How Can One Person Change Congress?


 Can one average citizen change Congress? No. But can one politically engaged citizen change Congress? Yes.

One Person Cannot Change Congress

I attended one of the town hall meetings my representative in Congress, Rep. George Miller, held today. It was the third of three back-to-back meetings he’d held that morning. I arrived late. Surprisingly, he hadn’t.

When I entered the school multi-purpose room, he was updating the standing-room-only crowd on what was happening in D.C. regarding the economy, budget cuts, minimum wage, immigration reform, education, and Obamacare (AKA, the Affordable Care Act). While Miller was partway through talking about, I think, Obamacare, a man from the back of the room shouted, “You lie!”

Miller paused and let the man voice his opinion. Miller then tried to go on with his update. The man again shouted, “You lie” and continued venting his beliefs.

The crowd grew restless. For the next several minutes various audience members tried to get the man to quiet down by shouting, “Let him (Miller) talk!”, “We came to hear him talk, not you.”, “You talk for yourself, not us.”, etc.

Eventually, the crowd’s displeasure with the man quieted him down. Miller went on with his update and told the crowd there would be time to comment or ask him questions about the things they were interested in.  The Affordable Care Act, the economy, foreign aid, etc.

Did the shouting man change Congress? No. He didn’t even change the mind of the one person in Congress he was talking to. What he did do, though, was make a lot of people frustrated and angry. He was exercising his First Amendment right. Good. But it took several minutes and the crowd’s ire before he was willing to let others exercise their First Amendment rights. Not good.

People wonder why Congress acts so childish. Because Congress is made of human beings who each have their own beliefs (sometimes strongly held beliefs), goals, viewpoints, aspirations, and personality. Just like the folks in the school multi-purpose room I was in today. Two or three hundred people with their own individual beliefs, opinions, concerns, and objectives. And one who was convinced Miller was lying and was willing to stop the meeting until he got whatever it was that he wanted. Miller to stop believing his own beliefs and adopt the one’s beliefs? I don’t know. The man didn’t say what he wanted, other than for Miller to stop lying.

RESULTS Changing Congress

After the meeting I talked with a women beside me who’d asked Miller how she could change Congress. I had hoped he would say, “Ask that man standing next to you.” He didn’t. After the meeting I did.

I told her about the group I volunteer with. The one that’s been called, “the most effective lobby in Congress”. I told her about RESULTS and invited her attend one of my group’s meetings.

While talking with the woman, one of the volunteers in my RESULTS group, Sharon Solstice, joined us. A couple more people joined the discussion and I left. I wanted to give a copy of a recently published letter to the editor I’d written to Miller. I ended up giving the copy to one of his local staffers and rejoined Sharon and the group talking about changing Congress.

Shouting at members of Congress, telling them they’re wrong and they lie is not the way to change Congress. RESULTS volunteers have, however, changed Congress. We’ve gotten Congress to appropriate billions of dollars for anti-poverty programs that otherwise would not have been funded.

RESULTS volunteers are average citizens. There’s nothing special about RESULTS volunteers–except for one thing. One thing that makes us different from average citizens. RESULTS volunteers are politically engaged in a way that makes us far better at influencing Congress. RESULTS volunteers take the time to learn about the issues that concern them; how Congress works; how to become effective grassroots, citizen lobbyists; and we spend some of our time lobbying.

Why are we so effective? By doing the following with representatives and senators from both political parties:

  • Developing personal relationships with them through face-to-face meetings
  • Presenting information and listening to them in a respectful way
  • Doing the same with their staff members
  • Calling their D.C. and district offices to ask they take specific actions with specific bills, letters, committees, and Congress leaders
  • Keeping in contact with them throughout the year
  • Writing letters to them
  • Voting for or against them when they’re up for reelection.

Of that entire list, most citizens will only do the last one or two things. But RESULTS volunteers also 

  • Develop relationships with those in the community who influence members of Congress
  • Generate media such as editorials, op-eds, letters to the editor, radio interviews, etc.
  • Talk with others in the community
  • Organize letter and postcard writing meetings with other citizens

All to educate others about our issues and urge them to advocate for our positions with Congress.

One Person Can Change Congress

Remember when I wrote that Miller told the crowd he would open the meeting up for questions and comments about things the they were interested in? Miller was looking at me when he said foreign aid.

