By Greg Beato

Ben Rattray launched Change.org, an advocacy-oriented
social network, in February 2007. In its
original iteration, Change.org offered a variety of
tools to facilitate fund-raising, volunteerism, and
other forms of cause-related engagement. But it
wasn’t until three years later, in January 2010,
that Rattray saw how he could establish Change.org as a platform
for shaping laws, regulations, and policies in the real world. “A homelessness
activist in Boulder, Colo., started a petition calling on the
mayor to suspend an ordinance that made it illegal for people to
sleep outside at night,” Rattray explains.

The ability to create petitions had been a part of Change.org since
the site’s earliest days, but it hadn’t been a part that Rattray and his
colleagues had emphasized. Over time, though, users had gravitated
toward that service, and by early 2010 petitions at Change.org were
garnering thousands of signatures each week. Unfortunately, many
of the most popular ones were powered by rhetoric rather than
strategy. “Tell Sarah Palin and the Tea Partiers to Stop Lying,” declared
one. “Demand Global Medical Assistance for All,” insisted
another. Even if such campaigns had been able to attract millions
of signatures, they were nonstarters. There was no practical way to
implement the changes that they sought.

But the Boulder homeless rights campaign was different. Two
hundred people quickly signed the petition. Each time someone
did so, Change.org—as it does with any petition that targets a specific
decision maker—automatically sent an email to Mayor Susan
Osborne’s office. Although the number of signers was relatively small,
their messages were going to someone who wasn’t used to getting
that kind of feedback. “It shocked her,” Rattray says. “She’d never
seen that much attention and interest from citizens on this issue.”

Then some of the petition signers arranged to attend a city council
meeting. When they showed up there, the mayor instructed the Boulder city manager to place an emergency moratorium on the ordinance. “It
was a great illustration of the power that everyday people have in making
small, incremental changes,” Rattray says. “Once we saw how that
worked, we decided to start emphasizing petitions as a mechanism.”

Throughout its history, Change.org has lived up to its name—not just by empowering its users to pursue social change, but also
by steadily refining and repositioning the way that it serves and appeals
to users. The decision to focus on petitions helped clarify the
purpose of the platform. It also helped create a brand identity that
continues to resonate with users. But Rattray and his colleagues
aren’t standing still. “Signing a petition is the first step,” he says.
“It’s the way of aggregating the largest audience of people who are
potentially interested in an issue. But we’re not building a petition
site. We’re building an empowerment company.”

Broad Reach, Big Plans

When Change.org started paying more attention to petitions, users
started paying more attention to Change.org. As of November 2011,
it was adding about 500,000 registered users per month. By the summer
of 2012 (when Stanford Social Innovation Review first covered the
organization), it had 10 million registered users. Today, Change.org
has more than 70 million registered users, and it’s adding 4 million
new ones per month. Each month, moreover, about 40 million people
visit the site, and each month users create about 20,000 new petitions.
On a regular basis, these petitions result in what the site calls
“victories.” In 2011, for example, Bank of America dropped its plan
to introduce a monthly $5 debit card fee in the wake of a Change.
org campaign. In 2012, the Motion Picture Association of America
switched its rating of the movie Bully from R to PG-13 after more
than 500,000 people signed a Change.org petition.

Now, in 2014, Change.org is ready to build on its success with
petitions. It has started to invite elected officials, corporations, and
other entities to create special Decision Maker pages where they can
respond directly to petitions that target them. The purpose of this evolving functionality is to establish Change.org as a place where
multiple stakeholders can craft solutions through extended debate
and negotiation. If you’d like to see the federal government devote
more money to science education, for example, you could target
Mike Honda, a Democrat from California, who serves
on the House of Representatives Commerce, Justice, and Science
Committee—and who maintains his own Decision Maker page.

