The Power of Asking

To ask is to invite others to do something. It is exercising power and risking failure. My power as a leader in the biking and walking advocacy movements has been to ask people to do things such as volunteer their time, talent, reputation and money to a cause that will benefit themselves and those they value. Not everybody I ask says yes.  What follows is a risk-taking tale from 1996 when they did say yes and another from 1968 where I first learned as a 10 year old the power of asking people to do things.

In September of 1996, twenty years ago this September, I had the honor of playing a key role in the first big national financial ask of the bike industry from bike advocacy.  My good friend Andy Clarke was working for the Rails to Trails conservancy and knew that the federal transportation bill – the first time there had been a dedicated, national budget for biking, walking and public transit projects – was coming up for congressional renewal and the knives were getting prepped to cut it out of the budget.

Andy came up with the brilliant idea of creating a national political outreach campaign to save this dedicated funding, known as ISTEA, but first we’d need to raise the money to get such a campaign launched. For that we needed seed money, and the best place we could think of getting was the bike industry. Andy and I put our heads together over a paper napkin he’d scribbled the original idea on in the middle of the first “Thunderhead Retreat” training I hosted for the Bicycle Federation of America for biking and walking advocates. Shortly after that we convinced Cosi Simon, then Executive Director of the League of American Bicyclists, to join us in the ask.

We decided the best place to launch such a request would be at the Interbike trade show and cajoled our friend Linda DuPriest of Specialized Bicycles to help us make that happen. Linda came through by setting up a special breakfast meeting for us with the power hitters of the bike industry.

Andy’s role was to set the political stage and convince the crowd that without their help funding for biking, walking and public transit projects –funding we’d all started to appreciate and rely on- would completely disappear. Cosi’s job was to convince the bike industry of bike advocacy’s national political reach and competence to make such a campaign succeed.

And my job? I was the closer. I was the one who had to set up the “come to Jesus” moment and make the big ask. So I did. I summarize our case for action and asked the bike industry leaders to join us in our campaign.

There was a dramatic pause in the room, but I had learned that pauses are not to be feared in the art of asking. Nevertheless I held my breath and waited the longest 10 seconds of my life. Standing against the side wall of the room, John Burke , CEO of Trek Bicycles, raised his hand and responded, “I like what I’m hearing. If you can match it two-to-one by the end of this weekend I’ll invest $100,000 into this campaign.”

Some two hundred people in the room exploded with thunderous applause and wildly rejoicing enthusiasm.  Arms started shooting up as others came into the newly birthed campaign. A Chicago bike dealer group at one table pledged $25,000 and challenged their peers to join them. Their challenge inspired Board members of the national bike dealers group sitting at another table to huddle into an impromptu board meeting and in 30 seconds they matched the Chicagoans. Adrenaline filled the room as $10,000, $5,000 and $1,000 pledges of support were announced. Andy, Cosi and I fielded these pledges like fishermen trying to catch fish as they are flying into the boat! By the end of the weekend we’d raised our match and had $300,000 to create what would become the “Bikes Belong Campaign”.

I’m proud to say that it took two years to succeed but in 1998 the federal transportation budget reinstated dedicated funding for biking, walking and public transit. Literally billions of dollars were invested by states and cities because bike advocates proved their political power, and many point to this “breakfast ask” as the crucial turning point in the bike advocacy movement’s capacity to influence their agenda.

We do not have such a fund today in Washington. Maybe we need to have another breakfast.                                                                                

Where I Learned the Power of Asking

I have been asking people to help other people on causes I believe in since 1968, when I was ten years old pulling my wagon door to door, collecting cans of food for poor people in our Denver, Colorado neighborhood. I still remember the pitch. “Hi, I’m Chuck Gandy and I go to College View Elementary School and we are collecting canned food for needy people living in southwest Denver. Would you like to donate a can of food?”

That’s how we started, my brother Mike and I, and we collected about 80 cans of food that year. The attention we got at school for not just raiding our mother’s pantry of canned goods on the last day of the drive was spectacular. Our contribution doubled the school’s total amount collected and the principal held us up as entrepreneurial heroes. That was 5th grade and we were the proverbial first movers with all the strengths and weaknesses that label carries. The next year, 1969, brought competition from other do-gooder kids, so we needed to up our game.

Our first of two brilliant ideas was to recruit others to help us knock on doors. My sister was adorably 8 years old and no one could tell her no. Emotional selling worked really well for us and especially for her, once she got the spiel down. Other neighborhood kids helped also but they didn’t work very hard or long. Anyway we got to knock on lots more doors and were rarely rejected. After all we were not asking for money but for food and everybody in our working class neighborhood had something in the pantry.

Brilliant idea number two was found in the ask. Suggestive selling was born for us when we change the question from, “Would you like to donate a can of food?” to

“Would you like to donate a few cans of food?”

With this small change came big rewards. Our wagon filled up much faster because our average per household shot way up. Almost nobody wanted to disappoint the cute kid at their door and now the kid’s expectation was for multiple cans, not just one. Sacks of cans came to the door and into the wagon. I remember that occasionally someone would ask how many cans they should donate. Our response was, “Well one family gave us ten. That’s the record so far.”

That year our campaign delivered 480 cans of food to our school’s canned food drive setting a record that stood until I stopped paying attention. Again we were hailed as heroes and celebrated at the school wide assembly. *

Door to door asking for help in our working class Denver neighborhood taught me about my personal power. As a child I could set up my own initiative to gather canned goods using my wagon. I could recruit siblings and friends to help. I could get adults to do things I thought was important. And I could get adults and peers to appreciate and value my contributions to the community.

This insight into my personal power by asking for help served me well later in high school ROTC, traveling solo around the world at age 18, participating in political campaigns during college, getting elected to the Texas House of Representatives at age 23, and other exploits as an adult. These stories to follow…

*All this attention didn’t help me win my first campaign for student council president, however. My nominal girlfriend Christie won mostly because she had better graphics - a killer multi-color wall poster complete with her photo and the artful use of glitter that out dazzled mine and all other competitors. So much for community service as a gateway to politics.