Published in Nonprofits

RIDING FOR A REASON: Nonprofit Southwest Michigan motorcycle club helps local charities, counters stereotypes

BY Sunday, September 01, 2019 10:44am

KALAMAZOO — The Blacktop Saints Riding Club is among hundreds of motorcycle clubs throughout the country that are riding for good. 

Through their charitable work, the club also aims to put a positive spin on the negative stereotypes about bikers.

The Kalamazoo-based Blacktop Saints Riding Club is a nonprofit created by motorcycle enthusiasts in Southwest Michigan as a way to share a love for riding and help out local charities. The club now has charters elsewhere in Michigan, Indiana and New Hampshire. COURTESY PHOTO

“When people see a group of five to 10 men in their club vests walking into their establishment, it’s going to be a little nerve-wracking, especially if they’ve watched ‘Sons of Anarchy,’ but we’re definitely not representing that type of lifestyle,” said Russell Bell, president of the Blacktop Saints. “We have been drawn together by a love of riding motorcycles.”

In 2015, the Kalamazoo-based motorcycle club achieved federal nonprofit status, joining the ranks of hundreds of motorcycle clubs nationwide that operate as 501(c)(3) nonprofits to demonstrate a commitment to supporting charities in their communities.

Bell said the choice to make their club a nonprofit was the result of money the members had raised since the group formed.

“We were pulling a lot of money out of our own pockets to make things happen and started thinking about how we could get tax credits because a lot of us were spending $500 a year each on charitable donations,” Bell said. “We started realizing that every weekend, we’re hauling in between $20 and $50 each by passing the hat to help a family out. We’re a charity, we just don’t act like one.”

The process of becoming a
501(c)(3) involved “a lot of blood, sweat and tears” and time spent reading through the “Nonprofits for Dummies” book, said Bell, a federal government employee based in Battle Creek.

“I’m not saying we’re perfect, and we’re still learning what we can and can’t do,” he said of the 60-member club. Since receiving its nonprofit status, the Blacktop Saints have collectively raised about $50,000, which has been distributed to various charities including Jackson-based Great Lakes Burn Camp and the Great Lakes Autism Society, as well as to needy families they adopt at Christmas. Some of the rides to raise money are open to all, while others are invitation-only. The club also has friendly fundraising competitions with other chartered clubs.

In addition to the two clubs in Michigan chartered by the Blacktop Saints, the club also is affiliated with two chartered groups in northern Indiana and one in New Hampshire.

Bell said every two or three years, the Michigan and Indiana clubs and charters meet in Michigan and do a ride to benefit the Burn Camp.

The East Coast connection came about after Thomas Rickard, who lives in Laconia, N.H., found the Blacktop Saints while searching for clubs on the American Motorcyclist Association website. Originally from Ireland, Rickard moved to New Hampshire in 2014.

“My personal wish was to find a club that was family-oriented and gives back to the community, not one of these serious clubs that heads out on the weekends just to ride,” Rickard said. “I found the Blacktop Saints and everything they were about is what I was looking for.”

Charitable roots

The Blacktop Saints formed in 2013 with a group of men who initially joined a motorcycle club that was more hardcore and focused just on riding. Bell said some of the men became disillusioned and decided to form a club that better reflected their values and beliefs systems. They started with 11 members that were a mixture of white- and blue-collar workers employed in various sectors, including the federal government and the railroad.

“When we started, we really wanted the group to be focused on the fact that everybody has a life that includes family, friends and work. There is a requirement that you take care of what you need to and we wanted to add value to someone’s life, and not be the primary source of what they do,” Bell said. “A lot of clubs become the center of the universe for their members.”

The Blacktop Saints began meeting monthly in an official capacity and often get together for weekly rides.

“Riding is still our focus, but since that time, we’ve added the focus of charity,” Bell said.

Priorities matter

Rickard cited Blacktop Saints’ charitable roots as his reason for contacting the group in the first place. Despite some skepticism and his geographic separation, the group ended up voting Rickard in as a member in 2016. Not long after, people in the New Hampshire community where Rickard lived started noticing his vest and wanted to know what the Blacktop Saints were all about.

“I ended up getting a group of five guys together one year later and we decided we could be our own branch of the Blacktop Saints original charter,” Rickard said of the group called Bravo Club.

Bravo Club meets once a month to identify charities in its area that could use help and financial support. A majority of votes determines the charity, which has included a local women’s shelter and groups that support struggling school families.

Bravo Club has 14 members and is growing, although Rickard notes the group is selective in identifying people who place family first, work second and their involvement with the club third.

“With a lot of other clubs, this is very, very flipped around,” he said.

Like the Blacktop Saints membership, members of Bravo Club range in age from 30 to 50 and work in a variety of different sectors.

Bell said Blacktop Saints has not attracted many younger people who are interested in joining for a variety of reasons.

“Part of it is that Millennials don’t have driver’s licenses and if they do have them, they’re getting them later and later,” he said. “Motorcycles have gotten more expensive and being younger, they don’t have the disposable income to get into the sport.”

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