I’ve met with him two or three times in his district office with my RESULTS group and three or four times in town hall meetings over the years. I think he saw me at the meeting today, remembered my interest in foreign aid, and mentioned foreign aid because he saw me standing near the back of the room.

I and the members of my RESULTS group have gotten him to support legislation that reduces poverty overseas. Because of Miller’s leadership position on the Education and the Workforce committee, RESULTS volunteers nationwide sometimes ask their representatives to talk with Miller and urge him to support particular legislation his committee oversees.

In a democracy, even a federal democracy like our own, one person by him or herself doesn’t change anything. But the accumulation of individual votes past a tipping point does. Is the vote that pushes the total over the tipping point more valuable than the first vote? What would happen if the first vote went the other way?

RESULTS volunteers have consistently gotten enough votes to forward policies and programs that reduce hunger and poverty for over 30 years. Each RESULTS volunteer has connected with their own political power and made a difference.

I hope the man who yelled “You lie!”, and the many others in the room who wondered how they can influence Congress, learns how RESULTS volunteers have done it. The U.S. needs a well-informed, well-engaged citizenry for our nation to work for the benefit of us all.


Does One Person Make a Difference?

Most certainly Yes!

It’s been over a year since I last posted in this blog, but I readan e-mail yesterday that motivated me to post tonight. Before I write about that e-mail though, I want to quickly tie some loose strings.

In my last post I said that I was fundraising for RESULTS by taking part in the annual Friends and Family Campaign. Last year I raised over $405 for RESULTS. I took part in this year’s Friends and Family Campaign as well. The campaign officially ended on April 31, but the web-based donation page will remain active until the end of this Friday. So far, I’ve raised $395. A little less than last year, but I’m hoping this post will inspire some last second contributions.

I think the news I’m about to share is actually more important than any additional contributions (welcome as those would be). A couple months ago, RESULTS began a new campaign in our global health work. The campaign is to raise awareness of the importance of children getting sufficient micronutrients early in their life. Studies published in the last few years have identified that fetuses and children in their first 1000 days of life, basically from conception to two years old, especially need micronutrients in order to grow into physically and mentally healthy children and eventually adults.

If necessary micronutrients are lacking the effects include death and stunting. Some 2.5 million children under the age of five die each year from undernutrition. An estimated 165 million children survive undernutrition, but many of those suffer from stunting. If the undernutrition is extreme and early in life, the stunting is permanent. According to the World Bank’s Scaling Up Nutrition: What Will It Cost? 2010 study such stunting can reduce a person’s lifetime earnings by 10% and, if widespread in a country, can reduce the country’s GDP by  2-3%.

Right now, the U.S. gives less than 1% of its foreign development aid (which itself is less than 1% of the total federal budget) to programs that ensure pregnant mothers and children get sufficient micronutrients to prevent death and stunting. RESULTS volunteers across the nation and lobbying their representatives and senators to prioritize higher funding for international nutrition programs. And this is where the e-mail I saw yesterday comes into play.

Mark Coats is a volunteer RESULTS group leader in Austin, Texas. His representative is Congressman McCaul, a fifth-term Republican representing the 10th district. Mark wrote to McCaul’s staffer in charge of foreign affairs to ask that Rep. McCaul sign a dear colleague letter supporting the U.S. taking a leadership role in global nutrition. The staffer wrote back:

Mark, I have a question about point number one in the letter: “(1) Pledging support for plans in poor countries to strengthen and expand nutrition interventions.” Does this imply more U.S. funding for such programs? That is how I read it. In this time of austerity, it would be very difficult to argue for more funding.

Mark was understandably pessimistic about getting his representative to sign onto the letter and show his support for more funding of nutrition programs. But, and this is why I’m so proud of RESULTS, Mark didn’t give up. He wrote the following e-mail back to the staffer.

Good question. What the pledge does is give voice to our priorities and our values. I believe Americans value life and Americans value children.

As a father who raised three daughters, their needs and ‘nutrition’ were top priority, even when money was tight. During the recession when I lost my job and my income was decimated I still supported my youngest, Kristen, to complete her degree at UT Dallas. Her life could not wait.

For the 2.5 million children who die each year, due directly to malnutrition, their lives can’t wait either. When one of every four children worldwide is impacted intellectually and economically by malnutrition, preventing the cycle of poverty from being broken, the world cannot wait.