Honda and other Decision Makers on the platform—they range
from politicians like Representative Paul Ryan, Republican of
to companies like Ikea and Etsy—aren’t obligated to
respond to petitions that target them. But Change.org leaders certainly
hope that they will. “We’ve built this incredible megaphone for
everyday people to have a voice that is much louder than it was before,”
Rattray explains. “But we want to make sure that Change.org is
more than just shouting at decision makers.”

Change.org, in short, is positioning itself as a locus of policymaking
that is more accessible and more transparent than traditional
venues of governance. It’s an extremely ambitious proposition. But
as the Internet continues to decentralize power in all facets of life,
people are developing new expectations about the way the world
works. When they tweet a message to an elected official, they expect
a reply. When they lodge a complaint with a major corporation, they
demand more than a boilerplate response. Rattray and his colleagues
understand the appeal of an institution that can help meet those
expectations. That’s one reason that their company is on track to
reach 100 million registered users worldwide.

Change.org, despite its suffix,
is not a nonprofit organization.
It’s a self-described “mission-driven social enterprise.”
It’s also a certified B corporation,
which means that it aims
to prioritize social good over
shareholder returns. In any
case, it vigorously pursues revenues
and profits. It has been operating
in the black since 2010,
and it has developed multiple
revenue streams. In May 2013,
most notably, the company secured
$15 million in funding
from the Omidyar Network, a
philanthropic investment firm
created by eBay founder Pierre
Omidyar. “When Change.org
made that transition to a full-fledged peer-to-peer platform,
it became a wonderful
fit for us,” says Chris Bishko,
an investment partner at the
Omidyar Network who now sits on the Change.org board. “We are
huge believers in the power of platforms that allow people to collaborate
deeply around shared interests in a ways that have positive impact
not only on their own lives but on the lives of those around them.”

Under Development

As a child, Ben Rattray didn’t want to change the world. He wanted
to own it. “I idolised Gordon Gekko and was obsessed by the idea of
wearing a double-breasted suit and strutting down Wall Street,” he
told the Guardian in 2013. Then, when he was a senior at Stanford
University, he learned that his younger brother was gay. His brother
said that the hardest part about being closeted had been (in Ben
Rattray’s words) “seeing good people refuse to stand up and speak
out against LGBT discrimination all around him.”

That moment led Rattray to question what he wanted to accomplish
with his life. His old dream of stylish predatory capitalism no
longer seemed so appealing; he now wanted to help people in some
way. But he wasn’t sure how. He completed a one-year graduate program
at the London School of Economics and then joined a political
consulting firm in Washington, D.C. His work at the firm quickly
disenchanted him. “It wasn’t about corruption or anything mendacious,”
Rattray says. “It was just the clear disconnect between
policymaking and everyday people.”

Next, he applied to and was accepted by the NYU School of Law.
But just a few weeks before what would have been his first semester
there, he saw a website that was then known as TheFacebook.com. What would happen, he wondered, if you used the power of a social
network to promote social change? “I had my dorm room set up on
West 4th Street,” Rattray says. “Then I had the idea for Change.org
and pivoted everything.”

It was the first of many crucial pivots in the history of Change.org. True to its roots in Silicon Valley (it’s based in San Francisco),
the company has treated audacious iteration as a best practice. When
Change.org began operation, its primary feature was a nascent form
of crowdfunding. The idea was that nonprofit organizations would
publicize their projects on the Change.org site, and Change.org users
would donate to those projects. Such campaigns would inspire messageboard
conversations and other forms of social interaction, and that
interaction would in turn drive more giving. In return for facilitating
this process, Change.org would take a 1 percent cut of the donations.

In 2007, however, online crowdfunding was all too nascent.
(Kickstarter didn’t exist yet.) Introducing a more efficient way than
direct mail for nonprofits to raise money was a smart idea, but it
was ahead of its time. And the twist to the fundraising process that
Change.org introduced—allowing nonprofits to propose specific
projects that users could support—wasn’t enough to create significant
user engagement. Within three months of its launch, Change.org announced that users could make donations to political candidates
as well as nonprofits. But that didn’t help much. By October
2007, total contributions made via Change.org had reached a mere
$51,878. Change.org’s cut of the bounty came to $518.

