David Bornstein is the author of “How to Change the World,” which has been published in 20 languages, and “The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank,” and is co-author of “Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know.” He is a co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, which supports rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.
Earlier this month, scientists reported that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had reached 400 parts per million. It’s an alarming milestone, to be sure, but, alas, there is no shortage of dire warnings about global warming. What is lacking is the political will to address the problem. The big question is, what useful steps can citizens take to build that will?
If you pose that question to the leading climate scientist James E. Hansen, he’ll tell you to connect with the Citizens Climate Lobby (C.C.L.). “They have the potential to be extremely effective,” he said. “That’s why I recommend them in my speeches. They’re doubling in size each year. And they’re pursuing the right policy.”
The C.C.L. is a relatively unknown organization that punches above its weight. Founded in 2007, the organization prepares citizens to be effective lobbyists, helping them build relationships with members of Congress and editorial page editors, showing them how to make persuasive arguments about policies to win bipartisan support. Currently, the group’s main focus is to build political will for a revenue-neutral carbon tax, a policy that has been supported by economists across the political spectrum and has demonstrated environmental and economic benefits, most recently, in the province of British Columbia and in Ireland. But a carbon tax faces serious political hurdles in the United States.
With a staff of 9 and about 700 active volunteers, the C.C.L. reports that last year it conducted 534 meetings with members of Congress or the Canadian Parliament or their staffs; met with 24 newspaper editorial boards; published 537 letters to the editor; and directly prompted or placed 174 editorials, op-eds or articles, all focusing on this policy. This year, the group is on track to double or triple its outreach.
“The Citizens Climate Lobby is taking very sophisticated ideas and putting them into letters and op-eds and face-to-face meetings with members of Congress,” explained Bob Inglis, a South Carolina Republican who served 12 years in the House of Representatives and now directs the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University. “I think they’ve moved the needle on this issue.”
The C.C.L. was founded by Marshall Saunders, a retired businessman living in San Diego who had previously spent 12 years volunteering for a grass-roots lobby called Results, which has had major success building support in Congress for initiatives aimed at basic needs for the poor. One morning, Saunders read that Congress had just approved $18 billion in new subsidies for oil and coal companies and he decided that Results’ approach needed to be deployed to the climate crisis.
To understand C.C.L., it’s necessary to understand Results, which remains one of the best-kept secrets in development. Since the 1980s, Results has played a unique role in helping to direct billions of dollars of government funding toward child survival, microfinance, education and health. It has done it with an army of volunteers and almost no fanfare. “Results has such a lean and efficient model that nobody knows about them,” explained Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank. “They’re incredibly dedicated and very knowledgeable about the issues. It’s remarkable how much they’ve done and how few people have any idea about it.“
Results was founded in 1980 by Sam Daley-Harris, a former music teacher and percussionist for the Miami Philharmonic. In the late 1970s, Daley-Harris read the report from Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Commission on Hunger and decided to help build political will to address hunger. Speaking with groups of high school students, he was dismayed that only 3 percent could name their member of Congress. “They didn’t know it because they didn’t use it,” he recalled. “And they didn’t use it because they didn’t see a reason to.”
He saw two big problems to overcome:
First, citizens didn’t believe they could directly influence public opinion or policies. It never occurred to most people that they could initiate a meeting with a member of Congress or a newspaper’s editorial board and shape the outcome.
Second, citizens needed a structure to be effective. Results developed a platform to embolden volunteers, providing them with information, coaching, role-playing, action plans and practical feedback. “It’s not about staff in Washington or celebrities,” explained Joanne Carter, the group’s executive director. “It’s about individuals in their communities who are supported and have educated themselves to a point where they can be triggers to make policy happen.”
Today, the group has about 1,000 active volunteers spread across 100 communities in 37 states and six countries. Consider some of the impact they have had:
In the 1980s, Results volunteers worked with Jim Grant, the director of Unicef, who was leading a “child survival revolution” focused on extending lifesaving efforts like vaccinations and oral rehydration globally. To build bipartisan support, volunteers reached out to elected officials and newspaper editors across the United States, generating 90 editorials. Subsequently, government funding for child survival increased from $25 million to $75 million. “To a great extent, it was because of the receptivity created by Results that the United States funding for child survival increased so dramatically. And that led many other countries to come on board,” recalled Kul Chandra Gautam, formerly Unicef’s deputy executive director, who has recently joined Results’ board. Annual funding for child survival and maternal health from the government is now about $600 million; Unicef estimates that the child survival campaign saved the lives of 25 million children.
In the mid-1980s, when Muhammad Yunus, then largely unknown, was working to gain traction for microcredit, Results volunteers reached out to editors and members of Congress, generating 100 editorials that built bipartisan support for the first microfinance legislation. When Yunus recently received the Congressional Gold Medal (which requires approval from two-thirds of the House and Senate), he singled out Results as having been the most critical partner for microcredit. “They are one of the most effective organizations I encounter in Washington,” said Representative Rush Holt (D-N.J.), who has worked to increase U.S.A.I.D. funding for microfinance for the very poor.
