By day Clint Borgen works the phone and the Internet at The Borgen Project, his tiny nonprofit in Pioneer Square, organizing volunteers, planning strategies and contacting legislators to raise the issue of global poverty.

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By day Clint Borgen works the phone and the Internet at The Borgen Project, his tiny nonprofit in Pioneer Square, organizing volunteers, planning strategies and contacting legislators to raise the issue of global poverty.

By night, he works down the street at the swank Hotel 1000, delivering room service orders and earning a paycheck that supports himself and his seven-year project to “downsize poverty.”

With a shoestring budget and an all-volunteer staff, the 32-year old Anacortes native and Washington State University grad has become one of the most vocal political advocates for people without a voice.

KRISTI HEIM/SEATTLE TIMES

Clint Borgen, founder and president of The Borgen Project, shows a memo from a Senate office recording calls and emails from constituents. He is building a national network of volunteers to lobby their elected representatives in support of funding to reduce hunger and poverty.

The spotlight this week on the UN Millennium Development Goals means the world’s commitment to combat poverty and inequality is the focus of numerous speeches and pronouncements by world leaders, celebrities and philanthropists.

But Borgen says that to move the dial, politics must reach down to the local level.

He aims to mobilize and train volunteers in all 435 U.S. congressional districts to serve as “ambassadors for the world’s poor.” He has already recruited volunteers in 52 cities, from Harvard MBAs to military vets, to begin urging their elected representatives to take action on bills for maternal and child health, clean water and food security.

Borgen says he wants to make sure every congressional leader is feeling pressure from constituents to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

“It really comes down to their district,” he said. “Party affiliation is almost irrelevant.” What matters is whether people in a given district care about an issue, and especially if they care enough to contact their representative.

By calling in or writing to express an opinion on a specific bill, “anybody can have a pretty direct influence on members of Congress,” he said. “If no one in their base is showing support, that’s where they don’t want to put their neck on the line. They need to be able to defend their decision.”

The Borgen Project is trying to remove roadblocks to more funding for poverty-focused foreign aid, working on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the House International Relations Committee and in areas like Oklahoma where politicians historically have opposed such funding, Borgen said.

“Oklahoma is our big headache,” he said. Even across the country, “there’s only a handful of districts where it’s easy, where leaders are true champions on the issue.”

The most effective arguments involve the economy and security. The stronger the economies in developing countries, the more markets for U.S. goods.

Looking at the world’s most volatile states — Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan — “they almost match up evenly: the most poverty, the least security.”

He was encouraged earlier this year to see 50 retired generals come out in favor of full funding for the foreign aid budget.

“It’s one thing for do-gooder groups to say we support the goals, but it definitely helps the message when the military is saying you ought to be doing it to protect the U.S.”

Like many entrepreneurs, Borgen began his project with a laptop and an idea.

He’s surprisingly soft-spoken despite his larger-than-life online image. Borgen intended to follow in his uncle’s footsteps to become a firefighter in Seattle. A trip to Kosovo during his sophomore year at WSU altered his career path. He worked in a refugee camp and saw the impact of the war and crimes against humanity.

“It completely changed everything,” he said. “It just really bothered me that that was going on in the age we live in, that the U.S. wasn’t doing more to address the issue.”

“The average American thinks 20 percent (of the U.S. budget) goes to international aid and it’s not even 1 percent,” he said. “There’s no political pressure to do more because the public already thinks we’re doing a lot.”

He began developing his website while working on an Alaskan fishing boat in the Bering Sea.
Since then has recruited volunteers across the country, using university job sites and the website Idealist.org. Congressman Dave Reichert joined his board. The project survives largely on individual donations and an operating budget of about $15,000, Borgen said. The Aegis Group donates its office space, and a Capital One Borgen Project Visa card donates 1 to 2 percent of spending to the nonprofit.

Borgen travels to Washington D.C. a couple of times a year to meet personally with officials, and recently more of them are opening the door. He usually does 70 meetings in three or four days, going from one office to another like “speed-dating.” He’s also started meeting with G-8 diplomats.

Borgen says he isn’t confident that the bills he’s supporting will move forward in this year’s Congressional session. But progress made this year positions them well for next year, he said. And he’s optimistic about his overall aim of attracting more Americans to the cause of global poverty.

As for his namesake project, he says, “As long as I’m around it will be around.”