In November 2007, Change.org tried a new tack, positioning
itself as “the Ning for nonprofits.” In this incarnation, it offered
qualifying organizations a chance to build proprietary pages on the
Change.org website. By doing so, they would be able to use Change.org’s social networking tools and gain access to Change.org’s user
base, even as they retained their own branded identity. But Change.org’s user base was quite small at the time, and few nonprofits felt
that they needed their own Ning.

In June 2008, Change.org reinvented itself again, this time as a
blogging network organized around categories like “Homelessness”
and “Global Warming.” It employed a dozen full-time editors, and
they coordinated contributions from as many as 200 freelance bloggers.
“We were getting several million people a month on the site,”
Rattray recalls. But when people read the site’s blog content, their
most common response wasn’t to donate money or volunteer time
to a related cause. It was to sign a petition.

User-Generated Impact

Petitions have been a fixture on the Internet since at least the late
1990s. But the rise of social networks has given them new life. In a
world of ubiquitous social interaction, petitions are a boon to users—an extremely efficient form of personal expression, comparable to
the Facebook Like button. A petition lets users share their values and
beliefs with a single click. Petitions are also explicitly collaborative:
The whole point is to get more people to sign them.

Still, even after the Boulder campaign, Change.org did not embrace
petitions completely. Change.org editorial staff members continued
to publish articles. Like traditional gatekeepers, they determined
what appeared on the home page and what didn’t. Then, later in 2010,
Rattray had another revelation. “I remember Ben coming into my office
one morning,” recalls Meghan Nesbit, managing director of sales
and marketing at Change.org. “He didn’t look like he’d slept much the
previous night, and he was just on fire. He had this epiphany: It was all
about the petitions that individual users were posting and sharing with
their own communities. That was where we could make a difference.”

What Rattray had realized was that efforts to create editorial content
were not only unnecessary, they were undermining Change.org’s
identity as a user-driven platform. “It looked like we were trying
set the agenda, instead of empowering others to pursue the issues
they cared about,” Rattray says. “We really didn’t have a choice.
Either we could be an editorial site that was about curating and crafting
a particular perspective. Or we could be a massively scaled Internet
platform that focused on empowerment and deference to users.”

In January 2011, Change.org introduced a new look. Petitions took
center stage, and staff-written stories no longer appeared on the home
page. “That’s when we started seeing really dramatic user growth,”
says Nesbit. “That’s when we became a platform: ‘When you want to
make change, you go to Change.org.’” In this new incarnation, the
site essentially flipped its editorial approach. Whereas Change.org
had previously pushed content created by media professionals to its
users, it now pushed content created by its users to the news media.

As a fundamentally user-driven platform, Change.org began to
function as a kind of eBay for advocacy, and it benefited from the same
synergies that had animated eBay’s ascent in the late 1990s. As the
number of “sellers” (petition creators) increased, so did the number of
“buyers” (petition signers); as the number of buyers increased, so did
the number of sellers. It was a virtuous circle that led to rapid growth.

Victory March

As the platform grew, so did its ability to achieve social impact. In
March 2012, a woman from Texas started a petition on Change.org
urging the US Department of Agriculture to eliminate the processed
beef product known as “pink slime” from school lunches—and
shortly thereafter the agency announced it would do so. That same
month, the parents of Trayvon Martin used Change.org to demand
that the state of Florida bring criminal charges against George
Zimmerman, the man who had shot their son—and before long state
prosecutors filed charges. In August of that year, a 13-year-old girl
from Illinois named Abby Goldberg petitioned the state’s governor
to veto legislation that would have prohibited towns from enacting
bans on single-use plastic bags—and he did.