I understand it is a difficult task for Congress is to find the balance between competing priorities. However, when we look at what the U.S. is proposing to invest in addressing malnutrition for FY14, it is less than $100 million. That is less than 1% of all development assistance!

So it is not about asking for “more”. The pledge is about a common sense allotment of resources to address the challenges we face.

I urge Congressman McCaul to support ending malnutrition and demonstrate bold leadership for values all American’s hold dear – life and children. Would you please explain my request to him and ask if he will co-sign the letter and tell me what his response is?

Take care,

Mark Coats

 Mark wrote the letter based on information he’d gotten through RESULTS. RESULTS got the information based on information provided by the World Bank, the Copenhagen Consensus, and other international development organizations. RESULTS helped Mark learn the facts and helped him learn how to effectively lobby government.

How effective was Mark’s advocacy? The next day, May 28, Mark learned that Rep. McCaul agreed to sign the dear colleague letter. I’ve roomed with Mark several times at RESULTS International Conferences. He’s a thin, slightly smaller than average man with a humble, thoughtful disposition. He’s the kind of person you could pass on the street and not remember.

Yet, a couple days ago, he got a Texas Republican to connect with his core values and realize that “shrinking the government” does not preclude making smart investments in international health programs. A couple days ago, Mark reminded me what RESULTS is all about–teaching average citizens how to reconnect with their own political power on behalf of those with the least amount of political power, those at the very bottom of the economic ladder.

I believe part of our purpose in life is to help others less fortunate than ourselves. Thanks Mark and RESULTS for showing me how.

I Am a Fundraiser

On Monday, I got my first (and so far, only) contribution to RESULTS. A member of my scuba diving club contributed $100. After making his donation, he told me something about the donor page I wasn’t aware of.

Clicking the Donation link opens a secured web page but the URL is and to my friend that understandably implied his contribution would go to a company called Towercare rather than RESULTS. That caused my friend to pause and reconsider whether he should contribute or not. He’d contributed to RESULTS a couple years ago when I last participated in a Friends and Family Campaign, and he’d learned about RESULTS from me and his own research. Towercare, on the other hand, was an unknown quantity.

After weighing his decision for a few days, he decided to go ahead and contribute. Thankfully, he told me of his dilemma so now I can warn other potential contributors who may be hesitating for the same reason.

Towercare is the company that RESULTS has partnered with for this Friends and Family Campaign. Towercare provides the website fundraising technology that RESULTS is trying out with this campaign. As I’ve written before, I can see a lot of potential benefits with web-based contribution campaigns, but I’ve personally experienced technical problems with the technology and, with my friend’s comments, now see another problem that needs to be addressed better.

So how is the campaign going? The campaign is in its last week. On Tuesday, March 20th, I learned we fundraisers as a whole passed the 50% mark toward our goal of raising $30,000. Normally, the last minute push gets RESULTS past or much closer to its goals–whether the goal is reaching a certain dollar amount of fundraising or getting a target number of members of Congress to support a particular bill or sign onto a “Dear Colleague” letter. How we’re doing right now, I don’t know.

I’m disheartened that I’m so far from my personal goal of raising $1000, but glad that I’m the cause of RESULTS getting at least $100 more than it would have had I had not joined the campaign. I’m reminded of a quotation I read today from one of ice hockey’s greatest players, Wayne Gretsky. He said, “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.”

Tomorrow, I’m going to send out one more e-mail to warn my friends and family about the Towercare issue, remind them the campaign ends in a couple days, ask them to visit my contribution page if they haven’t already, and thank them for considering making a contribution.

And that reminds me of something I heard many years ago when I was on a RESULTS training call about working with the media. Those of us on the call were counselled that when dealing with an editor, the most important thing wasn’t getting the editor to write an editorial in support of our issues. The most important thing was to further our relationship with the editor.

Since then, I’ve tried to keep that objective in mind when I contact editorial writers and congressional aides. It’s actually good advice to keep in mind when dealing with everybody. Advice I need to remind myself of.

Looking Backward, Looking Forward

It’s been quite a while since I wrote the last post, so I’m writing this one before another month passes by. Since it’s still January and this is my first post of 2012, I’d like to look back at what my Contra Costa County RESULTS group accomplished last year. Then I’ll write about one of the goals I have for 2012.

