Ben Rattray knew he was on to something big when the website he founded, Change.org , managed to get the South African government to acknowledge for the first time the scourge of ‘corrective rape’, a heinous crime meant to ‘cure’ lesbians of their sexual orientation. In 2010 a rape victim from a township started a petition on Change.org that eventually got 170,000 signatures. In March 2011 the South African parliament formed a national task force to stop the abuses. “There’s almost no person in the country who has seemingly less power than this [South African] woman, but she runs the most effective campaign on this issue in history,” Rattray says.
The 32-year-old law school dropout runs one of the biggest sites on the web for anyone seeking to pressure politicians, corporations or others with a public shame campaign. Change.org is best known for helping Trayvon Martin’s parents get the man who shot him arrested, ending Bank of America’s $5 monthly checking account fees, and helping Bettina Siegel get the US Department of Agriculture to ban “pink slime” from school lunches. But the site’s greater impact may be the thousands of lesser-known petitions—15,000 are created monthly—started by everyday Joes who blast their call for signatures through their email directories and social networks. Responding to one of these petitions is the ultimate in armchair slacktivism. Check a box because a friend of a friend tells you to, and you think you have done something good for the day. Change.org now has 20 million members and is adding 2 million a month.
The service is free, and with a name like Change.org the company even sounds like a not-for-profit. But it’s not. It was founded in 2007 and spent the better part of two years flailing around for a profitable business model until Rattray hit upon a clever approach. Change.org charges groups for the privilege of sponsoring petitions that are matched to users who have similar interests. For example, when a person signs a petition about education and clicks ‘submit’, a box pops up and shows five sponsored petitions on education to also sign. If a user leaves a box checked that says ‘Keep me updated on this campaign and others’, the sponsor can then send emails directly to that person. It’s not clear from the check box that your email address is being sold to a not-for-profit. Rattray claims an imminent site redesign will make the company’s business model more transparent.
Change.org has 300 paying clients, including Sierra Club, Credo Wireless and Amnesty International, and its revenue so far this year is $15 million.
Some of the petitioners Forbes spoke with didn’t know Change was a for-profit. Rattray says .org connotes the company’s social mission, and it is a registered B Corporation, which means a social mission is written into its bylaws. But he acknowledges the messaging could be better and plans to improve it: “We need to be better about telling about that combination.”
He came into this business by accident. In high school he was student body president, homecoming king and track star, then went to Stanford with no real ambitions beyond a career in investment banking. Then in his senior year at college his brother came out as gay and told him that there weren’t enough people like him willing to “stand up or speak out” on issues. Rattray decided to launch Change.org on the eve of starting law school at NYU. The company tried building social networking and fundraising tools for non-profits. It later added bloggers to write about human rights issues, which started to draw more traffic and showed the power of personal stories. In the spring of 2009 Rattray hit upon the idea of charging not-for-profits for access to potential donors. In late 2010 it opened the petition tool to the public and began to attract a massive audience.
Anyone can create a petition, including ‘astroturf’ causes backed by big companies, though Rattray says not many companies have done so. Change.org has a staff that selects petitions for home page and email promotion, but it asserts its neutrality. This hasn’t stopped it from becoming a target for political strong-arming. Earlier this year Change.org succumbed to pressure from labour unions and declined to renew ad contracts with two education reform groups, Stand for Children and StudentsFirst (headed by Michelle Rhee, the former schools chancellor of Washington, DC), because they favour reforms some see as anti-union. Stand for Children and StudentsFirst were baffled, saying they hadn’t broken any of Change’s terms of service. Rattray says Change.org plans to release new policies in October clarifying who can and cannot advertise on the site.
This is the central growth challenge for software firms selling into the politics industry. How do you expand your customer base when doing business with one faction makes you an enemy of the other? The startup NationBuilder, founded by liberals, sells software primarily to help political campaigns manage their fundraising, but it came under fire from fellow progressives recently when it signed the Republican State Leadership Committee as a customer. Raven Brooks, head of the liberal Netroots Nation, called on similar groups to not use NationBuilder, accusing it of giving away tools to the opposition.
With cynicism about government at an all-time high, Rattray says he can keep growing by keeping the stories personal. The petitions that catch fire on Change.org are almost always tied to human drama and not about tackling abstract challenges such as health care or immigration reform. In 2004 Cally Houck’s two daughters were killed in a car accident after renting a PT Cruiser that had been recalled for power-steering problems. Federal law prohibits the sale of recalled cars but not the rental of them. In February Houck mounted a campaign and got 162,000 signatures on Change.org. In September US senators reached a deal on legislation banning the rental of recalled cars; the law is expected to pass.
John Lauer, a seasonal firefighter in Custer, San Diego, started a petition in May calling on President Barack Obama to make seasonal firefighters eligible for government health care plans. They were denied coverage as temporary workers. Six weeks later he got a call from Change.org, asking to promote his petition. He agreed, having 1,000 signatures at the time. After returning from a fire several days later he checked the site: It had 94,000 signatures (and eventually got 126,000). In July Obama directed federal agencies to make health care available to these firefighters.
“I don’t think anyone is surprised at what I’m doing: the successful application of my skills in an ambitious way,” says Rattray. “The surprise is that it wasn’t applied to banking but to a social business for good.”
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(This story appears in the 23 November, 2012 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)