Results like these aren’t always solely attributable to Change.org. In many instances, a company or elected official targeted by a
Change.org petition receives protests and complaints from many
other sources as well. In 2012, The Wall Street Journal asked a data analytics firm called Networked Insights to measure the impact that
Change.org had in the Bank of America user fee campaign and in a
similar campaign involving Verizon. The firm studied how frequently
social media posts about the two controversies had cited Change.
org. The involvement of the site “probably had marginal impact,”
a Networked Insights analyst concluded.

Not infrequently, however, decision-makers targeted by Change.org campaigns do respond directly to those efforts. A Gatorade
spokesperson told The New York Times that a Change.org campaign
against its use of brominated vegetable oil—an ingredient
sometimes used as a flame retardant—led the company to speed
up its planned phase-out of the product. In another instance, an
18-year-old named Benjamin O’Keefe created a Change.org petition
that urged the retailer Abercrombie & Fitch to create clothes in expanded
sizes. Abercrombie
executives met with O’Keefe, and later
they announced that the company would start offering plus sizes.

To increase the odds that petitions will turn into victories,
Change.org encourages users to create what it calls “winnable”
petitions—ones that demand a focused action of some sort while targeting a person or institution with the power to take that action.
When members of the Change.org staff identify a petition as winnable
they go into action. They email press releases to thousands of
journalists. They publicize campaigns via advertising on Facebook.
They even offer media coaching to petition creators whose stories
garner attention from news outlets.

According to Charlotte Hill, a former senior communications
manager at Change.org, more than 25 million people—roughly one-third
of the site’s registered users—have signed a petition that has
led to a victory. That high hit rate is a decisive factor in Change.org’s
growth. Countless media outlets battle for people’s attention now,
but few of them are able to convert a few moments of attention into
a sense of accomplishment. Signing petitions at Change.org requires
no more cognitive effort than watching CNN or reading The New
York Times, but the five minutes that a user spends at the petition
site could lead to zero-flame-retardant Gatorade.

Critics have derided online petitions as “clicktivism” or
“slacktivism”—a trivial form of advocacy that doesn’t accomplish
anything. But Change.org victories belie that notion. They give users a
concrete indication that the time they spend on the site matters, that
their efforts have real impact. In an era when people are pressed for
time and hungry for purpose, the hyper-efficient form of advocacy
that Change.org enables can exert a powerful draw on people.

Change.org didn’t emphasize its petition functionality when it
launched in 2007. But its willingness to iterate, experiment, and
quickly abandon features and services that don’t resonate with users
have helped it achieve what people in Silicon Valley call an effective
“product-market fit”—a condition in which a company produces a
functional product that a large number of customers want to use.
“Simplifying where our core value was, it basically felt like identifying
true north,” Nesbit says, referring to the decision to focus
on being a platform for user-driven petitions. “Once that was set,
everything else got a lot easier.”

Change You Can Sponsor

In 2010, Nesbit joined Change.org to lead its business development
effort. At that time, she discovered, advertisers found the site just
as confusing as users did. “It was a tough conversation, trying to
explain to potential clients what Change.org was,” she recalls. But
when Change.org decided to focus on hosting petitions, it not only
catalyzed user growth, but also helped advertisers to see why they
would want to be on the platform,
too. “Simplifying the
brand identity,” Nesbit says,
allowed the company to clarify
its value offer to customers:
“The business side opened up
for us exponentially.”

Today, Change.org generates
most of its revenue by offering advertisers the ability to launch what it calls “sponsored
campaigns.” At the heart of a sponsored campaign is a petition
that works much like any Change.org petition. A decision-maker is
targeted. A demand is made. Supporters are invited to “sign” as a
way to show their support. In this case, though, Change.org intentionally
promotes the petition to “issue-aligned” users: When users
sign a non-sponsored petition, they are invited to sign sponsored
petitions that match their signing behavior. If you sign a petition
related to climate change, for example, the site might then direct you
to sponsored petitions generated by the Sierra Club or the Environmental
Defense Fund (EDF). Because millions of users collectively
sign thousands of petitions each month, Change.org can draw on a
huge amount of data to predict who is likely to sign which petition.

