Armchair activism

A progressive San Francisco long-distance company donates part of your monthly phone bill to causes you care about

I was sitting on the couch having a chat with my grandmother, and I had just mentioned that my shoes and belt were made of non-leather materials. Since I stopped eating meat a year ago, I have been slowly weaning animal products out of my life, and I was pretty proud of my cruelty-free ensemble. But then my grandmother, who has a knack for throwing me completely off guard, asked me, “So, is being a social activist fun?”

I blinked and sort of stared at her for a few seconds.

“No. It’s not really fun at all.”

Being a social activist—although I’m really more of a socially conscious passivist, aka “aware but lazy"—is a real pain in the ass most of the time. Instead of blindly and blissfully buying whatever you desire, you spend a lot of time reading labels. Labels on food, checking for animal products. Labels on clothes, checking whether your shirt was made in a Third World country that uses sweatshop labor. And you spend a lot of time being angry and/or bummed out about the state of the world.

Once you’ve had a few mind-altering revelations about the military-industrial complex and the evils of multinational corporations, it’s impossible to backtrack into a warm, ignorant cocoon. For the rest of your days, you carry around a nagging little voice in your head that constantly berates you for not doing enough to help your fellow man.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could save the world without ever leaving the comfort of your couch? That’s what I was thinking when my fiancé suggested we sign up with Working Assets. Unlike most long-distance companies, which stick your monthly payments straight into the pockets of their CEOs, Working Assets automatically donates 1 percent of your bill each month to causes you care about.

One percent doesn’t sound like much,

but since the company was founded in 1985, it has generated $25 million in donations—$5 million in the year 2000 alone. And instead of generating donations from the company’s profits, Working Assets donates from its sales, meaning donations are made whether the company makes a profit or not.

Donations are generated for groups that work for peace, human rights, equality, education and the environment. Past recipients include Greenpeace, Doctors Without Borders, Planned Parenthood, Amnesty International, the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, to name just a few.

How does Working Assets choose which groups to fund? It’s all pretty democratic. Customers

can nominate nonprofit groups they’d like to see receive funding, and at the end of the year an independent board reviews the nominees and chooses about 60 groups that are most effective in what they do. Then, customers vote on how to distribute the donations among those 60 groups.

Want to donate a little more? You have the option of “rounding up” your monthly bill to the next $1, $5 or $10, and the extra cash goes straight into the donation pool.

If you’re not satisfied being an armchair activist, Working Assets also offers many other ways to get involved. The company includes action alerts in each month’s bill, letting customers know how they can help with a crucial national or state issue.

Want to call a politician and urge him or her to vote a certain way? Working Assets pays for that phone call every day for a week. Rather send a letter expressing how you feel? Working Assets will write the letter and send it for you.

Working Assets also runs several sites that allow you to give more and act more. At GiveForChange.com, you can make donations online to more than 300 nonprofit groups. At ShopForChange.com, 5 percent of every purchase you make goes toward progressive causes. At ActForChange.com, you can keep an eye on what your government’s up to and learn how you can make a difference.

With the amount of money raised in donations, you might think that Working Assets would charge you more for long-distance calls than other companies. But the truth is my phone bill has been the same or lower since I switched. State-to-state calls cost 7 cents a minute every hour of every day, which is comparable to plans offered by MCI and AT&T.

And then there are the little perks that make me feel good about the switch. Bills are printed on 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper. For the first six months of service, you get a coupon for 60 minutes of free long distance.

And to clinch the deal, you get a coupon for a free pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream every month for the first year. So when you’re lounging around on the couch, eating ice cream and talking on the phone, for once you can feel good about it.