Ninety percent of Sojourners' readers share a common story of pain. At a moment (or two) in time, you felt the call, inspiration, passion, whatever, to change your part of the world. You wanted to do more than dream about it. So you started (or joined) a group of people driven by the same sense of purpose and began the search for potential donors. Enthusiasm and sacrifice fueled the project in the start-up period. But then—the inevitability of it seems cruel—we all hit the same wall. And we wail: Where are we going to find the money to pay for this work? Maybe it's time to explore other models.
Working Assets, a San Francisco-based organization dedicated to political change, set out to create a radically distinct path for social activism. It runs a for-profit telephone business with $140 million annual revenue and directs a portion of its revenues to lobby for gun control, to derail policies that hurt the poor, and to promote peaceful alternatives to war, among other causes.
A multimillion-dollar budget for activism no doubt sounds compelling to any nonprofit director. But most social justice types don't like dealing with filthy lucre—although I guess it's okay to rattle the tin cup for it. So let's dive deeper into Working Assets' business operation.
"We measure our success not by the revenue of the company but whether we have a long and tangible list of political victories," says Michael Kieschnick, one of the founders and current president of Working Assets. The company needs to be profitable to exist, of course, but its donations are driven off its revenue. Furthermore, its political effectiveness depends not on its profits, but on the number of customers it can engage in its actions. So Kieschnick legitimately can claim that Working Assets is not a profit-driven firm.