Magazine Extras (Fall 2014)
Supplements to the article “From Petitions to Decisions.”
For Change.org, an organization that we profile in a Case Study article titled “From Petitions to Decisions,” a commitment to change is right there in the company name. The article, which appears in the Fall 2014 issue of SSIR, recounts they way that both the operational model and the business model of Change.org have evolved since Ben Rattray founded the organization in 2007. Known today as the premier online petition service, Change.org previously went through several iterations in its quest to become a platform for enabling social change efforts, and it’s now embarking on a new stage of development as it strives to connect users with “decision makers.”
To supplement the article, we offer several items that illuminate the past, present, and future of Change.org. Apart from the first item—a short piece written by the author of the case study—this material appears here essentially in its original form and with the permission of Change.org.
Before the founder of Change.org could launch a site with that URL—before he could begin the journey that has led the site to attract more than 70 million users—he had to own that URL. But someone else got to it first. Here, in a sidebar available only to SSIR Online readers, freelance writer Greg Beato tells the story of how Ben Rattray secured the rights to what has become a widely known brand name.
Change.org: What’s in a Domain Name?
In the summer of 2005, as Ben Rattray pondered names that might encapsulate his expansive vision for an advocacy-oriented social network, he kept landing on words that somehow invoked the notion of “change.” So why not just call the network Change.org? Change.org was simple. It was emphatic. As a brand name, it conveyed both an explicitly interactive user experience and a “product” with real impact. What do you do when you go to Change.org? Change things! What is the payoff for the time that you spend there? Things change!
There was, of course, no way that a URL as powerful and as potentially strategic as Change.org had gone unclaimed over many years’ worth of domain name speculation. But when Rattray typed “change.org” into his browser, the Internet shrugged. “It was actually just a blank white page,” Rattray says. “Someone owned it, but they weren’t using it.”
Back then, Rattray had no track record in Web development or grassroots organizing. He’d never even voted in an election. When he contacted the man who owned Change.org, Rattray was just another idealistic millennial—and that man had little interest in Rattray’s vision for a social network organized around collaborative advocacy. “I flew to LA to meet with him, but when I got off the plane, there was a message saying he couldn’t make it,” Rattray recalls. “He stood me up!”
Perhaps a less resolute founder would have started exploring alternative names at this point. “Change.ly,” for instance. Or maybe “Chaynge.org.” But Change.org perfectly evoked a sense of user empowerment, and although the exact contours of Rattray’s vision were still somewhat hazy, he knew that he wanted to build a platform that would inspire people to take action on issues that mattered to them. The Change.org domain name communicated that ideal. Clearly. Boldly. Concisely.
Plus, it turns out that Hange.org was available. Rattray snapped it up and added a subdomain so that the name of his demo site appeared as “c.hange.org.” He hired a designer to develop a “c.hange.org” logo. He pitched nonprofits on the idea of establishing a presence on the site, and about 75 of them signed up. “I knew full well that I would never use c.hange.org as our actual URL,” Rattray explains. “But I wanted to present a compelling case to the owner of change.org, so that he’d get it.”
The ploy worked. Rattray sent the owner a demo of the c.hange.org site, and that move prompted a longer conversation. “He had other ideas for what he might do with the site, but it was certainly around social change,” Rattray says. “Yet the idea of giving the domain to some 25-year-old kid—he understandably had concerns about that.”
In the end, Rattray’s vision proved to be persuasive. Not only did the man release the URL, but he also expressed a desire to invest capital in the Change.org venture. “He gave us investment money, and he gave us the domain,” Rattray says.
Call it Change.org’s first highly improbable victory. Rattray had gone from getting blown off at the airport to landing his first significant investor. More important, he had secured a domain name—along with a brand name—that was inspirational, easy to remember, and completely open-ended. “Change.org” could be a platform for almost any kind of activity. Now Rattray just had to figure out what that activity might be.
Not all change is equal. Those who promote one kind of social change naturally object to efforts to promote conflicting varieties of social change. As we note in the case study, Change.org leaders have struggled at times to maneuver around that source of contention among users of the platform. In January 2014, founder and CEO Ben Rattray posted an essay on Change.org blog that explains the company’s policy on the kinds of petitions that users may—or may not—launch at the site. (You can view the original post here.)
