Citizen Lobbying: The State Of The Art

The hunger lobbying group RESULTS
lives up to its name by using innovative strategies
and getting members involved

One of the articles in Making It Happen (IC#28)
Originally published in Spring 1991 on page 38
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute

For fostering enthusiasm and commitment to get the job done, RESULTS’ model of participatory organization is hard to beat. Tackling one of the most daunting of problems – poverty – Sam Harris inspires and leads volunteers to engage in media education and lobbying for governmental legislation in a way that is spectacularly successful.

The Founder and Executive Director of this international hunger lobby, Harris is a former music teacher and percussionist with the Miami Philharmonic who now manages an extensive network of highly motivated and active volunteers. Carla Cole, development officer and assistant editor of IN CONTEXT, has been one of those volunteers for many years.

Carla: Why RESULTS? Where did it come from? What got you started?

Sam: I always like to tell the truth, which is that I started out feeling that issues like ending world hunger were hopeless. I believe that’s where the vast majority of people are.

I got out of hopelessness and into the issue in 1977 through the Hunger Project, which encourages talking to people about world hunger. I spoke to 7,000 high school students throughout 1978 and 1979, then shifted over to creating RESULTS and doing citizen lobbying.

I had been reading a lot of material calling for "the political will to end hunger" – Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Commission on World and Domestic Hunger, the National Academy of Science’s World Food and Nutrition Study, and others. So I started asking high school students the name of their member of Congress. I didn’t want to know whether they’d ever written their member of Congress, or met their member of Congress – I just wanted to know whether they knew their Representative’s name. When I found that 200 knew the name, and 6,800 did not know the name, I realized that something was going on here – or not going on. It was out of a gap between these calls for the political will to end hunger on the one hand, and the evidence of this unofficial poll I was taking on the other, that RESULTS got started.

For the first four and a half years there was no paid staff – it was solely a grassroots project. And we worked out by trial and error how people could be effective in creating the "political will to end hunger" that experts agreed was the missing ingredient to solving the problem.

Carla: What did you do first?

Sam: Well, I moved to Los Angeles after 33 years in Miami, Florida, where I had polled all those students. I got involved in the Los Angeles World Hunger Event in 1980, and afterwards I met a couple who said they were inspired, but frustrated. They didn’t know what to do. I told them I had a group back in Miami that used to write letters once a month. Five days later we were at their home – there were 12 of us all together – writing letters to members of Congress. Within two months, I was driving around to six different locations in Southern California leading these little letter writing sessions. And that grew into what is now RESULTS.

But the story really begins earlier. In 1979 in Miami I organized a symposium called The End of Starvation, It Can Be Done – What Can I Do? We did one of those "Third World Banquet" events where most of the people get a few spoonfuls of millet or rice, and some people get as much grain as they want and a few beans and vegetables and maybe some tea – but only two or three people get a piece of chicken and a glass of wine and a dessert. A woman who had come to Miami from Washington, D.C. was very impressed, and she went up to New York to some Hunger Project event and shared about what she’d seen in Miami. Another woman – from Los Angeles – said, "I want to do that," and that became this Los Angeles World Hunger event. So something I did in Miami sparked the woman in Los Angeles to do this big event in L.A., which is what sparked RESULTS.

Carla: Wonderful! Proof positive that our local actions can have a much broader impact!

Sam: And you don’t have to have a big budget or be in Washington, D.C. In fact, the way I see it, we had a great advantage in having no grant money to get RESULTS started. If someone had said, "Great idea! Here’s fifty thousand dollars – you have six months to get it up and running," we would have come up with what everybody else does. We would have flown to Washington, asked how you do it, and done that. But we didn’t have the luxury of financial resources. What we had was time, so something new got hammered out.

Another advantage was precisely that we didn’t start in Washington. We started in Los Angeles – so we were better placed to ask the question, what does someone in Los Angeles (or Des Moines) need in order to be effective in Washington, D.C.?

Carla: So then any of us can have an impact? It’s not just that you’re the Mozart of organization?

