Interview by Brooke Edwards, Heifer International writer
As president of ONE, Michael Elliott leads a chorus of 6 million voices united to help end extreme poverty, hunger and preventable disease, particularly in Africa. ONE does not ask for donations—they ask for your voice in speaking up for people who often go unheard.
WORLD ARK: Tell me about ONE.
MICHAEL ELLIOTT: ONE is a global advocacy and campaigning organization working on issues of extreme poverty, preventable disease, hunger, nutrition and the like. Our mission is to be an advocacy organization that combats extreme poverty and all the things that drive it, which is why we do a lot of work in disease and hunger and nutrition, disease and transparency.
We have our roots in the Drop the Debt movement of the 1990s (a campaign that called for cancellation of international debts owed by the world’s poorest countries) and other manifestations of that. We took our present form 11 years ago, but we have antecedents that go back deeper than that. We encompass ONE, which is the advocacy and campaigning arm of the organization; also (RED), which is the cause consumerism operation; both of them, of course, brain children, at least in part, of Bono (activist, singer-songwriter and frontman for the rock band U2).
What pieces of ONE’s work make you most proud?
I’m proud of the global effort to maintain global public health organizations at the forefront of everyone’s thinking. The replenishment of funding for the Global Fund (an international financing organization that provides resources to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria) two years ago; replenishment of Gavi (a public-private global alliance that increases access to vaccines in poor countries) this year— those are massive global campaigns, in which everyone all over the organization played a part.
I was very proud of what everyone did in our classic inside-outside game. It’s important to stress that. We work the inside game—we have real professional people doing government relations all over the world—and we bring six million voices to bear in the outside game to amplify their work. The insideoutside game is tremendously important. ONE has been instrumental in calling on governments to pledge billions of dollars in funding for Global Fund and Gavi, allowing these organizations to provide lifesaving care for millions of people around the world.
I’ve been very proud in the way we placed energy poverty on the agenda, particularly in the U.S., as a new area for advocacy. More than 620 million people in sub-Saharan Africa lack access to electricity. ONE has been working with the U.S. government to develop and pass a bill promoting reliable, affordable and sustainable electricity access for at least 50 million people by 2020. I’m very proud of everything our U.S. team does for that.
And I’m very proud of what our global team did last year. We took what is actually a problem we don’t talk about: that agriculture isn’t sexy. We all know that agriculture is the fastest way out of poverty that anyone has dreamt of, we all know what the figures are, we all know the proportion of African families that depend on agriculture. But we also know it’s not that sexy. Everyone wants to leave the farm and go live in the city.
So we did this campaign called Do Agric last year, which was global, working very closely with the African Union, and we did a fantastic video with rock stars from all over Africa. It was brilliant. Then we brought them all here, to Washington, D.C., for the African Leaders’ Summit in August. We took over the museum and did this fantastic concert and party, but with investment in agriculture as a very focused message. And I was very proud of that.
And I’m beyond proud that (RED), our cause consumerism arm, which Bono and Bobby Shriver and others dreamt up really only seven years ago, has already given more than $300 million to the Global Fund.
A ONE-derful Partnership
Heifer International and ONE started their partnership in 2013. This relationship provides an opportunity for supporters to combine the policy and advocacy of ONE with Heifer's programmatic impact.
Through the Limited Edition ONE Goat campaign, ONE and Heifer supporters raised funds to provide nearly 2,000 goats to help families move from poverty to prosperity. You can still participate in the campaign.Learn More
Can you talk more about the inside game? This spring, a team of bloggers and other social media influencers visited Malawi to learn about the work of ONE and Heifer International. Photographer and writer Karen Walrond shares some photo highlights of her trip.
When people say to me, “What should we concentrate on? What should we not forget?” I always say, “Get your inside game ready.” I can’t say enough about our government relations here and in London, Brussels, Berlin and Johannesburg. The relationships they have, the toplevel political relationships they have. The ability to get in the door of the key appropriations subcommittee person here or a commissioner in Brussels or a minister in London or Paris to really make the case with the real decision-makers about why a particular program should be so important and worth support. If we couldn’t do that, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do. God bless the six million members who are writing postcards and signing petitions and all that—we couldn’t do it without them either. It’s the combination of the two that’s absolutely key.
What have been some lessons hard learned?