Change.org and Openness
During my senior year of college, everything in my life changed. When I traveled home for winter break, my younger brother Nick told me something that took me entirely by surprise: that he was gay.
He then told me that the most difficult thing about being closeted was seeing good people refuse to stand up and speak out against [anti-]LGBT discrimination all around him. People like me.
I’ve never felt so profoundly ashamed; I had been so focused on serving myself that I was blind to the struggles of my own brother, and as a result I failed him.
I’ve told this story many times since founding Change.org, but it’s always difficult to revisit; the memory of this still stings, and my desire to make amends will never fade.
In response to this fateful conversation in college, I altered my life entirely: I veered off my long-planned path toward becoming an investment banker and, after a year of deep introspection, started Change.org with the mission of empowering others to stand up and speak out on the issues they care about.
Today, Change.org is the largest social change platform in the world. We have more than 50 million users, and more than 25,000 petitions—covering a diverse array of issues—are started on the site every month.
One of the issues that have been most popular on the site since our launch is gay rights, and on a personal level I’ve been proud to see the wide variety of campaigns on this issue. One such moment came last year, when more than 1.8 million people who signed petitions on Change.org played a role in convincing the Boy Scouts of America’s National Council to end its ban on gay youth.
However, as an open platform (like Twitter and YouTube), we see petitions started on every conceivable issue from every possible perspective from people living in more than 190 countries. And while the majority of petitions on Change.org aren’t especially controversial, given the diversity of perspectives of millions of people from wide ranging backgrounds and cultures, everyone will find some [petitions that] they personally, passionately disagree with. Including me.
People sometimes ask why we don’t remove petitions if we personally disagree with them. Our community guidelines make it clear that we remove petitions which use hate speech or incite violence. But this is quite rare, and we do not remove content just because it is offensive or controversial—[not] even around something I care as much about as gay rights.
The reason we do not remove content we personally disagree with is that the power of Change.org comes from our openness. By not taking a position on specific issues or petitions, [we make sure that] the true power of Change.org is in the hands of the millions of people who use the platform every day.
Our commitment to defending an open platform has not been easy or always popular, but it is central to the empowerment of our users. One of the reasons that so many campaigns win on Change.org is that we are not a political organization, and therefore our users can tell their stories without being viewed through a partisan lens.
If we removed petitions based on our personal beliefs, we would be perceived as an advocacy group rather than a platform. The media and others would then dismiss petition creators as players backing our issue agenda, rather than [as] independent agents of change.
Our openness gives our users credibility when dealing with the decision makers on the receiving end of their petitions. In the United States, we have Republican and Democratic elected officials who respond to our users directly—something many [decision makers] have made quite clear they would not do if Change.org was seen as either a progressive or conservative platform. A mayor, member of Congress, or CEO can trust that a petition on Change.org represents the voice of people from a great diversity of backgrounds, rather than one constituency or advocacy group.
… Our ultimate service is the empowerment of our users. And removing petitions in a manner that some would consider partisan would undermine the power of all of our users to create the change they want to see.
The most effective response we’ve seen to controversial petitions on the site are not requests to remove them—they are counter-petitions that mobilize people against them. …
As a global platform with millions of users, we will [inevitably] have controversial petitions on the site that even I don’t like seeing. But the power we have is not in our ability to restrict speech; it’s in our ability to provide an open platform for people to challenge each other. In the long run, that’s how the most change will happen.
Through the Change.org platform, users can spread the word about their cause in ways that were largely unavailable to them in a pre-Change.org world. Below, for example, are video segments that showcase the creators of two petitions that we discuss in the article—one that features Abby Goldberg, and another that features Molly Katchpole. (You can also view these segments at the Change.org YouTube channel here and here.)
Abby Goldberg Appears on HLN to Discuss Her Change.org Petition Supporting Plastic Bag Bans
Some of my friends, when I told them about my project, were, like, “Are you seriously going to actually try this? I don’t think it’s going to happen.”—Abby Goldberg
CNN American Morning Interviews Molly Katchpole About Her Victory on Change.org
It’s a collective effort. So I’m excited that I started it, but I wouldn’t be anywhere without these 300,000 people who signed the petition.—Molly Katchpole