WASHINGTON — In a new twist on dialing for dollars, the Christian Coalition of America and several other pro-family lobbies are raising money by encouraging members to sign up with an anti-abortion phone company that gives its profits to the groups.
The fund-raising through Pro Life Communications is the latest example of interest groups delving into commerce to boost their finances, especially with tough economic times putting a squeeze on donations. Other groups are selling mailing lists and endorsing credit cards for commissions.
"I think it would be safe to say there has been a decline in contributions, and I think it's due to the economy and due to September 11," Christian Coalition President Roberta Combs said. "I think everybody was affected by it. But we're very hopeful it will turn back around."
Pro Life Communications also operates under the brand name Freedom Telecom, raising money for conservative groups with agendas far broader than opposing abortion, said Joseph Dalton, who founded the St. Charles, Mo., business with his wife, Jane.
"The ministry was started based on a direct calling from our Lord and savior Jesus Christ," he said. "It is unusual what we do. But that's also the reason for the wonderful response we get. Other companies have used long-distance and communications for fund raising in the past. However, they only donate a portion of the profits. We donate all the profits."
The Christian Coalition began promoting the company's new local service last week. It signed up to raise money through its long-distance service last year.
Others raising money through Pro Life Communications include National Right to Life and several of its state affiliates, Concerned Women for America and Heartbeat International.
The business, founded five years ago, has also reached out to political candidates. Businessman Clyde Cleveland, a Libertarian candidate for Iowa governor last year, raised money through the company for his campaign, Dalton said.
The 2 million-member Christian Coalition, long a force in Republican politics, sent out a solicitation last week encouraging its members to sign up for the company's services.
"For the first time ever, with Pro Life Communications we have a local phone company that desires to honor God, uphold family values and save the 3,500 innocent babies that are killed each day in the name of 'choice,' " Combs wrote in the e-mail appeal sent last Thursday.
Pro Life Communications estimates it will raise the coalition about $72 a year for each member who signs up for the long-distance service. For the local phone service package, the coalition gets a $15 signing bonus plus $2 per month for each member.
If just a quarter of the coalition members were to sign up, it would generate tens of millions of dollars a year.
The coalition, a tax-exempt group registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a social welfare organization, plans to use the money for operating costs. Those include voter guides it puts out before elections outlining how members of Congress voted on issues important to the coalition.
"You can use it for anything," coalition board member Drew McKissick said. "It's just like if somebody sent us $20 in the mail."
One unresolved question is whether phone proceeds could be used to run political ads close to elections. Under a campaign finance law that took effect in November, a range of groups are banned from airing ads that mention a federal candidate within one month of a primary and two months of a general election.
If those restrictions survive legal challenges, the coalition could seek an exemption from the ad restrictions as a group that does not derive donations from companies or unions. The Federal Election Commission or a court would likely scrutinize the coalition's phone company arrangement and decide whether it counted as a business contribution or not.
The coalition plans to promote the company's phone services aggressively this year. Last year, it didn't make much of an effort and estimates it made only about $7,000 to $8,000 through December, with more than 1,000 members signed up.
Business co-founder Dalton said last year was a tough one in telecommunications, and the company paid out only about $225,000 to the various groups.