Sam: Right. I was a substitute teacher five days a week for the first four and a half years as the organization was growing and developing and "trial and erroring." We expanded in a big way in 1983 when Eastern and Delta airlines offered 21 flights, if you did them in 21 days, for $649. I would call the substitute teaching office and say, "Don’t call me for these three weeks, I’m not available." I did five 21-city trips, one every four months, speaking in living rooms, sharing this vision of creating the political will to end hunger. That’s how RESULTS became a nation-wide organization.

Carla: If you want to lobby for better government policies and programs for the poor, you can get involved with RESULTS. But how might one do something similar for other issues?

Sam: My first recommendation, frankly, would not be that you do it the same way I did. I’d say look for an existing organization that’s doing something similar to your interest. If I wanted to contribute to better legislation, for example, on matters affecting our environment (as hunger issues do, by the way), I’d certainly look to some of the bigger groups to see what is already there in the way of lobbying. For peace issues I might look to 20/20 Vision, which has specialized in lobbying to get people involved in military spending and so on [see IC #22]. Poverty issues are closely connected to peace, too, of course.

One of the key things that allowed me to persist through the toughness of starting RESULTS was that I was very clear it was needed. After talking to hundreds of ordinary people, I was certain that something was way off with our relationship to government, so I was not surprised that there was some difficulty and resistance and sluggishness around it.

Carla: What is the sluggishness?

Sam: There’s a lot of discouragement in people. There’s ignorance and apathy and cynicism. That’s the toughest stuff. In RESULTS we’ve learned to use quotes like: "We aren’t passengers on spaceship Earth, we’re the crew." That’s from former astronaut Rusty Schweiker, and it’s a radical statement. Most people would be much more comfortable saying, "I’m just a passenger." Quotes like that really distill our situation. Here’s one from Buckminster Fuller: "The things to do are the things that need doing, that you see need to be done, and that no one else seems to see need to be done." That distilled my situation – and really sustained me – out on the road sometimes.

Or there’s a statement from the late Bartlett Giamatti, a former President of Yale: "What concerns me most today is the way we’ve disconnected ideas from power in America and created for ourselves thoughtful citizens who disdain politics and politicians, when more than ever we need to value politics and what politicians do." There’s something broken out there. Most of us don’t even vote in a Presidential election, forget a Congressional mid-term election. There is this break between people and government that we in RESULTS are out to mend, so people can get involved.

Carla: What is the best balm? What heals the break? What gets people willing to face their cynicism?

Sam: For starters, just addressing that it exists. For example, we go into a room and read a quote calling for the political will to end hunger and then ask "What is political will?" Two years ago I asked that question of a large group at a national conference of good-hearted, relatively enlightened Americans associated with a very conscientious and progressive foundation. I got over ten minutes of answers, and not a soul said anything about government. People said political will is something like the common, human desire, or the hearts of the people, and so on. But no one even mentioned politics.

We’ve found this is the best way to start – not saying "you’re right" and "you’re wrong," but just repeating what people say, letting them express what political will is, and then going on to work with a quote, like Giamatti’s. I’ve used that quote in six different countries, and in every country I asked people to read it a second time, replacing America with Nippon, Deutschland, Australia, or Britain. And in every case, people said, "Yes, people disdain politics and politicians here, too." Just beginning to address the fact that the relationship between people and their government is broken, with some discussion and openness, is a balm and an entry point to participating in our democracy.

Writing a letter to a member of Congress after being coached – and feeling you have something to say – is a real healing for people. Imagine writing your first letter to your Senator, and hearing the silence in the room as fifteen people write their own letters, and then hearing some of those letters read out loud, and the poetry in us. Think of writing a letter to the editor with seven friends, and having one of the eight letters published, and seeing it in the paper. Or picture studying for a first appointment with a member of Congress and going to that meeting, and getting to know your governmental representative as a human being. These are all balm, and they restore and recuperate our powers of self-expression and our citizenship. It’s really like learning to ride a bike: once you get it all down, it’s fun and liberating and powerful.

Carla: And it’s worked, hasn’t it? How has RESULTS grown?

Sam: We started in May of 1980. Our first staff member was hired in October of 1984, and we were only in the US, in about 27 states. Now we have some 90 groups in the United States, and groups in Canada, Australia, Japan, Great Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union. Currently, there’s paid staff in the US, Australia and Britain. By the end of the year, we’ll have paid staff in Japan, Germany and Canada, too.

Carla: Tell me some of RESULTS’ success stories.

Sam: One thing we’ve become known for is working with editorial writers. People are coached to learn to speak about specific opportunities, and they are provided with a packet of information. We practice making phone calls to editorial writers, since you have about sixty seconds to prove it’s worth their while to stay on the phone with you. These techniques have been very successful.

In 1985, RESULTS volunteers generated 42 editorials to save a small UN agency that works with small farmers and the landless poor. In 1987, volunteers generated 100 editorials around the United States supporting small loans – fifty or a hundred dollars – for the very poor in the Third World. I don’t mean letters to the editor – the New York Times twice published editorials supporting microenterprise legislation, and there were 98 other editorials around the country – all generated by the efforts of volunteers.

People get an editorial packet out in Tulsa, Oklahoma, meet with their editorial writer, generate the editorial, send it to us, and then we make sure the Congress sees it. We make sure the Administration sees it. We make sure the private voluntary development groups see it. You don’t have to live in Cincinatti to see the Enquirer editorial – you see it in Washington, where government policy is made.

We were fighting for doubling the Child Survival Fund from 36 to 75 million dollars in 1986, and it was a fight to get that 75 million dollars to fund oral rehydration therapy, immunize kids against measles and tetanus, and promote breast feeding. It was then increased from 75 million to 80 million, and then to 100 million. And now – some four or five years later – it’s 200 million, and we’re in a campaign to triple it to 600 million. RESULTS volunteers played a central role in creating a mini sacred cow for the health and well-being of children in the Third World.

Frankly, in many of these instances, we met with resistance. But grassroots groups writing their members of Congress, writing letters to the editor, generating these editorials, and meeting their members of Congress, created a demand. There are thousands of bills introduced every year, and thousands of bills die due to lack of interest. When strong support is built around an initiative, it’s very powerful.

Carla: How about successes on the domestic front?

Sam: We’ve lobbied for emergency supplemental appropriations for the McKinney Homeless legislation, and an additional 15 million was appropriated last year. We’ve helped increase funding for WIC – the Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program. Right now we’re in our biggest campaign ever – to achieve full participation in the Head Start program. Last year, only one out of five eligible kids could participate, because funding was only sufficient for that. Now funding has been increased, and one out of three is able to participate in Head Start. We’re going for full participation. It won’t be easy, but it’s necessary.

You have to look for and address the root cause of hunger, which is basically poverty. So when you talk about "hunger" you’re talking about education, and access to assets like credit or land. You’re talking about clean water and sanitation. You’re talking about job training. You’re talking about a whole range of interventions to make sure people aren’t poor, which will then assure that they will be able to provide for their own well-being.

Carla: What have some of the RESULTS groups in other countries done?

Sam: To give a few examples, RESULTS UK played a key role in achieving a major increase in the UK contribution to UNICEF. RESULTS in Germany generated 12 articles in national newspapers and received written support from more than 40 Bundestag members for increased government funding for UNICEF. RESULTS Australia participated in a highly successful primary health initiative. On two occasions, RESULTS International has joined forces with the World Development Movement in Britain to gather signatures from parliamentarians and members of Congress on letters to former World Bank President Barber Conable urging a greater Bank focus on the poor. The second letter was signed by more than 800 M.P.s and legislators from Australia, Canada, the UK, the US, and Germany. We also urged the Bank to take leadership in showing greater sensitivity to the needs of women and the environment in their lending practices.

Carla: So several hundreds of people throughout the world, learning about the problems of the poor and helping to educate the media and their governmental representatives, are really changing how governments spend their money and even the kinds of policies they implement.

Sam: Yes. With the help of, say, several thousand friends who help out by coming to Education and Action meetings to write letters once a month.