Looking Backward

I’m the leader of a small group of RESULTS volunteers that meet once a month in California’s Contra Costa County to write letters and advocate for cost-efficient and effective international development programs. In 2011, the volunteers in my group got six letters to the editor published in the Contra Costa Times newspaper. Five of the letters supported international disease control and one supported international primary education. We wrote the editor probably three times that many letters, but six were published. You can read the letters by clicking on the link to the San Francisco Area RESULTS Media Generated in 2011 page and looking for the Contra Costa Times entries. That page also shows the letters to the editor and editorials that were published in the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and Oakland Tribune.

In 2011, members of my group had a face-to-face meeting with Representative George Miller and with Rep. John Garamendi in their district offices.

We got Rep. John Garamendi and Rep. Jerry McNerney to support the Education For All Act of 2011. We had success in getting Reps. Miller, McNerney, and Garamendi to sign a letter to USAID Administrator, Dr. Shah, in support of the U.S. making a $450 million funding pledge over the course of three years to the GAVI Alliance. Other RESULTS groups across the nation were successful in getting their representatives to also sign onto the letter. Finally, we were able to get Reps. Miller and Garamendi to sign a Dear Colleague letter to the leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees urging them to appropriate $1.05 billion to support the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.

Not bad for a group of six volunteers.

Looking Forward

My group is still planning what we’d like to accomplish in 2012, so I can’t write about the group goals. I can, however, write about one of my own goals.

That goal is to have 10 active people in my group. Ideally, some would be younger than me, definitely more energetic, extroverted, and passionate about making a difference. At 49 years of age, I’m the youngest in my group and have been since I joined it in 1997 or so.

I’d like to have new members so we can tap into new energy and new networks of family, friends, and contacts. Having a larger group would enable us to improve our fundraising ability, increase our media prowess, and enlarge our ability to connect and interact with like-minded members of the local community.

Expanding the group would also mean that we’re successfully enabling others to realize their own political power and make a difference in the quality of their lives and in the lives of the roughly 1.7 billion people in absolute poverty–those most bereft of resources, self-respect, opportunity, education, and health.

I know volunteering in RESULTS has profoundly affected my life. This year I want to challenge myself to extend that gift to others.

A Promise Made Is a Debt Unpaid

In the poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee“, the Canadian poet Robert A. Service wrote, “A promise made is a debt unpaid.” The poem is the tale of a Yukon musher keeping a promise he made to cremate his friend rather than let him be buried in the ice and snow.

I came across the quotation while preparing an announcement for my RESULTS Contra Costa County group meeting. I’ve gotten in the habit of starting my group’s monthly letter meeting with an inspirational quotation or two and I think the one from Service fits this month’s action: holding the U.S. government accountable for failing to fulfill its promise to  fund the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.

In October, 2010 the U.S. Administration pledged $4 billion over the next three years to the Global Fund. By making the pledge it took on a debt as surely as the musher in Service’s poem. While that pledge represented an increase in funding compared to past years it fell significantly short of the $6 billion that RESULTS and other organizations had been advocating the U.S. to contribute. At the time, to meet the world demand for AIDS, TB, and malaria treatments, the Global Fund would need to have about $18 billion. Since the U.S. comprises one-third of the world economy, it seems fair the U.S. should contribute one-third of the effort. Congress and the Administration supported this view by stipulating that the U.S. would provide up to one-third of the funding for the Global Fund.

Think of a large fire raging along the borders of three cities. To extinguish the fire requires 600 firefighters. Each city needs to contribute 200 firefighters to put out the fire. Due to a lack of understanding and misplaced priorities, however, each city is planning to contribute only 130 firefighters. Meanwhile, each city is actually contributing only 100 firefighters. Obviously, the fire will continue to spread and burn more  buildings.

To put the matter in real terms, download and view the Core Pledges Contributions List provided by the Global Fund. On the Contributions worksheet, the list shows the U.S. pledged $1.05 billion for both 2010 and 2011. In 2010, however, the U.S. contribution was short by $264 million and in 2011 the contribution was short by $423 million. When including all sources of income (both public source like countries and private sources)  since 2001, the donors have an unpaid debt of $2.2 billion on their promises.