It’s always important to make sure that you really see things through, that you really finish something before you get on to the next. I think the other thing that’s quite difficult is that we all have to recognize that the economy may be picking up again, but people have had a tough year, in this country and in lots of other donor countries, and we need to be very sensitive about how we talk to people when we’re asking them to help people who are less fortunate. We can do it, there are ways to do it, but it behooves us to remember that a lot of people we’re talking to have gone through tough times themselves.
As membership has grown to six million, have you seen ONE become more effective?
What can you do with six million voices that you could not do with one million? You get heard more. There are three consequences of having a great membership: weight, persuasion and place. Weight is simply that, when you’ve got six million people, rather than two million people or one million people, the petitions are going to be bigger, the noise you’re going to make is going to be greater, the number of phone calls that are made is going to be higher. The tidal wave is bigger. It’s tremendously important for us to have.
Persuasion, by that I mean, the bigger your funnel at the top, the more people you will have down here, we call them catalysts, who really do the work, who get on the phone to their member of Congress, who show up at a diner for a lunch, wearing a ONE t-shirt, and say, “Madame Congresswoman, there’s a line in the budget about this or that, and here’s the reason why I expect you to defend it.” The bigger the funnel at the top, the bigger number of catalysts, the real, real dedicated members you’ll get at the bottom.
Geography is important, too, because as we have grown, we have been able to expand the number of places where we are able to perfect our inside-outside advocacy, and the real strength there has been that we’ve done enormous recruitment in Africa in the last few years. And, hey, presto, we find that when we go back to them and ask them to do things, they respond in exactly the same rates as people do here, and that is giving us an opportunity to focus, for example, advocacy attention on the African Union or an international body, and also on some campaigns we’ve done in individual African countries, like Tanzania. So it gives us an opportunity to do more.
Spread the Word
As we continue to grow over the next five to 10 years, I very much hope that we’ll be able to pull that off in more donor countries like Korea or Japan, where we already have members. In Brazil, in India, in places where there is a growing population of people, particularly young people, who think of themselves as globally engaged, we want to be the key advocacy organization they think of when they think, “How can I press my own government to make sure that they contribute to solving global problems? The ONE Campaign are the people I’m going to look to, to help me do that.”
You guys seem to have a really good handle on your audience and knowing what they want.
I think we have devoted a lot of time to thinking about how to combine policy, politics and pop culture so there are smart, lively videos; so that we use well-known spokespeople in the right way, so that we can really connect with people in a way that they remember — that has a certain kind of tactile quality, a visceral, whether it’s music or video or something kind of catchy that really brings people in.
We constantly have to refresh that and make sure you’re right up to the minute, you’re talking to the right people, using the right technologies. If last year it’s Instagram, this year it’s Snapchat, or whatever. So you can never rest on your laurels, because things will change.
For our World Ark readers, what is membership in ONE like?
What should they expect if they join? I think there’s signifi cant overlap between Heifer and ONE. You’ll get asked to do a lot. You’ll get emails from us, you’ll get petitions to sign.
This spring, a team of bloggers and other social media influencers visited Malawi to learn about the work of ONE and Heifer International. Photographer and writer Karen Walrond shares some photo highlights of her trip.
We want people who join ONE to be engaged, we want them to be involved. We had 200 of our key members from around the U.S. in town, and we had hundreds of meetings on the Hill with lots of members of Congress, and a bunch of congressional stars showed up for a meeting with our people. So we want them to be busy. We want them to make the phone calls, sign the petitions, get the letters, talk to their neighbors, go to church on Sunday, and then have a coff ee afterwards and tell people about why the issues that we work on are important. We want engaged members, we want involved members, we want members who are as outraged as we are by the essential injustice that so many people’s life chances just depend solely on an accident of where they were born. We’re here to do something about that, as far as we can. The sort of people we want are the people who are as outraged as we are that that’s the case.
Do you see a time when ONE will expand its eff orts outside the African continent?
Our line is always that we’re advocates of issues of extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa. The reason that we say that is because Africa tends to be the toughest intervention. If you get tackling maternal mortality in Sierra Leone right, you’ll fi gure it out in Laos or Guatemala or wherever it is. I think increasingly we will fi nd ourselves talking about truly global issues and not just African ones.
We know that extreme poverty is increasingly going to be concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa. That’s true, over the next 20 or 30 years. But there are issues to do with women’s empowerment, women’s health, with economic growth, generally, that are not just African issues and which are really global issues.