Carla: In light of the successful record of RESULTS, it looks like the discouragement and apathy you mention are based at least as much on negative assumptions as on reality.

Sam: There’s a quote from Abba Eban, the Israeli diplomat, that I use, and it always gets a laugh, because I think it releases – for an instant – a kind of tension that’s in us. He said, "Governments can be counted on to do the right thing, but only after they’ve exhausted all other possibilities." And we think, "Yeah, that’s it" – and therein lies our discouragement.

I of course get discouraged, too, but my encouragement is much louder these days than my discouragement. I hear about and see the results of empowered citizen action every day, and it’s much more exciting than the discouragement is discouraging.

Carla: Why is it that governments exhaust every other possibility before they do the right thing?

Sam: Well, on one level, it’s because they’re doing everything we’re asking them to do, which is not very much. James Grant of UNICEF says, "Each of the great social achievements in recent decades has come about not because of government proclamations, but because people organized, made demands, and made it good politics for governments to respond. It’s the political will of the people that makes and sustains the political will of government." Governments don’t get around to doing the right thing because we aren’t organizing, we’re not making demands, and we’re not making it good politics for governments to respond. Oh, some people are, certainly – they tend to be the more vested or wealthy interests. The people have cut themselves out. The people’s work doesn’t get done as quickly, because the people stayed home.

Carla: What lessons have you learned from the volunteers?

Sam: Really, everything has come from the volunteers. The formats for writing a simple two minute talk, learning how to deliver that talk and teach someone else how to – these came from the volunteers. When we do news conferences and look for visual angles to attract the TV cameras, the best ideas always come from the volunteers, and they share their ideas with other groups around the country via the conference calls. The whole thing has been the result of people’s creativity, imagination, and initiative.

Many national groups would say, "Look, just send us your twenty-five bucks and you can go back to sleep, because it’s very complicated and you don’t have time." We’re really trying to shift that around, knowing that if we can put the information and the empowerment out in Denver, and out in Minneapolis, and out in New Orleans, we end up with the best lobbyists in the country. People who live right in their Representative’s and Senators’ own communities – people who care enough to talk to the public, and the media, and face their member of Congress and that member’s colleagues in Congress – these people are powerful. Colman McCarthy said, in theWashington Post, "There’s not a rich lobby in Washington that wouldn’t trade its limos for RESULTS’ achievements."

Carla: What’s the next benchmark? Where are you going with RESULTS?

Sam: We’ve made powerful discoveries about citizen lobbying, working with editorial writers, and so on. At this point, we can really count on a 10 million dollar victory here, or a 25 million dollar victory there. But when we go for really substantive change, we still hit the brick walls of institutionalization and bureaucracy. So we’ve spent some time – almost two years – studying movements, asking questions like, "What made Margaret Thatcher say ‘I am a Green’? What caused Ronald Reagan to walk in Red Square with Gorbachev, and say ‘The Rusians are just like us’?" What role did movements play in that kind of change in thinking? We’re asking about what movements are and how you energize them.

When we learned there would be a World Summit for Children last September in New York – heads of state getting together on the issue of children – we organized World Summit for Children Candlelight Vigils. We left an arena where we had expertise – focused citizen lobbying – and shifted to what you might call movement-building. I call it creating oxygen, so what you’re trying to do can live.

Out of the Vigils came television appearances, mostly by coached celebrities – three times on Arsenio Hall and twice on CBS This Morning and an hour on Oprah Winfrey, and on and on – in which millions of people were being touched. It’s quite different from the very focused and potent reaching out to much, much smaller numbers that we had been doing with our lobbying work. Yet over a million people participated in Vigils in 75 countries. We felt we had to do whatever we could to make sure these heads of state – the presidents, prime ministers, kings and delegations from 159 countries – didn’t meet in a vacuum. We wanted those 71 heads of state attending the Summit to have some attention, some pressure, some support to do the right thing, from a wide, international public audience.

Now we’re looking at the next step: World Summit for Children ’91, Keeping the Promise. Since promises were made at the Summit for drastic reductions in mortality and illiteracy, and for increases in access to clean water and sanitation, we want to make sure they’re more than just promises. And so now we’re combining two techniques, the one we spent a decade learning – focused citizen lobbying – and the "movement-building" we began to learn last year.