Recognizing that $2 billion shortfall caused the Global Fund last month to announce it will suspend making additional grants until 2014. When Joanne Carter, executive director of RESULTS Educational Fund and a former member of the Global Fund Board, learned of the board’s decision, she wrote:

“This unprecedented decision to cancel plans to fund new grants for vital AIDS, TB, and malaria programs until 2014 has led to a crisis in the international response to these three [AIDS, TB, and malaria] global killers. This was a completely avoidable crisis, and it will leave millions of people without access to basic medical care. The terrible paradox is that it is unfolding just as we’ve turned the corner in the global fight against AIDS. The latest scientific evidence proves that treating patients for HIV early reduces the spread of the virus by 96 percent, halting AIDS in its tracks. At the same time, brand new TB diagnostics that can pave the way toward TB elimination have begun rolling off the shelves. And we’re on our way toward eliminating malaria in countries that were previously the most ravaged.

 “It’s in this moment that the Global Fund has been incapacitated by its own donors. It’s as if the Allied Forces have landed in France and are marching into Germany, and the generals have called off the attack. It’s unfathomable. With World AIDS Day rapidly approaching on December 1, all eyes will be on President Barack Obama with the expectation that he’ll announce a historic emergency response that will snap the other donors out of their malaise and put us back on track to defeating AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.”

Shamefully, on December 1, President Obama in a speech at a World AIDS Day event in Washington sidestepped the issue of increased U.S. funding for international AIDS efforts by announcing higher targets of people treated financed by improved efficiencies in the delivery of treatment developed over the years.

Funding Priorities

A few days ago, I watched a show on the U.S. Navy’s newest submarine, the USS Virginia. (Once upon a time, I wanted to be a submariner. Unfortunately, the genes that dictate height sunk that dream as I became too tall for submarine service while still a teenager. I became a scuba diver instead.) The USS Virginia class submarines are designed for post-Cold War conflicts involving the need for covertly delivering SEAL teams and hunting down nearly silent electric powered submarines near shore. I bring this up because at the end of the show, the announcer said the Navy was planning to buy 30 of these submarines.

“Thirty submarines!”, I thought in shock. Why in the world would we need to have 30 of these new submarines? “How much would that cost?”, I wondered. I learned each submarine now costs about $2.3 billion, so the total cost would be about $60 billion–assuming the per submarine cost stays constant.

According to Wikipedia’s entry on the Virginia class submarine:

In December 2008, the Navy signed a $14 billion contract with General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman to supply eight submarines. The contractors will deliver one submarine in each of fiscal 2009 and 2010, and two submarines on each of fiscal 2011, 2012 and 2013.[10] This contract will bring the Navy’s Virginia-class fleet to 18 submarines. And in December 2010, the United States Congress passed a defense authorization bill that expanded production to two subs per year.[11] Two submarine-per-year production resumed on September 2, 2011 with commencement of SSN-787 construction.[12]

So what am I doing talking about submarines in a post about the Global Fund? I’m talking about priorities. In 2009 and 2010, while in the midst of national financial hardship, Congress decided that buying more submarines was of greater value than contributing more funding to the Global Fund. The way I see it, this is like the the city council in one of the cities I talked about above, deciding they need to buy an extra amount of better weapons for their police force rather than pay overtime to keep more firefighters fighting the fire destroying lives and buildings on their city limits.

Oh, I know buying more submarines provides more jobs for U.S. citizens in the shipyards and for all the workers making components for the submarines scattered across the U.S. and probably elsewhere. But I also understand that Congress’ failure to keep the promise President Obama made to the Global Fund will not only cost the lives of those overseas, it will cost the lives of U.S. citizens and billions of dollars when U.S. businessmen, world travelers, immigrants, and servicemen catch diseases overseas and bring them to the U.S. An outbreak of multi-drug resistant TB in New York in the early 1990s forced local and federal governments to spend over $1 billion to contain the outbreak. The cost of not treating AIDS, TB, and malaria overseas also costs the U.S. in lost trade opportunities and increased military spending to deal with failed states.

When there’s not enough money to buy every thing, the decision makers in Congress have to prioritize. Unfortunately, when the decision makers are ignorant or prioritizing their own needs ahead of others, we all suffer. So this Saturday, I’ll attend a RESULTS conference call and on Tuesday lead a letter writing meeting, and somewhere in between work to get information to one of my senators and try to lessen her and her constituents’ ignorance.

Like the musher in Service’s poem, I believe in keeping promises. I also believe it’s my responsibility as a citizen to shame my government accountable when it reneges on its promises and demand that it make good on the debt it incurred when making those promises.

More about the Global Fund

For an excellent overview of the Global Fund and how it operates, see this web page on AVERT’s’ web site. AVERT claims to be the “world’s most popular AIDS web site.” I don’t know if that’s true, but the overview of the Global Fund is quite good. I wish I’d written it myself.

