Gamechanging and Change.org
As Ben Rattray, Founder of the highly influential changemaker site Change.org tells it, he graduated from Stanford with every intention of becoming the next Gordon Gecko. So how did this would-be capitalist become the engineer behind one of the fastest growing, most successful social change agent outlets? It all begins with a click moment. For Rattray, that was his own younger brother’s coming out story.
“What struck me most was his description of the pain he felt not at the hands of actively homophobic people, but because of those people who stood by and did nothing. And I was one of them. It made me ashamed.”
Determined to chart a different legacy, Rattray launched Change.org in 2007 with an inspiration push from Facebook’s exponential success. While the site morphed over time from a social network for non-profits to a social activist blog, its current iteration as a petition site evolved from a sidebar functionality related to topic-based causes. The first few years of the site were touch and go, proving once again that persistence over time often leads to the tipping point. (See the Graphic Visualization above for a dynamic shorthand version of Rattray’s story.)
For Change.org, the pivot moment came from three key campaigns involving South Africa, Bank of America and teenage girls. The first campaign to go viral was launched from an Internet café in Cape Town by an unknown black lesbian named Ndumie Funda who had been gangraped in a rampant practice said to “cure” homosexuals. Her petition gained 171,000 signatures from 175 countries worldwide and led to a South African parliamentary commission to end this form of hate crime. As Rattray tells it,
There was almost no person on Earth with less power than this woman. A poor black lesbian woman in South Africa who had herself been raped. She launched the largest advocacy campaign online South Africa had ever seen – it was incredible.
The success of this campaign demonstrated the nascent force of crowdsourced Internet activism, followed by Molly Katchpole‘s campaign against Bank of America to end egregious bank card fees. The success of her campaign, which resulted in Bank of America rescinding the $5 ATM usage fee, led Katchpole to an advocacy job with Rebuild the Dream. Clearly, Rattray’s mission to even the playing field for individuals in a world of influence dominated by the 1% was succeeding.
Teenage girls like Julia Bluhm have tapped the site in collaboration with Spark Summit to call for an end to photoshopping in Seventeen and Teen Vogue, with other successful girl-led efforts on bullying, a female moderator for the 2012 Presidential debates and a current campaign to include female characters in FIFA’s soccer video games. As Ben sees it,
Teenage girls are the most powerful force in the world.
In 2012, of the Change.org petition for the Trayvon Martin racial justice case garnered over 2.2 million signatures, calling for the apprehension and second-degree murder charge of self-anointed neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, who at the time had been released by police despite confessing to the unarmed teenage boy’s murder in “self-defense.” The petition, initiated by Trayvon’s grieving parents, grew to a global movement of demonstrations, rallies and high-profile media coverage leading to the apprehension and conviction of Zimmerman, proving that powerlessness in the face of government indifference no longer need be an option.
Despite the .org in its name, Change.org does operate as a social good for-profit venture, or B Corporation, with organizations such as Amnesty International and the Humane Society paying for advertising and list-building through the petition drives. With more than 10,000 new campaigns each month, the company has grown from 10 to more than 100 employees in 20 countries and has big plans for the future.
Here is a screengrab of @vmlab’s livetweets from Ben’s speech at the 2013 Harvard Social Enterprise Conference, held in Boston despite two feet of snow gifted by Blizzard Nemo: