recommended trail corridors extend through the entire metropolitan area and nearby foothills. In retrospect, we wish the plan had been an area-wide one that included outlying towns and rural areas, because trails in those areas need attention as well.
The plan included the following valuable information:
Form a Broad-Based Coalition
Representatives from 17 community organizations in the Colorado Springs issued a resolution supporting the creation of a trails network in 1987. We asked a wide variety of organizations to sign the resolution. We wanted to build a coalition that was as broad based as possible. That helps us draw support from more people throughout the community, which means we can build a larger membership--a constituency for trails. Our large constituency impresses the elected officials, agency representatives, and foundations, which means more money for trails!
To state it more simply: There's strength in numbers!
The list of the groups who signed our resolution might serve as examples of groups you should approach in your own community:
In forming a trails coalition, you should work first and hardest to pull in certain "core" groups:
The business community is vitally important to your cause because business people influence and are often leaders in local government.
Local government agencies are also important to you. Even if they don't join your coalition, get them on your side and get them on your mailing list.
One reason the Pikes Peak Area Trails Coalition has been successful at attracting and keeping such a wide variety of individual members and member organizations is that we never get involved in other issues, and we always present a professional image. Members can be confident that they won't be embarrassed or angry about our actions later on.
We definitely made the right choice about structuring our organization as a coalition. Having a large number of member organizations has been important to our phenomenal progress. (However, the word coalition can have negative connotations in some parts of the country, because of the implication of political action, so you might want to use league or association instead.)
Build a Good Board of Directors
Just like your member organizations, your board of directors should represent a diverse cross-section of the community. Our board includes leaders from
The board members include:
It takes time to build a good board. Start out with a half-dozen people who represent your most important core groups and/or are hard-working, influential in the community, and assertive. It never hurts to have wealthy people on your board, but that's not the most important thing at this point.
The function of a board of directors is to manage the organization, help raise funds, and serve as the organization's ambassadors in the community.
Why Become a Nonprofit Organization?
The Trails Coalition needed to raise money for both building trails and for operating expenses. In both cases, we discovered that foundations and major donors give only to tax-exempt organizations because they want their donations to be tax-deductible. Individuals also appreciate tax deductions for their membership fees.
For donations and membership fees to be tax-deductible, your group must be classified by the IRS as a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization. The "501(C)(3)" designation is given by the IRS to nonprofits which qualify as tax-exempt. To qualify, an organization must be incorporated, have adopted articles of incorporation and bylaws, and have a public service mission.
Should you try to file for 501(C)(3) status yourself? Our advice: Yes, but get help.
Borrow a book on filing for tax-exempt status,
Call the IRS and order the forms yourself,
Fill the forms out as best you can, and
Find a lawyer who will help finalize the forms for free.
You should realize that it takes at least six months to get the tax-exempt designation, even with professional help, and that the IRS almost never grants 501(C)(3) status on the first try. So get started early and get help.
Mission and Strategies
Choosing a mission statement and basic strategies are among the most important decisions you'll make for your nonprofit organization. The mission statement is your "calling card," repeated thousands of times in your brochures, grant proposals, letters, and public presentations. Your board and staff should be able to recite it in their sleep! When board members or general members disagree about specifics, you will turn to your mission statement, objectives, and strategies to clarify the issues.
Our board adopted this mission statement:
The board also adopted these strategies to support the mission statement:
Act! Publicize! Act! Publicize!
The more people find out about what your organization has accomplished, the more people will join and donate money. They're more interested in your track record than your plans. Therefore, start some projects right away:
See the pattern?
--> ACT --> PUBLICIZE --> ACT --> PUBLICIZE --> ACT --> PUBLICIZE ...
It can't be stressed enough how important it is for you to inform the community. You may be surprised at how supportive people are, once they find out about your vision for a trail or a trails network.
Publicity establishes your image in the community. We in the Trails Coalition publicize ourselves, our vision, and our activities at every opportunity. News releases are issued for all trail tours, volunteer projects, meetings, and plans of the Trails Coalition and our member organizations. Approximately 850 copies of our newsletter are distributed in the community every month. Our newsletter is as well-written and well-designed as a newsletter from much larger organizations. We take care to present a public image of a large, well-run organization, and that effort has paid off.
Publicizing trails also means talking about them--to service clubs, trail groups, environmental groups, clubs, agencies, brown-bag lunches, friends, and family. Put toMarch 18, 2007oints, then set up appointments to talk to as many groups as possible.