A Mother Passes Away

On Monday, November 21, 2011, my mother-in-law, Kathy, passed away. Her husband, daughters, son-in-law, a sister-in-law, and a niece encircled her bed in the hospital room. A window looked out to the mountain she liked to walk on. She didn’t see it that day.

Kathy was brought into the hospital emergency room on the evening of November 11, 2011. She had dangerously low blood pressure and high heart and respiration rates. For the next ten days she lay hooked up to IVs, and monitors for her heart, respiration, blood pressure, and oxygen levels in various hospital beds. After being admitted to the hospital, she quickly lost her appetite and after a couple days would not eat food. Nurses cared for her; doctors sought the cause of her illness and treated its symptoms; and family members kept her company, implored her to eat and drink so she could regain her strength, and did whatever they could for her.

The day before she died, a feeding tube was inserted through her nose and into her stomach to give her body the nourishment it needed to fight the mysterious illness taking her life away. By this time, her eyes were swollen shut, her face and arms puffy from fluids seeping out of her veins and into her spaces around her organs. Her voice had fallen past whispers and into silence. During her last night, a kidney specialist determined her kidneys were shutting down and she needed dialysis to survive. The next morning, Kathy shook her head, “No!” when her husband asked if she wanted to go through the procedure.

Prior to her coming to the hospital, we all thought Kathy would live for several more years. True, she was a couple weeks into her 81st year, and she had Alzheimer’s, but she was still able to walk and prepare a simple meal for herself. By Monday morning, November 21, however, the death that at first seemed years away, quickly shifted from days to just hours distant as her organs cascaded toward failure. At noon she was wheeled out of ICU and its noise into a peaceful room. Family members gathered around, held her, and stood watch over her dying body. At 1:25 her breathing became raspy, would pause for several seconds, and restart with a gasp. Over the next ten minutes the pauses got longer. Then her breath stopped and there was no gasp. Her husband felt the pulse in her neck slowly weaken and then felt it no more.

Kathy’s immediate family spent that afternoon looking at family pictures. We saw how she looked before she gave birth to her two daughters and when her daughters were young children. We wanted to remember the good times and replace the memory of how she looked on her death bed with how she looked as a young woman.

Why am I writing all this here? Because the length of life that my mother-in-law had and the care she received in a modern hospital well stocked with many doctors, nurses, support staff, medical supplies, and equipment stand in stark contrast to the shortness of life and medical care available to the world’s poorest.

For almost 20 years I’ve lobbied Congress for legislation and funding that would help improve their lives. I don’t expect the poorest in the world to have the same level of medical care my mother-in-law had. I don’t expect my nation’s government to fully fund their health care.

What I do expect, though, is for my nation’s government to help the citizens of other countries realize the Rights of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness our Founding Fathers’ declared as inalienable in our Declaration of Independence. For too many people in the world, their Right to Life is “protected” by a rickety bicycle and trailer ambulance; a tiny hospital with a few bandages, a volunteer doctor, maybe a trained nurse, a few beds with each sometimes crowded with multiple people; and little else.

Life is not fair. That is true. But, that truth is not an excuse for why we in the U.S. cannot demand our government chip in a little more money to help make life a little less unfair to the poorest in the world. As a percentage of GDP, we lag behind other developed nations in foreign development aid.*  Why do we have to accept Fate’s choice of where a girl is born to largely determine whether she’ll survive to become a woman, survive childbirth, and survive to see her children marry and have families of their own?

I’d often ask Kathy how she was doing? She’d always pause, grin , and say, “Oh, I guess I’ll live.” She never wanted to celebrate her birthdays, but I know that even after we made her join us in celebrating her 81st birthday she wanted more life.

There are many things I would prefer doing over lobbying on behalf of the poorest. But I see those born in rural villages and city slums too poor to have even basic medical care. And I see the broken promises and wasted spending in my own government. And I know that my advocacy can and has helped those least able to help themselves.

So I share the story of Kathy, the mother of my cherished wife, in the hope that readers will be inspired to join RESULTS or similar organizations and help other mothers live long enough to see their daughters marry and be happy. To help make the unfairness of Life a little less unfair.

* For more debate on the level of U.S. foreign aid, see The Stingy Attack and The World’s Most Generous Misers.

