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Dial 1 for Rain Forests: Discount Phone Rates Sold to Social Activists

IF you want to save old-growth California redwoods from becoming lumber, or help reduce air pollution, Laura Scher suggests that you and your friends make a few million long-distance phone calls, and she'll throw in a free pint of fudge ripple ice cream if you do.

As CEO of Working Assets Long Distance, a socially conscious telephone service based in San Francisco, Ms. Scher's firm is the leader in a new way of raising funds in the United States to support causes and organizations.

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``Every time you make a call through us,'' says Scher, ``we give 1 percent of your phone bill to nonprofit action groups working for peace, or the environment, or human rights.'' Call long distance with Working Assets and you'll also receive a coupon for a pint of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream.

In the past three years, Working Assets has donated $3.5 million to such organizations as Greenpeace, Oxfam America, Planned Parenthood, and Amnesty International, some 36 groups in all.

While Working Assets focuses on social causes, other marketing firms are increasingly servicing trade associations, nonprofit groups, or insurance companies and religious groups. Even politically conservative groups such as the American Family Association in Tupelo, Miss., are starting to offer members discounted long-distance calling.

``Working Assets is very unique,'' says Dennis Miga, president of Matrix Telecom, a Texas marketing company that buys phone time, as Working Assets does, at deep discounts from one of the three big networks - MCI, Sprint, or AT&T - and resells it to organizations. ``Working Assets doesn't really stress the discounts like we do,'' says Mr. Miga. ``They market their support of social and political causes, and they do it very successfully.''

Matrix Telecom along with Trans National Communications in Boston are two of the biggest resellers in the US. They serve hundreds of thousands of customers as marketers of long-distance services.

Among the organizations served by Trans National are the National Wildlife Federation, the American Museum of Natural History, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. ``We customize a long-distance program,'' says Mr. Furbush, ``and the discounts to the customers can be anywhere between 10 to 35 percent depending on individual calling patterns.''

Furbush and other marketers say the idea is growing because everyone in the transaction benefits. And tapping into residential phone revenues is barely noticeable in the caller's pocketbook. ``We have created a funding mechanism for organizations that has no overhead,'' says Scher.

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``We started in an atmosphere when the big three didn't really encourage the concept of reselling,'' says Miga. ``Now over $1 billion a year is flowing into the carriers through resale, and that's just in the last three years.''

Working Assets differs from all other long-distance services with innovative ways to support causes. It will send issue-oriented CitizenLetters to Congress, the White House, or corporations for customers at $3 a letter. On any Monday, customers can call politicians and decisionmakers without charge for five minutes of opinion sharing. And if the customer will round up a monthly phone bill, for instance from $32.56 to $35, the additional $2.44 goes to social causes, too.

``Early this year,'' says Scher, ``one of our actions generated 32,000 letters to support a bill to allow the US Department of Interior to protect one of the last stands of old-growth redwood that a lumber company was selling to pay for junk bonds.'' With increased attention, it is expected to pass the Senate and the House.

Other fledgling efforts are beginning to emulate Working Assets. A coalition of nonprofit public-interest research groups formed a long-distance service in 1993 with the name Earthtones. ``Unlike the other services, we are wholly owned by the nonprofits,'' says Derek Cressman, Earthtones director, ``and 100 percent of our profits goes to environmental campaigns.''

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