“They’re not in it for self-enrichment. They do their homework; they know the facts. They are relentless, but in a very polite way. And they show gratitude.”
Results was also the first organization to get members of Congress to focus on tuberculosis, a leading killer especially in poor countries. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who has been a champion in Congress in this fight, recalled: “I got involved in tuberculosis work because a bunch of Results volunteers came to me in Oberlin and Medina, Ohio. They were convincing, well informed and they were persistent.”
Jim Yong Kim of the World Bank commented: “Sherrod Brown’s efforts with Results have resulted in huge increases in funding for tuberculosis – from $1 million a year to a cumulative $1.8 billion. The scale of it is just extraordinary.”
We don’t often hear stories like this – stories about ordinary citizens working powerfully side by side with elected officials — particularly citizens who don’t come bearing campaign checks. That’s why it’s important to understand how these changes were achieved, and how much more may be possible than most citizens imagine.
“It’s always easier to take the cynical view of politics,” said Mark Reynolds, C.C.L.’s executive director. “But if you actually say, ‘I’m a citizen. This is a citizen problem,’ it gives you an entirely different world to deal with. We adamantly believe that politicians don’t create political will, they respond to it.”
Daley-Harris was more than pleased to share Results’ methodology and advise C.C.L. (He outlines the approach in his book “Reclaiming Our Democracy.”) Over the past five years, C.C.L. has become skilled at its techniques. Like Results, the organization holds regular conference calls, shares success stories, and continuously works to help volunteers hone their techniques.
This means getting into the details. How do you summon the courage to call up an important person? How do you approach an editorial writer to get a meeting? How do you develop, refine and deliver a killer “lasertalk” – a brief, compelling, information-packed talk that suggests clear action steps? And how do you build solid relationships with people whose beliefs may be diametrically opposed to yours – a key consideration for the climate issue?
Results and C.C.L. are clear about the benefits of a positive approach. They bet on long-term relationships. As Inglis remarked, “They have a belief that if you don’t have something that you can affirm or celebrate in the person you’re going to visit, don’t go to the visit.”
Elli Sparks is a C.C.L. volunteer who started the organization’s group in Richmond, Va. One of her early challenges was reaching out to the editors of The Richmond Times Dispatch, a conservative paper that had once criticized her mother, who ran a women’s health clinic. She looked for things to appreciate in the editors and she found them, and the meetings have led to valuable outcomes, including an op-ed by Sparks and an influential column by Barton Hinkle supporting a carbon tax.
Sparks and her colleagues have also engaged with their member of Congress, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). In their initial meeting with Cantor’s legislative director, Michael Lowry, Sparks announced: “I want Congressman Cantor to be our unlikely climate hero.” Since then, her group has met with Lowry four more times. “Each meeting, we present more information and listen to his questions and come back with additional information,” she said. On one visit, Lowry raised questions about the sense of alarm around climate change. Sparks returned with another volunteer, Richard Taranto, a retired Navy oceanographer and meteorologist, who shared this presentation.
In June, Sparks is scheduled to meet with Cantor face to face. “My job as I see it is to ask him to do this leadership work, and to build the political will to help other constituents express their desire for his leadership, too. Those are things I can do.”
Interviewing Results and C.C.L. volunteers, I’m struck by how many have had the same experience: a kind of revelation at the power they wield as citizens. Madeleine Para, a C.C.L. group leader in Madison, Wis., commented: “I’m not a person who grew up thinking I was going to be talking to my member of Congress or editors of newspapers or any prominent people in society. And the fact that I have figured out that I can do that, and they will listen to me has been exciting. It’s pushed me to try other things I didn’t think I could do.”
Sparks says it’s necessary to get out of your “comfort zone.” “If it feels comfortable, ‘I’m going to sign this petition; I’m going to post it on Facebook,’” she said, “then you’re not doing enough to move things forward. You’ve got to have butterflies in your belly, your heart has to be racing, your palm has to be sweating.”
Another surprising message is that citizen lobbyists are appreciated by officeholders, perhaps more than professionals. “The people I always rolled my eyes at were the hired guns,” Inglis recalled. “Last week, they were passionate about this; this week they’re passionate about something else.” While acknowledging the fund-raising pressures faced by elected officials, particularly those in leadership roles, he added, “The hired guns fade into the wallpaper, but the people who are in it with their heart and souls volunteering, they’re memorable.”
Three years ago, Daley-Harris and Saunders were told that a carbon tax “would be laughed off the table.” Now it’s not only on the table, it appears to be moving toward the center, with proposed legislation in the Senate, the American Enterprise Institute having co-sponsored an event to discuss the idea, and increasing academic support. The more citizens push for it through direct channels, the more the chance it will come to pass.
Meanwhile, Daley-Harris has launched a new initiative, the Center for Citizen Empowerment and Transformation, to help other organizations put their citizen lobbying into overdrive. “It’s about finding and training that portion of your members who want to go way beyond mouse-click advocacy to creating champions in Congress and the media for your cause,” he said.