8 minutes reading time (1516 words)

Q & A with Team BfW

Many of you who have come to the warehouse to volunteer or donate bikes were curious how we navigated the changing landscape over the past few years. While it's been challenging we've realized a lot of good came out of the process. The team sat down recently and explored some of your questions and we realized the pandemic helped us reorganize our effort to further engage our volunteers and better serve our beneficiaries. Here are some of your questions, and our answers.

So how's it going?

Great. After the uncertainty that was 2020, Bikes for the World is back on target to deliver the same quantity and quality of shipments as ever. We are also more focused on delivering a greater impact in a new and changing environment.

What's been the biggest challenge this year?

Getting bikes where they need to go. We've been fortunate to have a steady flow of bikes coming into the warehouse thanks to our diversity of acquisition sources. While the community collection events have been slow to come back after the pandemic, we've seen more bikes coming through our waste transfer partners.

Setting up shipments continues to be a challenge. Given the size of our warehouse and the rate at which we pick up bikes, it's not something we can put off too long. We can only hold about two containers worth of bikes in the warehouse before we need to ship in order to maintain adequate space for our volunteers to work safely.

We are fortunate that all of our partners still need bikes and have been very flexible with our shipping schedule and understanding of the challenges we're facing. So if we find a spot on a ship going to Madagascar last minute we can pivot and make it work. This might mean our partner is receiving a container a little earlier or later than they hoped. They may also be getting more hybrids than mountain bikes based on what we have on hand in the warehouse.

So far, it's all worked out pretty well. This month has been the craziest with trying to set up shipments and then making sure we not only have the bikes but they are ready to go out the door. Staff has stepped up and put a little more physical work in the last few years filling in any gaps. As vital as bikes are to our program, the people are truly our greatest asset. We have a core group of volunteers that put in hours of work weekly; they respond whenever we ask, and do whatever we need. We are also hosting more school groups and summer camps of 10-15 volunteers at a time.

Have you had any concerns with hosting groups that large?

None. During the pandemic we took a closer look at our volunteer engagements, we had to; volunteers work closely together, sharing tools, working in the container, interacting with the public… Many of our groups already had safe health protocols in place but for events in our warehouse we took a look at activities we could offer and expanded. For student groups we strive to have all staff available to assist. This provides a safer environment and allows us to work more closely with the volunteers. We can also spread them out if necessary, so we can have smaller groups working on different projects. It's a much more rewarding experience now.

Why is scheduling shipments so much harder all of a sudden?

The pandemic really upended the shipping industry. Ports were closed for a time. The workforce changed. People retired or quit. Covid quarantines put a strain on port workers and drivers. Supply and demand. The usual flow of shipments bottlenecked and there weren't enough empty containers in the right place.

All businesses have had to regroup during the pandemic and change their standard operating procedures. That includes shipping and logistics companies. Right now they are still focused on supplying the bigger, more profitable ports. That means some of our partners aren't receiving as many imports overall. This affects the number of ships entering their ports and limits our options for shipments. When we can find a spot on a boat we need to take it and then make sure we have the right bikes.

What does that mean, the 'right' bikes?

Our goal is to fulfill our partners' needs the best we can. So, if they have a program that needs mountain bikes and their roads aren't suitable for narrow tire bikes, we want to send them as many mountain bikes as we can. Per shipment, that can range anywhere from 150-300 mountain bikes. We have a pretty good idea of what to expect every month and we try to plan our shipments based on that learned knowledge. But with the shipping industry so unpredictable right now we just have to be more flexible and so do our partners.

How are the partners doing?

Surviving. We work with the groups we do for a reason. Our bikes bring economic stability and mobility to rural communities that are struggling. Our partners are resilient, but the pandemic has magnified the challenges in their communities. The number of beneficiaries requesting support are increasing, but their resources are flat. It's important that we maintain our shipments to each of our partners positioned to accept bikes.

We managed to do that in 2020. What we hope to accomplish now is to increase the number of shipments we deliver. Currently, it's difficult for our partners to expand their programs, but once they receive a shipment of bikes, they can turn that around and catalyze growth and opportunity through bike sales. Our shipments can help them strengthen their operation and deliver more positive change within their communities while rebuilding their economies.

How do you get more bikes?

First we need to work on bringing back some of the community collection events. Many groups stepped away from service projects during the pandemic in an effort to keep people safe. Many of our collection managers, like teachers, retired so we lost those connections. We need to work on building that back and bringing new and old collection sites onto our collection calendar to reach out to potential donors.

One of the unforeseen positives that came out of decreased collection sites was that each event we held over-performed. More bikes were being donated at fewer collections which made our job easier. We used fewer resources to support fewer collections but collected more bikes. This also improved our selection of bikes to ship at the warehouse easing the burden of fulfilling our partners' specific needs.

The bikes are out there, we just need to make sure people are aware of the importance of donating a bike and the change it can bring.

So would you say networking is a key component to your success?

Absolutely. We have seen community involvement grow stronger over the past few years. People want to get involved and make a tangible difference. We can help. Our strongest relationships are with service-minded organizations, whether that is through a church activity, school group, or civic club.

Our relationship with Rotarians really pulled us through some of the learner months during the pandemic. They have local connections with small businesses, student groups, and other local organizations who they inspire to work together to produce bigger collection events that yield a greater impact.

Rotary International has the potential to strengthen our relationships with our global partners. We hope to expand this relationship and draw from their structure and insights to improve not only how and where we collect bikes locally, but also how and where they are distributed on the other end. Having boots on the ground would allow us to better monitor the program, get more constructive feedback, and adapt our operation to get an even better return on the investment.

We also collaborate with other bike organizations to make sure our shipments are coordinated and don't overlap. By working together, we can ensure that all of our partners are receiving bikes at a time that helps support their projects most effectively. This week we actually worked with Working Bikes in Chicago to send bikes to our partner in Madagascar. This process helps all of us be more efficient and effective.

What are your biggest goals for this next fiscal year?

Development of course. The answer for any nonprofit has to always be fundraising right? Our biggest support comes from individual donors and many of those initial connections occur through bike donations. During the pandemic we had less face to face interaction so new contacts are down.

We need to continue to cultivate our relationships and build trust through transparency. We also need to work on growing awareness that we are here and this is what we do. Now that in-person activities are back in full force, expect to see us out there promoting the organization. You can help by telling your friends and neighbors about us. If you see a bike at the curb, tell the owner to donate it!

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