What to talk about:
Economic benefits. Trails are a good investment for the community. They draw tourists, increase property values, and provide recreation. Do your homework on this so you can convince the skeptical. Get a copy of the National Park Service publication "Economic Impacts of Protecting Rivers, Trails, and Greenway Corridors." It's incredibly helpful, and it's free.
Trails etiquette. Explaining how to accommodate the various types of trail users is an important part of building your coalition. It also generates respect for your organization when they see that you understand the problems on trails and you're doing something about them.
Recreation. Unlike most recreation amenities, trails are available 24 hours a day and are usable by individuals, couples, families, or groups--without reservations. They're relatively inexpensive to construct and are available to more people in more places than parks. They link parks and other recreation amenities into one interconnected network.
Transportation. Trails serve double duty as transportation corridors. Surveys show that over half the people would ride their bikes to work at least some of the time, if safe trails were available. People with disabilities, children, and those who don't drive cars can all use trails for transportation.
Quality of life. Trails improve the quality of life. Businesses, retirees, residents, and tourists are all drawn to communities with trails. Quality of life is more than an intangible concept-- it's an economic investment!
Memberships--How Many Do You Need?
"A membership in the Trails Coalition is like a vote for trails!" That's what we tell prospective Coalition members. It means that people who can't do volunteer work or donate large sums of money are still very important, because they form the constituency that we need to raise funds and influence policy.
To generate broad-based support, we established several types of memberships: individual, family, business, and organizational. We set all of our membership fees at very low amounts to make it easy to join. We don't expect to pay our operating costs with membership fees; instead, we find grants and large donations to do that.
How many members do you need to form a "constituency?" The Pikes Peak Area Trails Coalition has 600 paying memberships within a community of well over 400,000 people (including the greater metropolitan area and outlying towns). We originally set our membership goal at 500 because our advisors who know politics (ex-City Council members, for example) suggested that 500 was the minimum number needed to affect public policy. We have reached our goal and will continue to grow, but 500 memberships seemed large enough to establish the reputation we wanted.
Six hundred members may not sound like a lot compared to 400,000 people. Yet the Trails Coalition is viewed as a young but influential and well-respected organization! Why? Two reasons.
One, the number of members in our member organizations. Our direct memberships are only around 600, but the members of our 50 member organizations total around 10,000--quite a multiplier effect!
Two, publicity! At the risk of repetition, it should be mentioned again that we publicize our vision of a regional trails network and our organization's work at every opportunity.
Establish a Good Relationship with Government Employees
Why be nice to government employees? They're paid to work for citizens, aren't they?
Besides common human decency, there are lots of reasons to work cooperatively with government employees and government agencies. They have discretion over state and federal government grants which you want to spend on trails. They have a big influence over local land use policies which will affect trails--park land easements can be used for trail corridors, for example. In addition, even local governments employ a surprisingly large percentage of the population--potential allies and coalition members. Creating adversaries when you don't have to is foolish.
We have learned some valuable lessons about relationships with local government agencies:
The agencies take orders from elected governing bodies-- City Council, County Commissioners, etc.-- not your organization. To make changes, you must first convince the governing body.
Don't adopt a hostile attitude toward agencies. If they haven't done much for trails, it's probably because they haven't been asked to do so by their bosses, the elected officials. Save your ammunition for the big battles.
Demonstrate your cooperative attitude. You need to convince the agencies that you are there to help, not hinder. Keep informed about their budget problems and staffing shortages and discuss those issues with them.
Be professional! Make sure all your written materials are very, very well-written and proofread. Return calls promptly. Dress well for presentations and meetings. You can't expect serious businesspeople or government agencies to take you seriously otherwise.
Don't expect an agency to appreciate your organization right away. Your trails group is new and unproven. The agency people have probably dealt with several well-meaning but naive or incompetent nonprofit groups who said, "We're here to help!" and brought nothing but problems. You must prove that your group is capable and professional. You do this by establishing a record of capability and professionalism. It doesn't happen overnight.
Don't expect agency people to be your buddies. Accept the fact that there will always be a certain amount of tension between agencies and advocates.
Support the agencies. Forward information that could help them, but don't inundate them with calls or letters. Praise and publicize their good work and successes; downplay their bad work and failures.
Be patient. Agency people facMarch 18, 2007about. Ask what they're working on, and help them when you can.
On the other hand,
Be persistent. Just because someone tells you "no" doesn't mean you should take no for an answer. Talk to someone else; find an alternative; find a compromise. If the issue is really important, go to someone higher up in the hierarchy (but realize you're burning a bridge by doing so).
Expect fair treatment. Your organization is made up of citizens, and you deserve prompt, professional responses to your requests for action and information.
I'll bet you skipped right to this section! Most of us in the "trails game" are more worried about fundraising than anything else.