Users who sign a sponsored petition can choose whether to receive
updates on the petition’s progress. The default is “yes,” and if they
don’t explicitly opt out of this arrangement, Change.org provides their
email address to the sponsoring organization. (Change.org explains
the opt-out provision on the relevant petition page.) So Change.org
isn’t selling just impressions or just a list of names of people who show an interest in a given subject.
It’s selling pre-qualified leads:
A user must sign the sponsored
petition, and also tacitly agree
to receive information from
the sponsoring organization,
before Change.org charges the
organization for making a connection
to that user.

Sponsored petitions are therefore a very efficient—and a very
attractive—form of advertising. (In 2013, according to Rattray,
Change.org worked with 250 advertisers over the course of the
year.) Sponsors don’t pay for anyone who views their petition but
doesn’t sign it. They don’t pay for anyone who signs it but opts
out of receiving additional communication. And they don’t pay for
anyone who signs it, consents to additional communication, but
already appears on their own mailing list. Advertisers specify how
many email addresses they want to acquire through the campaign
and in what amount of time. Then Change.org exposes likely signers
to the campaign until it reaches the advertiser’s target number.

“We’ve been working with Change.org for around five years now,”
says Heather Shelby, an online activist coordinator at EDF. Her organization
runs as many as 10 sponsored campaigns at a time on Change.org. EDF, she says, “consistently gets a return on [its] investment
within two years.” In that span of time, in other words, those who
join the organization’s mailing list through Change.org donate more
money to the organization than it cost to acquire their addresses.

Julianna Egner, a media associate at the advertising agency Blue
State Digital (BSD), says that Change.org was extremely effective
in helping a client called Shatterproof to find supporters. “When
we started, we had maybe 3,000 email addresses on our list,”
Egner says. Then Shatterproof, a nonprofit that focuses on addiction
issues advocacy, ran a sponsored petition to support better implementation
of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act,
a recently passed US law. BSD ran ads for Shatterproof on Google
and Facebook as well, but Change.org proved to be its most effective
recruitment venue. “We ran the campaign for less than a week and
generated 10,790 ‘uniques,’” Egner says. Those “unique” petition
signers account for 43 percent of the roughly 25,000 names that
Shatterproof has on its email list today.

The leaders of Change.org won’t reveal how much revenue the
company generates from sponsored campaigns. As a B corporation,
Change.org is supposed to meet certain transparency standards. But
in at least one important area, Change.org is not particularly transparent:
Because it’s neither a nonprofit nor a publicly traded for-profit
company, it has no obligation to disclose its financial information. But
there are publicly disclosed data that hint at the scale of the company’s
sponsored campaign business. At least two nonprofit customers reported
what they spent on Change.org advertising in US Internal
Revenue Service filings for 2012. StudentsFirst, a school reform advocacy group, paid a little less than $640,000 for that service, and
Kaboom!, an organization that helps build playgrounds for children,
paid $35,000. In 2012, meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reported
that Change.org was forecasting revenues of $15 million for that year.

Although sponsored campaigns generate the largest share of
Change.org’s revenue, other lines of business bring in money as
well. In 2013, for example, the company introduced a service that
lets users promote non-sponsored petitions to a certain number of
fellow users. The cost of promoted petitions varies by country, but
on average it’s about 20 cents per impression. According to Charlotte
Hill, about 16,000 people per month promote petitions on Change.org, and 30,000 people view a promoted petition on any given day.
“Promoted petitions continue to make up a higher percentage of
our revenue every month,” she says.

Platform Politics

From the start, Rattray conceived of Change.org in broad and essentially
nonpartisan terms. He wanted the site to be a platform where
people with varied interests could pursue collective social activism.

