- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
In 1994, Mark Coats, a veteran of the Austin high-tech industry, caught an interview on the radio. Host Eric Blumberg was chatting with Sam Daley-Harris, author and founder of Results, a nonprofit group that advocates for the poorest of the poor.
Coats called in and asked questions. As it turned out, the group was holding a meeting that night, so he attended. For $20, Coats received a Daley-Harris book and a three-month trial membership.
“Within three months, I was a team leader,” he says. “They knew how to get results. To be effective. They worked on the national level to affect international policy for good.”
Coats, 61, the son of missionaries from the Midwest, grew up mostly in Thailand. So the urge to help was already deeply ingrained. But he had noticed that common forms of advocacy did not gain much traction.
“I had been worrying about the Contras,” he says about the U.S.-funded right-wing military groups in Central America. “I joined people marching around the Federal Building with our signs against injustice and killings. It didn’t work very well.”
Through Results, he learned that staff-trained volunteer teams worked very closely with legislators and, especially, their staff members over long periods of time. Trust, credibility and persistence often won out where slogans and petitions did not.
Coats decided to learn those Results tactics and apply them to something that mattered greatly to him.
“The biggest darn thing you could work on is hunger,” he realized. “While you’re lying awake at night worrying about fixing the lawnmower, why not worry about hunger? When you get down to it, if somebody doesn’t have enough to eat, the body withdraws oxygen from the limbs and the brain. You don’t have the mental stamina when you are starving to even pray. Your body is shutting down.”
In 2005, Coats teamed with Eloise Sutherland as volunteers for Results to reach out to Republican Rep. Michael McCaul.
In 2012, they made a case to McCaul for the Microenterprise Empowerment and Job Creation Act, meant to expand access to microcredit in poor countries.
“For years, we got back next to nothing,” Coats says. “If it had to do with money, the answer was no. We had a chance to actually meet with him. Eloise asked him directly to co-sponsor legislation. McCaul said it was something he could get behind. But when we got back with his staffers, we heard, ‘Go slow,’ and then, ‘He’s not going to do it.’”
A few months later, during a meeting at the Headliners Club, Sutherland confronted McCaul: “You said you would co-sponsor it.”
According to Coats, McCaul then promised to take care of the deal that his staff had circumvented.
“Since that time, he’s met with us and got behind actions,” Coats says. “There’s a certain simpatico, too. He went to Jesuit prep school in Dallas. He calls Eloise ‘Sister Eloise.’ She’s not really a nun, but rather an accountant. But the message connected with him.”
With a jaunty hat protecting his head, Coats sits in the sunny courtyard of Mañana coffee shop with his friend Jim Comer, a comparative newcomer to Results who, as a writer and speaker, for years has helped people care for their aging parents.
RELATED: Jim Comer on parenting your parents
Lately, Coats has heard from lots of Austinites who are confounded by the current state of the union.
“Everybody asks: How do I get involved? How do I contribute? What can I do?” Comer says. “Well, you could be part a group that has been doing this for years. Made changes. Made legislation.”
Together, Coats and Comer mapped out their separate and shared experiences with Results.
“I had my first meeting with Congressman Jake Pickle at the Federal Building,” Coats recalls. “We came in and had our talking points. He sat back telling stories about Washington. He went on for a while. I saw that our time was running out, so I butted in and re-emphasized that I wanted him to take an action. He could tell that we were serious and focused on something, as opposed to just letting it slide off.”
As anyone with a cause knows, legislators and their staff members are quite adroit at diverting attention.
“One of the things Results teaches you is to end your conversation with an ‘ask,’” Comer says. “Either signing something or some other call to action.”
“Generally, they don’t give us the answer then,” Coats adds. “We follow up: When can I get back to you? This is the nuts and bolts of lobbying. And the nonpartisan beauty of Results: Who wants to let babies die? Most of the work is about educating a member of Congress about the fact that we already had the solutions, but we were just not applying them yet.”
For example, in 1990, before Coats joined Results, a World Summit for Children had concentrated on the underuse of a measles vaccine.
“At that time, it had been around for decades, but 80 percent of the world’s children were not vaccinated,” Coats says. “A very inexpensive tool was not being used. Within two years, the vaccination rate went up to 75 percent because of the efforts of the United States, UNICEF and others. Tens of millions of children lived.”
The Results staff and volunteers operate in a universe drowning in lobby money. Their response is to localize.
“When you go up to D.C., you see the people in nice suits, handsome and friendly,” Coats says. “They walk by us to go into meetings. They are the paid lobbyists for banking, insurance, petrochemicals — everybody’s got their cadre up there. Generally, however, they are not from the member’s district or even state. We come up there on a regular basis to meet with members as part of their communities, as volunteers, not as paid lobbyists.”
The local Results team also tries to meet with candidates before they win office. Future U.S. Rep. John Carter, for instance, had time to see them between the primary and general elections.
“He beat out everybody on a very conservative message,” Coats says. “We went to see him that summer and talked about encouraging microcredit through United States Agency for International Development. He liked that: ‘Let’s go for it. It’s the American way.’ A few years later, Carter oversaw USAID funding, remembered microcredit and supported it.”
Coats and Comer were attracted to Results specifically because it doesn’t make airy promises.
“Most people think about the quick fix,” Comer says. “Results is about relationships. Over time — a long time — you get real effects. It’s the cumulative results of credibility, doing education, and knowing we have nothing to gain from this. Caring about the poorest of the poor and changing their lives. The people in D.C. don’t meet many people like us.”
They believe that their advocacy is effective, too, because they have learned how to reach and advise decision-makers.
Coats: “To borrow a line from astronaut Rusty Schweickart, I moved from a passenger seat on spaceship Earth to one of the crew.”