I recently had the chance to sit down with Ben Rattray, the founder of Change.org, just as the team there was putting the finishing touches on a major website upgrade. It was a great opportunity to get insight into a new phase of online activism.
When I first discovered Change.org during the run-up to the 2008 election, I saw it as a website with lots of content about social activism. But Ben explained that Change.org is also becoming a platform for driving social change at the local level. Change.org gives local citizen activists around the world the tools to launch campaigns that target issues they care about. The site has evolved into an organizing platform that helps concerned people start their own grassroots movement and mobilize others.
The mission of the Change.org team is to build an international network of people who are empowered to fight for local issues. The site offers a free email petition tool and will eventually provide an entire suite of tools for online and offline campaigning. The Change.org team also offers advice from seasoned organizers who provide free training and strategic support. If you start a campaign with them, Change.org will promote it to interested Change.org members, connect you to potential partners and assist you with media outreach.
Ben believes that Change.org can empower individual activists to bring attention to single social justice incidents that exemplify much bigger movement objectives. The platform they are developing can amplify these local actions to build support for bigger change.
For example, Ben pointed out that the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (EDNA) is a big priority for the LGBT community to ensure that LGBT people can't be fired or discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. But, it's not always easy to get people excited about passing a federal law like EDNA. Ben explained that people who cared about this issue made it more compelling by telling a story about a student teacher in Oregon who was discriminated against for being gay. This teacher was fired because he answered a student's question about whether he was married by saying that he couldn't get married in Oregon, because he would want to marry a man.
Focusing on this teacher's story, campaigners created a petition on Change.org that got over 5,000 people to sign on asking for the teacher to be reinstated. This brought a great deal of media attention to the passage of EDNA and helped get the student teacher reinstated.
At my nonprofit Benetech, we are working to make sure that our partners in the disability/literacy, environmental and human rights fields get access to the technology tools they need to carry out their social missions. Change.org is a really exciting example of how technology makes social activism possible at a scale that couldn't have been realized a few years ago. It's one more exciting option for many of our partner organizations. I immediately pointed out Change.org to a parent of a disabled student who is in a lawsuit with her child's school about the lack of educational opportunities.
Of course, being an activist means taking risks, and not all activism results in positive change. But for those who decided to take a stand, I'm excited to present this as an opportunity!
Change.org is also a dynamic example of a social enterprise. The organization began as a nonprofit and it's now a for-profit B corporation. Ben talked about the difficulties of raising money as a for-profit when the goal is not to sell out or go public (that's what most venture capital investors are interested in).
But, there is a very real business here. For established nonprofit groups, Change.org offers a targeted chance to engage new supporters (financial, activism) at a competitive cost. Like many of the social media companies online, Change.org gains insight into the interests of its members and can use this information to better target their services. Of course, the goal here is not to maximize the economic value (as it tends to be with most social media companies), but instead maximize the social engagement of people who care with causes they care about.
As the creators of Change.org point out, the measure of their community's success is the collective impact of their campaigns -- and their ability to identify problems, mobilize people, and create lasting change. Change.org says their members have already won hundreds of campaigns in their neighborhoods, towns, and cities. The platform allows activists to view issues with a personal perspective that helps them build the commitment, connections, and momentum needed to solve large social problems.
The shift in emphasis at Change.org from social issue content to petitions and campaigns is not without risk. But a site that's signing up 150,000 new users each month is obviously getting some traction. I look forward to seeing how this plays out in general and for the issues I personally care about.