Change.org emerges as influential advocate on issues from bullying to bank fees

January 23, 2012

Ben Rattray knows that revolution does not always happen spontaneously.

The 31-year-old entrepreneur rattles off a list of populist actions over the past year: the consumer revolts against Bank of America’s and Verizon’s unpopular fees, a drive to enlist the San Francisco Giants to speak out against anti-gay bullying, a petition forcing the South African government to address the rape of lesbians. Each campaign won thousands of supporters, inflamed public opinion, and drew the ire of corporate executives and political leaders.

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?

The company then offers the petition’s writer an arsenal of support, from media training to community organizing. For a campaign pushing Hershey’s to use fair-trade cocoa, it bought Facebook ads designed to appear on the profiles of the company’s executives. To help protest the Florida trial of 12-year-old Cristian Fernandez, who was charged as an adult with the murder of his brother, Change.org staffers suggested that demonstrators carry props symbolizing the boy’s youth.

And in the pushback against Verizon’s $2 bill-paying fee, the company tested e-mails with five different subject lines to determine which was most compelling. “Really, Verizon?” was the winner, with 5.2 percent of e-mail recipients viewing the petition and 3.6 percent signing it.

The site also takes on more personal causes; a growing number of petitions are launched to fight deportations or foreclosures. Kristiane Chappell’s is one that has taken off.

The California resident spent months battling First Mortgage Corp. to prevent the lender from foreclosing on her mother’s home after a spinal injury forced her mother to quit her job as a schoolteacher. Lawmakers and government agencies told Chappell they could not help her, so she decided to take her cause public by launching a petition on Change.org in November.

“The time is just ticking away until mom is once again at risk of losing her home,” Chappell wrote.

She sent the petition to friends, family members and co-workers and received a few hundred signatures in the first weeks. Then she e-mailed Change.org about featuring her campaign on the site.

The staff leapt on the cause, helping her tweak her petition letter to appeal to more people and craft a news release for local media. Within 11 days, the number of signatures jumped from 3,000 to 20,000. The petition now boasts more than 40,000 signatures.

During a strategy call on a recent morning, Chappell briefed Change.org organizer Jessica Kutch on her next big step: hand-delivering the petition to the chief executive of First Mortgage. Kutch offered to reach out to petition-signers who live near Chappell to create a bigger crowd at the event.

“Maybe he’ll want to come out looking like a good guy,” Chappell said of the chief executive. “I feel like it’s worth a try.”

‘Local manifestations’

Over the past year, Change.org has counted 800 victories on issues spanning human rights, education, animal cruelty and criminal justice. Rattray said many of the petitions are “local manifestations of big, national problems” — making it easier to build support and create change. Fixing the foreclosure crisis, for example, is an unwieldy and divisive issue; keeping a disabled schoolteacher in her home seems like a no-brainer.

Rattray is careful to distance the company from any political party, though issues such as gay rights lean to the left of the spectrum. Change.org said it will not provide paid campaigns for organizations that put their own profits over public good. It has separate staffs to work with paying sponsors and members who use the site for free. Sometimes, petitions started by the public conflict with those paid for by sponsors — and the company is okay with that.

“People who want to create positive social change don’t always agree on the best way to do that,” Communications Director Benjamin Joffe-Walt said. “We are very aware of that and are interested in all people finding a home on our platform.”

Rattray said the site’s brand of advocacy is post-partisan and its direction dictated entirely by the site’s users. But eventually, he hopes, the micro-level campaigns will coalesce into broader social change. He points to the civil rights movement of a generation ago, which started not with debate on Capitol Hill but with a woman on a bus or a sit-in at a lunch counter.

That’s the intangible that Rattray wants Change.org to capture, algorithmize and disseminate. This year, his goal is to go beyond winning campaigns.

“How do you go from moments to movements?” he asked.

Ylan Q. Mui is a financial reporter at The Washington Post covering the Federal Reserve and the economy.
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