But these were not impromptu rebellions that chanced upon success. They were carefully nurtured by Rattray’s fledgling company, a social media site called Change.org that has emerged as one of the most influential channels for activism in the country.
“We’re in the business of amplifying,” Rattray said in an interview. “We’re trying to change the balance of power between individuals and large organizations.”
Rattray said his firm is profitable and hopes to bring in tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue within a few years. It makes money by running campaigns for advocacy groups such as Amnesty International in exchange for a fee. Ordinary users can create an online petition for free.
The company, which has headquarters in the District and in San Francisco, has exploded over the past year, growing from a staff of 20 to about 100, with offices around the world. Though originally conceived as a nonprofit, Change.org is now part of an emerging group of “social benefit corporations,” such as Patagonia, that seek to both make money and do good.
Fueling Change.org’s rise is the wave of global unrest that has given birth to other viral movements such as Occupy Wall Street. But Rattray calls these movements “radically under-
optimized.” They have no leaders and no coordinated mission, and without those, he argues, little chance of long-term success.
“The power unlocked when people have the capacity to more rapidly and effectively organize with others is unprecedented in human history,” Rattray wrote in a recent e-mail to his staff. “But what’s needed for this to be truly transformational is a solution that turns people-power from a force that is episodically realized to one that is deeply embedded in our political and social lives — something that makes people-power pervasive and sustained.”
Enter Change.org. The site allows its 6 million users to launch online petitions on virtually any topic and send them to their social networks. More than 10,000 campaigns are started each month, though most garner only a handful of supporters. One recent petition, filed under “Human Rights,” was titled “MTV Networks: Give Ashley Alexiss Her Own Show.” Others seek nebulous or unattainable goals, such as asking President Obama to end world hunger.
‘Strong theory of change’
A few campaigns, however, break through the noise, quickly winning signatures or articulating a compelling issue. Change.org’s staff members continually monitor the site for those that have what they call a “strong theory of change”: Is the petition gaining traction on its own? Is the request reasonable? Is it winnable? And — perhaps most important and intangible — could it inspire other people or organizations to action?