How a Nonprofit is Funding a 3,000-Mile Bike Path Connecting the Entire East Coast

Three-thousand miles, 15 states, 450 municipalities, from the Maine-Canada border down to the tip of sunny Florida. One nonprofit is working to connect it all with safe, sturdy and clearly marked bike paths.  

If you’re one of the many diehard cyclists in the U.S., that probably sounds like a dream. But imagine wrangling the hundreds of communities along the way, much less cobbling together the funding to pay for it all, and you can see why the East Coast Greenway Alliance has been working on the project for about 25 years. They’re about 30 percent there, shoring up a chunk here and a chunk there by working in partnership with local government agencies and nonprofits.

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The organization is on a roll lately, with funding more than doubling since 2010 and seeing 25 percent growth in 2015 alone, says organization Executive Director Dennis Markatos-Soriano. And it just picked up a $200,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation. With a growing budget, it's expanded staff to drive an interesting model that combines giving from several foundations, corporations and individual donors, and leverages that funding into public investment up and down the coast. 

The sheer sprawl of the project means they can’t exactly land one big grant, or funding from a single agency and call it a day. So ECGA’s raised $8 million to date, then through advocacy with a mix of federal, local and state governments, has parlayed that into $1 billion in public backing over time, Markatos-Soriano says. 

They do have a handful of big backers—REI is their largest corporate funder, giving $50,000 this year and last. William Penn is one of the key foundations behind the Alliance’s $278,000 in annual grants (2015), providing $65,000 a year. Penn also gives project grants, including the recent $200,000 award to ECGA’s 25th anniversary “River Relay” program, a series of outdoor events to build publicity and highlight local waterways. 

William Penn’s motivation for funding the project has a few components. The foundation is focused on the Greater Philadelphia region, and the Greenway ties into another ambitious trails project in the area called The Circuit, toward which the foundation has devoted millions. The plan for a 750-mile trail system in the Philadelphia area overlaps with a section of the East Coast Greenway.

Related:Can William Penn Close this Huge Circuit of Trails in Philly?

Completing both The Circuit an the East Coast Greenway involves a similar process of using philanthropy to help fill gaps in a greater network of trails—rehabbing railroad lines and industrial sites that connect up the well-tended sections. The Greenway in its crudest form already technically exists, in the sense that you can currently bike the length of the coast. But there are sections that need a lot of work to meet the project’s standards. 

William Penn’s larger interest in the project actually ties in to the foundation’s support for the Delaware River Watershed. A big part of that program involves building awareness and advocacy around protecting water, and Penn has found that simply providing physical and visual access to waterways can have a dramatic impact, says Andrew Johnson, watershed protection program director at the foundation.  

“We are particularly interested in the use of trails as a connector between residents in the region who actively engage in outdoor, trail-related activity (walking, running, cycling) and their local waterways,” Johnson says. 

We’ve been impressed lately with the wide array of funders who are attracted to bike-related projects, as we recently highlighted, using techie city funder the Knight Foundation as an example. While Penn funds ECGA as part of its water protection strategy, REI is interested in outdoor recreation and shared enjoyment of nature. Another funder, the Quimby Family Foundation, just awarded ECGA a $35,000 grant based on its mission of protecting Maine’s environment and health and well-being. Further South, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation is funding the Greenway through its environment program, but it also has interests in economic development.

Related:Two-Wheeled Philanthropy: What Is It About Funders and Bicycles?

Bikes provide an entry point for many causes and passions, and ECGA is working to weave them together across many geographies. It’s a very decentralized project, as each community needs to get on board to make it happen, and once they pony up, can basically do whatever they want with their sections, as long as they meet the standards. That makes it a prime opportunity for philanthropy, filling in gaps and connecting interested parties, and leveraging giving into funds that build up to something much larger.