If you're a beginner, you're probably either scared to death because you don't know how, or you're dreading the prospect of "begging for money." I can reassure you on both counts.
First of all, fundraising is not terribly difficult or incredibly complex. If you are self-motivated, organized, determined, and willing to learn, you will do fine.
Second, fundraising is not "begging." If you are getting trails built, you are providing a valuable service to the community. You are going to be surprised and gratified at how often trail users and community leaders will say "thank you" for your work. Fundraising is merely a process by which you let people know that you need help-- financial help-- to continue your work. Donations are the way citizens, businesses, and foundations assist your efforts. Most often, they are very grateful to be able to help without actually having to provide physical labor or volunteer time!
Here's how you do it:
- First, decide what you want to accomplish. Do you want to build a trail, lobby local government to build a trail, publish a newsletter, and/or hire a staff person? Be specific.
- Educate yourself about fundraising. Read a couple of books on the subject. Recruit a volunteer who has written successful proposals. Get copies of a few well-written grants to use as models.
If you are building a trail, are federal transportation grants available? Do you have a state trails program? Does your city government have funds for part or all of the cost? Where do those funds come from--a sales tax, an excise tax? Should you approach private foundations? Local businesses? Individuals? Can you use volunteers for part or all of the work? Most likely, funding will have to come from several of these sources.
If you expect local agencies to do the work, you'll want to help them find funds. First, find out what they already know. Then help research ISTEA grants, state funds, private foundations, etc.
If you want to conduct a lobbying campaign or publish a newsletter, will foundations or local businesses help? Can you accomplish part of all of the work with volunteers?
Some of the most important information will be foundations' deadlines for grant proposals. Note those dates, and structure your work to meet them.
- Determine who will actually execute the project(s). Will a local government agency build the trail, or will volunteers do it? Will a staff person carry out the lobbying necessary to push that open space tax through, or can you do it with volunteers? For any project, even if you decide agencies or professionals will direct the effort, the more volunteer time you can include, the better. Funders like to know that their money is being matched by volunteer hours.
- Write program descriptions and budgets. Divide the tasks into programs, and write a description and a budget for each program. Assign a value to the estimated volunteer hours, and include them in your budget. There are books and professional advice available on this, but it needn't be complex-- just use common sense.
- Get advice from leaders of local nonprofits, from your state trails coordinator, if you have one, and from local government employees.
- Now, write your grant proposals. Have them edited and proofread by several capable people. Apply to many sources, and don't get discouraged when some turn you down. Ask those who turn you down for advice.
Don't wait until you are completely comfortable with fundraising-- get started now! Foundations, corporations, and individual donors are all much more interested in your project than in whether you write well.
If you get discouraged, remember that this is the most difficult part of starting or running a nonprofit organization. Everything else is much easier.
Should You Hire a Staff Person?
To staff or not to staff? Our advice: do it. In the beginning, we tried to operate as an all-volunteer organization. However, volunteers couldn't follow up on leads or spend enough time on projects. We missed out on important opportunities to influence trails policy or funding.
Hiring a staff person is like the chicken-and-egg question. How do you raise the funds to hire a staff person when the reason you need the staff person in the first place is to raise funds?
The solution: You don't have to start out with a fully-funded, full-time, permanent staff with benefits. Think creatively.
- Many foundations make grants for startup costs, or "seed money." Can you find a volunteer to write grant proposals for startup costs?
- Chambers of commerce or government agencies might help with startup funding, if your group impresses them as well-organized and professional.
- Some large companies and local government agencies actually loan employees out for things like this!
- Nonprofit employees are often available on a part-time basis, without benefits, especially while the organization is just starting out.
Recruit Trail Champions
In the business world, a "champion" is the person who ushers a new project through all the obstacles. The trails network we want to build is very large--over 200 miles of trails. Our board and staff can't follow up on all the opportunities for every trail, so we established a cadre of Trail Champions.
A Trail Champion performs any and all tasks necessary, and marshals a variety of skills from anyone and everyone available, to ensure the project's success. He or she might
Most of our Trail Champions approached the coalition first because they saw newspaper articles or a copy of our newsletter asking for help. A few were "drafted" by coalition members who requested help.
The Pikes Peak Area Trails Coalition has succeeded in creating a respected trails advocacy organization, raising funds, attracting members. We have done so by building a broad-based membership, sticking to one issue, publicizing trails events and ideas, hiring a staff person, and recruiting Trail Champions.
From the feedback we have received, our model of building a coalition for trails advocacy seems appropriate for other areas. We invite comments, advice, and questions.
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Updated March 18, 2007