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Originally published September 21, 2010 at 8:04 PM | Page modified September 21, 2010 at 8:49 PM

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Seattle man tackles global poverty

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

Seattle Times business reporter

By day Clint Borgen works the phone and the Internet at 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 him and his 7-year-old Borgen 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 a vocal political advocate for people without a voice.

This week's United Nations summit on the Millennium Development Goals means combating 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 directors in all 50 states, 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 member of Congress is feeling pressure from constituents to achieve the U.N. development goals. 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.

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

"Oklahoma is our big headache," he said. "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, Borgen said. Looking at the world's most volatile states — Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan — "they almost match up evenly: the most poverty, the least security."

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, which includes videos and photos of him used in many advocacy campaigns. 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.

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"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 has recruited volunteers on university job sites and the website Idealist.org. It also helps that U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, 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, roughly one every 15 minutes, going from one office to another like "speed dating."

He's also started meeting with diplomats from the G-8 nations.

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."

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

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