This summer the Bellingham Bay Community Boating Center challenged the status quo of how they offer services and risked disrupting their revenue stream. And it was a huge success. Their Free Tuesday Night Paddle Series offered a no-cost, one-hour paddle on Bellingham Bay. They decided to remove financial barriers to outdoor recreation and wanted to see who would come if they offered access to paddling for free. They were amazed to see more than 1,500 people who came for family-friendly, safe experience on the water, expanding the Boating Center’s understanding of the community they serve.
What made the Free Tuesday Night Paddle Series such a success? The Boating Center engaged their partners from the beginning, including local businesses, educators, and other nonprofits, in the formation and planning of the series. Nonprofits are often steeped in their community and create events based on their internal knowledge, expecting people to show up. The Boating Center flipped this model, inviting their partners to be part of the creation, offering a more authentic ownership of the service.
Partners stepped up and funds came in to make it realizable. Volunteers provided invaluable support. And through social media and other connections, the Boating Center’s core values and service reached people who didn’t know it existed before. In the past, most of the people served by the center were from a middle class background with a disposable income. What they discovered was that people from all walks of life want to get outdoors and have fun.
Don Hunger, Executive Director of the Boating Center, explains the benefits of looking beyond their established relationships to connect with Bellingham’s diverse and underserved families. “Providing a free event taught us that even the nominal rental fee of $15 per hour was too much for many. After all, boating is not a necessity like housing and food. It’s a recreation benefit promoting a healthy lifestyle and outdoor fun. By removing the cost, we opened the door for truly everyone. And, they showed up – in all the beauty of their diversity. People had a great time.”
Hunger lists some essential lessons learned from this experience:
- Secure your loyal and trusted business partners before doing anything. Make sure they are comfortable supporting the event for its mission, outcomes, and benefits. For the Boating Center, this series design was different from how they were able to fund services previously and their strong business partners made it possible, allowing for something new and meaningful to take place in their community.
- Ensure that volunteers feel respected and appreciated. Thank them daily. Provide volunteer orientations. Have clear volunteer positions with descriptions and staff support. Volunteers not only were essential to the production of the free paddle series, but also could authentically share their passion for being on the water with newcomers, spreading their excitement.
- Have a social media plan and stick with it. Take more pictures than you think you need. Get quotes from participants. Get signed photo release forms whenever possible. People came from Seattle and Vancouver B.C. because they heard about the opportunity from social media and the Boating Center received lot of buzz from the larger community.
- A rising tide lifts all boats. The Free Tuesday Night Paddle Series was a beacon of inclusivity. Not only was it an opportunity for first time boaters to learn skills like basic paddle techniques and how to properly fit a life jacket, it resonated throughout the community. Businesses were invested. Educators were able to share the opportunity with families. Other nonprofits felt called to the vision and stepped up to collaborate. Allied Arts plans to offer art projects as part of the series next year.
- Most importantly, have fun!
The Boating Center is looking forward repeating this series next summer. Are you ready to get involved? Explore classes and youth scholarships on their website. Or support the Boating Center by donating or volunteering.
The Bellingham Bay Community Boating Center’s mission is to foster small-watercraft education, access, safe recreation, and marine stewardship on Bellingham Bay. They have be a member of Washington Nonprofits since 2012. Don Hunger currently serves on the Washington Nonprofits Policy Committee.