In practice, however, most of Change.org’s early employees were
politically progressive, and most of the content on the site reflected
that orientation. There was substantial coverage of topics like “Animal
Rights,” “Women’s Rights,” and “Gay Rights” but little or no
coverage of, say, “Gun Owners’ Rights.” Although users could and
occasionally did create petitions in favor of limiting abortion or expanding
right-to-carry laws for people with firearms, they were an
exception to a widely perceived rule. “The site continuously featured
left-leaning, liberal petitions,” says Jeff Bryant, an associate fellow at
Campaign for America’s Future, a progressive advocacy organization.
“It also posed itself as David versus Goliath. That was a recurring
theme in its marketing efforts—that it would be for the little guy.”

In the summer of 2012, the tension between those two aspects
of Change.org—its claim to be a platform with broad appeal and
its affiliation with traditional progressive causes—led to another
turning point. The company accepted sponsored campaigns from
StudentsFirst and another school reform group, Stand for Children.
Because those organizations take positions on education policy that
teachers unions oppose, a backlash ensued. A group of big-name labor
unions, including the AFL-CIO and the Communications Workers of America, sent Change.org an open letter in which they asked the
company to clarify its policy toward “prospective clients who have
a history of attacking workers and supporting the dismantling of
public services.” If Change.org continued to take advertising from
such clients, the letter suggested, these unions would abandon the
platform and encourage their “brothers and sisters in labor and in
the wider progressive community” to do so as well.

In the face of such pressure, Change.org initially suggested that
it would forgo future contracts with StudentsFirst and Stand for
But the situation prompted the company to review its advertising
policy. With regard to user-generated petitions, Change.org had always positioned itself as an “open platform.” Its policy regarding
advertisers, by contrast, was more restrictive. “We accept sponsored
campaigns from organizations fighting for the public good and the common
values we hold dear—fairness, equality, and justice,” this policy
read. “We do not accept sponsored campaigns from organizations that
consistently violate these values, support discriminatory policies, or
seek private corporate benefit that undermines the common good.”

Rattray had always envisioned Change.org as a global information
utility—a platform that, like Twitter or YouTube, would be open to
all. So when he and his colleagues reassessed their existing advertising
policy, they concluded that it undercut the site’s position as a resource
that anyone could use to pursue change. So they decided to revise it.
The new policy reads as follows: “As an open platform with tens of
millions of diverse users, Change.org hosts sponsored petitions representing
a wide range of viewpoints. We do not endorse nor are we
affiliated with any sponsored petition or associated organizations.”

The revised policy bans advertising by hate groups and bars sponsored
campaigns that “promote hate, violence or discrimination.”
Overall, though, it broadens Change.org’s potential advertiser base
considerably. Under the original policy only nonprofits could advertise
on the site, and they were subject to evaluation and approval on a
case-by-case basis. Under the new policy, commercial entities, political
parties, and people who run for public office can advertise as well.

“Open” Season

For Change.org, adopting an open advertising policy was risky. It
would undoubtedly alienate many of the US-based progressives who
had come to think of the platform as their own. But in Rattray’s
the new policy simply made the site more coherent,
to its sponsored content the same neutral perspective
that had always governed its user-generated content.

According to an internal Change.org memo that Bryant obtained
and passed on to the Huffington Post, the new policy would potentially
allow advertising on behalf of “anti-abortion, pro-gun and
union-busting” causes. In the wake of that revelation, other petition-oriented
websites moved to present themselves as venues where only
progressive-leaning campaigns would take place. “Care2 will never
run a campaign for the NRA [National Rifle Association], or from
groups that don’t support a woman’s right to control her
own body,” said Clinton O’Brien, a vice president at Care2.com, a
pioneer in the online petition space. “When you see MoveOn.org promote
a petition, you never have to wonder if we’re doing it because
someone paid us to,” said Steven Biel, the director of SignOn.org, a
petition site run by MoveOn.org. “For years, progressives have built
a huge advantage over the right wing on the Internet, and it would
be awful to lose that in service of a short-term payday.” (Both men
made those comments to the Huffington Post.)