It Takes Money to Make Money

Most non-profits are classified by the IRS as 501(c)(3) organizations. Contributions to these organization are tax deductible and support a wide variety of services from direct aid like providing food and clothing to the impoverished to educating the public about the needs of the organizations’ target market. Since donations to these organizations are tax deductible, charitable foundations often only fund 501(c)(3) organizations.

Other non-profits are classified by the IRS as 501(c)(4) organizations. These organizations are free to directly lobby politicians and engage in political campaigns to support or fight against particular candidates or causes. This freedom to lobby comes at a cost, however. Donations to 501(c)(4) organizations are not tax deductible; consequently, most foundations exclude them from consideration when choosing organizations to fund.

To qualify for tax deductible donations, many organizations like RESULTS have split themselves into two entities: a 501(c)(3) and a 501(c)(4). The RESULTS Educational Fund (REF) is the 501(c)(3) entity and “gives us the power and the resources to educate and inspire members of Congress and their staff, movers and shakers in the media, and communities about the most pressing issues concerning hunger and poverty.” RESULTS is the 501(c)(4) and “leverages your investment by mobilizing more money and better policies to pave clear pathways out of poverty.” RESULTS staff have to carefully track their time so when they’re are the phone educating volunteers about issues or doing research, that time can be billed to REF. When they’re meeting with members of Congress or their staffs, and lobbying them to support a particular bill that time gets billed to RESULTS .

Most of the money that RESULTS uses for lobbying is generated by the RESULTS volunteers themselves, either through direct contributions as my wife and I had done for years or by asking family, friends, and acquaintances to contribute through some kind of fund-raising campaign.

A couple months ago, my wife and I looked at our finances and painfully realized we had to reduce our expenses even more than we had when I first became unemployed. We had already cut our RESULTS donation from $100 a month to $50 a month. A couple months ago, we decided to stop the monthly giving entirely. That was a painful decision, for me particularly. I felt like I was personally failing RESULTS by not being able to contribute on a monthly basis. I consoled myself that I would again ask my friends and family to contribute as part of RESULTS’ annual year-end fund raising effort.

In an effort to bring home more income, I applied for a part-time job at the Fund for the Public Interest as a canvasser raising money for Environment California, a pro-environment organization that lobbies California state government. This introduced me to a significantly different development strategy from what I am used to as a RESULTS volunteer. Instead of volunteers at Environment California raising money for the organization, Environment California hired the Fund for Public Interest to pay canvassers to talk to people in front of stores and go door-to-door in neighborhoods asking people to contribute to Environment California.

For the door-to-door canvassing job, I had to learn as verbatim as I could a main script and responses, that totaled about 250 words, to various statements and questions from the prospective donor. I remembered my college acting class and tried to learn the lines so well they sounded natural rather than rehearsed. To its credit, the Fund for Public Interest scripts were very well written and were vetted by lawyers and by Environment California.

Another difference between RESULTS and Environment California is the role of volunteers. From what I can tell, Environment California consists of a paid staff that do the majority of the lobbying, research, education, networking, etc. and volunteers who get e-mails or phone calls urging them to contact their legislators and urge support for particular bills.

In RESULTS, it’s the volunteers who do most of the lobbying, meeting with their legislators to educate them about issues, fund raising, work with the media, and organize public events. Consequently, RESULTS volunteers who become core members, called “partners”, commit to a deeper level of involvement than simply forwarding a prewritten e-mail or calling a legislative office and reading a short script. In RESULTS the emphasis is on volunteers gaining extensive knowledge of the issues, building relationships with their legislative representatives, the staff of those representatives, editorial boards, community leaders, and learning fundraising skills.

As for my canvassing job–it quickly came to an end. To maintain the job I had to get at least $125 in contributions on one of my first three nights. My best night was only $105, so I was let go. I did get paid for my work, but it was only minimum wage. I’m glad I took the job, though. It was a good experience, I met some good people, learned some things, expanded my comfort zone a bit, and was able to help fund an environmental lobbying organization working for some worthy goals.

I keep wondering, however, if Environment California would have greater success if they followed RESULTS’ model of using volunteers. I think of the words of Representative James Walsh (R-NY):

“I don’t know of a more effective organization in terms of raising the important issues of our time for our country and for the world, and the advocacy that you bring personally to these very important issues — the quality of life for our brethren throughout the world. It’s truly remarkable what this organization has done.”