Carla: How would you rate your success so far?

Sam: This new children’s movement – the World Summit for Children and any movements deriving from that – is very immature. It was kindergarten when we started, but we’re into third and fourth grade maturity now, and we need to keep going. By comparison, the environmental movement has the maturity of a Master’s degree. I wouldn’t give it a Ph.D., because given the current awareness, environmental citizen lobbying certainly isn’t organized as impactfully as it could be. But with the lifestyle changes people are now adopting – which are so essential – it’s attained a degree of mastery.

Carla: So all in all, our citizenship is our best avenue for action.

Sam: Absolutely. We sit here and see Eastern Europe and peoples elsewhere clamoring for democracy. And we have it essentially in our laps, but we’re just not using it. We watch Chinese students stand in front of a row of tanks, seeking democracy – and all we have to do is stand in front of a pen to write our member of Congress, or in front of a telephone to call Washington. Yet we seem unwilling, and somehow unable, to do that. It really is a tragic loss. Surely one of the major contributions we can make to a healthy, sustainable world is our citizenship, and that’s the one piece we mostly withhold.

For information about the RESULTS group nearest you, write to RESULTS, 236 Massachussetts Avenue NE, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20002 USA, 202/543-9340.


Results’ Innovations

RESULTS is an acronym for Responsibility for Ending Starvation Using Legislation, Trimtabbing and Support. Here Sam Harris describes the organizational tools that have made RESULTS a state-of-the-art grassroots lobby.

Partner agreements * Grassroots volunteers need to know what’s expected of them and what they can expect from the others in their group (e.g., three meetings a month for a four month period).

Monthly conference call with guest speaker * We’ve learned that volunteers need to be connected with each other and with experts on a regular basis for empowerment – to feel part of the action.

Learning to speak issues * Grassroots leaders are ineffective if they can’t articulate issues briefly and accurately. We developed exercises to help people be articulate and effective. For example, the "Bones Exercise" allows a person to create a talk from a short article by selecting the most pertinent information and re-organizing it.

Trimtabbing * Leveraged action – a central part of our thinking – pays off brilliantly. A "trim tab" is a small, easy-to-turn rudder at the end of the large rudder of an ocean liner. We don’t try to push the ship of state around from the front. We don’t even try to turn the rudder. We find the trim tab, and turn that.

Editorial writer campaigns and editorial writer conference calls * Even when it is difficult to get Third World or domestic poverty issues covered as "news," editorial writers are often willing to comment if there is a well-written information packet and a well-supported and articulate local resident interested in the issue. As a result of this grassroots leadership, we’ve had telephone conference calls for editorial writers with as many as 28 editors involved. Our work with the media has been crucial to getting the attention of Congress and bringing about changes in policy.

Simultaneous news conferences * We’ve trained groups to go to the local media via news conferences. In the US there are usually twenty every year when the State of the World’s Children report from UNICEF is released.

Simultaneous lobbying campaigns in more than one country * This has been very powerful in lobbying for reform of the World Bank, with active campaigns in five different countries at once.

Support for grassroots leaders through telephone conference calls * Direct support to regional coordinators and group leaders weekly.

The Education and Action meeting * A meeting that has people come together, educate themselves and take action on the spot (write their Member of Congress or Parliament, the newspaper, etc.) is a central part of our effectiveness. The power in the silence during the letter writing section is palpable.

Involvement of the grassroots in the whole * Grassroots ownership of the whole organization has been facilitated by having volunteers involved in it all – lobbying, fundraising, media work, etc.

Movement building or dramatic action to "create oxygen" * In September of 1990, the Candlelight Vigils to focus world attention on the World Summit for Children attracted the participation of over a million people in 75 countries.

Keeping the importance of relationships as key * This is why people continue to do volunteer work together. We’ve been blessed with staff and volunteers who never let us forget the importance of relationship – especially when we’re forgetting.

- Sam Harris