Change.org, to be sure, is vulnerable to criticism regarding its
financial motives. It uses a domain name suffix typically associated
with nonprofits, and it positions itself as a “social enterprise” with a commitment to “fairness, equality, and justice”—yet it’s also a
remarkably efficient advertising platform, with a mandate to generate
revenue. In this instance, however, Change.org wasn’t looking
for a “short-term payday.” StudentsFirst had a large contract
with Change.org, but it was just one customer. In the near term, by
revising its advertising policy in a way that would alienate unions
and other progressive groups, Change.org stood to lose users, clients,
and revenue.

Indeed, for Rattray and his team, adopting the new, more open
policy was a long-term play—a bid for positioning and growth. “I
think we live in such a pitched, partisan environment that many
people think, ‘You’re either with us or against us,’” he says. “This
idea that there are neutral platforms that are disrupting a system,
instead of trying to advance a cause, is new to people. But if we have
a specific political agenda, it undermines the entire pursuit. It undermines
people’s ability to own the agenda themselves.”

Change.org’s decision to amend its advertising policy did have
some short-term costs attached to it. There were “a number of efforts
to steer people away from Change.org,” Bryant says, and certain
exclusively progressive petition sites—including SignOn.org and
from their status as alternatives
to Change.org. But a
large exodus of clients and
users never materialized. In
fact, it was after Change.org
implemented the new policy
that its growth began to skyrocket.
In October 2012, when
the new policy took effect, the
platform had about 23 million
registered users. Since then,
its user base has roughly tripled
in size.

Decide and Conquer

About one week after the mayor
of Boulder declared an emergency
moratorium on the city’s
ordinance against overnight
camping on public property—and shortly after Change.org
declared victory—she changed
her mind. Despite the surge of
activism that had occurred both
online and offline, she lifted
the moratorium. Sometimes,
as it turns out, it’s difficult to
make even a “small, incremental
change” stick.

This basic truth points to the potential of Change.org’s emerging
Decision Makers functionality. According to an update posted
on Change.org by one of the Boulder campaign’s organizers, the
mayor explained her change of heart by saying she had felt “boxed
in” by the petitioners. But what if the platform had given her and the
petitioners a forum for dialogue and deliberation? In that case, might
her response have been different? “This is the next iteration of online
advocacy,” says Jake Brewer, managing director of internal affairs at
Change.org. “How do we bring decision makers onto the platform to
allow for an exchange of ideas and work toward solutions, so it’s not
just about who can be the biggest and the loudest?”

The Decision Makers functionality is still in its initial stages, but
the outcome of one recent petition suggests how that functionality
might work. Earlier this year, a blind college student named Jamie
Principado asked Representative Mike Honda to support the TEACH
Act, a bill in the US Congress that would increase the availability of
electronic educational materials for blind students. “Jamie, thank
you for bringing attention to this issue,” Honda replied at his Decision
Maker page. “Your struggle moved me. Because of this petition,
I am now a proud cosponsor of the TEACH Act.”

The practical import of Honda’s co-sponsorship is debatable.
Govtrack.us, a government transparency website, reports that the
TEACH Act has 41 other co-sponsors and estimates that the bill
stands only a 10 percent chance of getting out of committee. Still,
this example shows that at least some elected officials are open to
using the platform as a venue for communication with constituents.
“We’re not just trying to put the voice of nonprofits or our users inside
the halls of government or in the boardrooms of companies,”
says Brewer. “We’re incentivizing decision-makers to come to where
the people are, on Change.org. And they’re doing it.”

One big question, of course, is whether users actually want to
use a platform like Change.org to engage in dialogue and deliberation.
Stuart Shulman, professor of political science at the University
of Massachusetts, Amherst, has doubts on that score. “You’re back
to chasing the great white whale here,” says Shulman, who studies
how people use electronic comment-submission tools as part of the
US federal rulemaking process. “People do change their behaviors
when they’re exposed to new technologies. But so far they’ve done
it for updating their Facebook statuses, not for deliberating about
the finer points of [environmental] habitat.”

