What would Facebook look like if it was designed for people who want to change the world? Probably quite a bit like Change.org, a petition platform with 50 million registered users that’s now hatching plans to become more social and local.
Change.org is designed for users with specific goals. Like Ndumie Funda, who started a campaign against the horrific so-called “corrective” rape of lesbians in South Africa. The 2011 petition, which gathered over 170,000 signatures from 175 countries, helped push the government to set up a team to investigate and stop further incidents.
Also that year, 22-year-old graduate Molly Katchpole started a petition to pressure Bank of America to drop a $5 monthly debit card fee. Her success, and a campaign calling for justice for slain teen Trayvon Martin that gathered over two million signatures, helped land Change.org CEO Ben Rattray a spot in TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in 2012.
So what’s it like to be in the business of changing the world? In the first three or four years after Rattray started the company in 2007, it didn’t look like much at all. “We had lots of epic failures in the beginning,” he recalls (pictured above left), speaking during a small public meeting in Berlin last week and an interview after it. “We had the common vision of empowering people for change but we had no idea how to do it.”
The founding team tried building a social network for non-profits and activists then a blog network. “It was only when we went back to the oldest tool in advocacy,” Rattray says. “Petitions, and social media, were the secret sauce in allowing everything to take off.”
Future plans – and the business plan
Fast forward to November 2013 and Change.org employs 200 people in 18 offices around the world. It’s launched 500,000 petitions, with about a dozen meeting their targets each day. The company has raised capital – $15m in May 2013 from eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s Omidyar Network – and poached ex-Googler Jennifer Dulski as new COO.
This is where it gets difficult. Unlike global activist network Avaaz, which also offers petition tools and is sitting at close to 30 million members, Change.org isn’t a non-profit. It’s a business, albeit one with B Corporation status that requires it to meet strict social, environmental, accountability and transparency standards.
The business model, like that of Facebook, combines sponsored content and “cost per action” advertising. Here’s how it works: register, sign a petition and you might be presented with a sponsored campaign. If you sign it, you’ll be given the option to “keep updated on this campaign and others”.
In other words, your email address will be passed to the sponsoring organisation so it can contact you directly. What happens to it after that? While anyone can sponsor a petition as long as it doesn’t promote hate, violence or discrimination, the company does its best to work with reputable organisations with a record of “public trust” such as Amnesty International or Oxfam, Rattray says.
“How do you build a company that lasts 100 years and how do you build a movement that will last the test of time? The only way to do that is to build the kind of service that people fall in love with, that people feel serves them,” he adds.
“You have startups that expressly focus on serving the advertisers first and in the long-run it’s not actually the best thing for the company.”
Change.org actually started life as a non-profit before switching to its current model, which in his opinion proved crucial for its success. “It took four years to find out how to be most effective, build the best tools to enable people to make change – we couldn’t have done that as a non-profit.”
Next steps include further expansion into Africa and Latin America. Egypt and “Hong Kong and the surrounding area and greater China” are also particularly interesting.
The company is also starting to add major new features including verified accounts for politicians and corporations so they can respond to campaigners within the platform itself.
Also on the way are local pages – for example, Change.org Berlin. “You’ll be able to see all the campaigns taking off in your community, all the decision-makers that are relevant,” Rattray explains. “Your mayor, your councils, your school boards… Then connect people who care about the same issues as you.”
The end goal is to inspire action. “It’s not how do you build tools to enable change,” Rattray says. “It’s how do you change culture so people believe it’s possible.”