Stephen Zavestoski, professor of sociology and environmental
studies at the University of San Francisco, notes another aspect of
Change.org’s effort to increase opportunities for discourse on its
platform. “When we interviewed environmental organizations, they
more or less said that they didn’t really care much [about increasing
democratic deliberation],” says Zavestoski, who collaborated
with Shulman on several studies on the electronic rulemaking process.
“For them, it was about aggregating preferences—being able
to overwhelm a server with hundreds of thousands of comments.
That creates a spectacle for them. That gets traction.” The kinds of
organizations that advertise on Change.org, in other words, may
prefer a platform that emphasizes preference aggregation (that is,
signature collection) to one that encourages dialogue and debate.

For Change.org leaders, introducing the Decision Makers functionality
is one more instance of the company’s efforts to improve
the site experience for users. “No victory can happen for a user
without a decision by the person who’s receiving the petition,” says
Brewer. “We’re making that a transparent process. Bringing light
to the negotiation process will empower users more effectively.”

A Growing Concern

Change.org, which claims a larger audience than many well-known
news organizations, has taken on several functions that those organizations
have traditionally claimed for themselves—informing
communities about issues that affect them, serving as a watchdog
against powerful interests, and (as the old newspaper maxim has
it) working “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Just as Change.org is becoming a new venue of governance, it’s also
becoming a new and important conduit of public information. To play
that role, the company needs to maintain a high level of credibility. “We’re working to revamp our fact-checking process for petitions
and trying to figure out a process that is scalable,” says Brianna Cayo
Cotter, communications director. “We want to make sure that we
have systems in place so that our users will continue to see us as a
reliable source.” (At present, Change.org users publish more than
600 new petitions every day, and Change.org screens none of them
in advance.) To some degree, the Decision Makers functionality will
increase the trustworthiness of the platform. That functionality gives
an entity targeted by a petition the ability to publish a rebuttal on
the same platform where the petition appears. Every time a verified
Decision Maker writes a response to a petition, moreover, everyone
who signed the petition receives a copy of the response via email.

Earlier this year, Change.org worked with the Guardian on a pair
of campaigns related to female genital mutilation (FGM). In one
campaign, a woman in the United Kingdom petitioned her country’s
secretary of state for education to push for adding information
about FGM to UK school curriculums. In the second campaign, an
Atlanta-based woman petitioned President Obama to commission a
report that would assess the number of US women who are victims
of FGM. To support these efforts, the Guardian created a page on its
website that included articles and video clips about FGM, reports on
the Change.org campaigns, and links to the petitions, both of which
ended up attracting more than 200,000 signers.

In signing petitions at sites like Change.org, millions of people have
shown that they seek forms of interactivity that go beyond adding a
comment at the end of a news story. The Guardian collaboration shows
how news organizations could add value to Change.org campaigns by
checking their accuracy and providing context for them. At the same
time, news media partners would benefit from the high level of user
engagement that Change.org helps create. Yet news outlets have not
yet capitalized on the platform to the degree that they might. “They’re
very happy to report on petitions,” says Cayo Cotter. “But so far they
want to keep a bit of objective positioning around their stories.”

At some point, Change.org will likely introduce a tool similar
to the social media buttons that have become commonplace on
news websites. Bishko, of the Omidyar Network, suggests how that
functionality might work: “Instead of just tweeting something,
you ‘change’ it. You go directly from an article that inspired you to
Change.org to launch a petition on that same topic.”

The history of Change.org suggests that it won’t be just one tool
or tactic that helps the platform realize its full potential as a venue for
transparent deliberation and substantive decision-making. Change.org will likely try many options, and some of them will fail. Iteration
has been a defining characteristic of the company from its inception.
Its willingness to change—to learn from how people actually use
the platform, to make adaptations, and to accommodate its users’
needs and interests over time—helps explain how Change.org has
grown so big so fast. In the world of Silicon Valley start-ups, that
mindset is commonplace. Change.org has shown that it can flourish
in the world of social innovation as well.

Show more