I am Ben Rattray, founder of Change.org, the world’s biggest social change platform. Ask me anything.
I’m a fan of the impact that Reddit has had on the world and excited to answer your questions about Change.org, which I founded back in 2007.
(Proof it's me: https://twitter.com/brattray/status/468811851900284928)
Change.org is the world’s biggest social change platform – where 22-year-old Molly Katchpole convinced Bank of America to remove billions in potential debit card fees; where teens and parents teamed up to end the ban on gay kids in the Boy Scouts, and where 25 million people have experienced victory by signing a petition that went on to win.
We believe it’s possible to build a technology company focused on social impact, and we’re proud to be part of the B Corp movement. Ask me anything!
UPDATE: I've got about 10 minutes left before I need to head into a meeting. These questions are really thought-provoking. I'll try to quickly answer a couple more before I leave.
UPDATE 2: This was great – I often say that people involved in technology (as I know a lot of Redditors are) have greater potential for impact than any past generation, and its been great to see the impact the Reddit community has had on the world. If you want to find out more about how Change.org is using technology for good, check us out here: http://www.change.org/careers. We’re always looking for great engineers and others to join us.
When we started the site in 2007 we had so few campaigns we had little choice but to manually select which to feature to users, and when we did so we focused on those campaigns we thought were broadly appealing and which tended to avoid the pitched partisanship of much of American politics. As we’ve had a huge increase in new petitions created over the past few years, and as we’ve built a data science team that can help surface petitions that our users are most likely to want to take action on, we have moved away from making manual decisions about which campaigns users receive.
On the personal side of things, the consequence of this is that a lot of petitions are started and recommended to users using machine learning that I personally disagree with – sometimes quite strongly. But I’m not in a position to take a stance on these – ultimately our mission is to empower users to create the change they want to see, not to prescribe to them a particular set of issues I or our team cares about. And the aggregate impact of that empowerment – independent of the particulars of any specific campaigns that I might not support – is immensely positive. I wrote more about this in a blog a few months back; you can find it here. http://blog.change.org/post/72991345174/change-org-and-openness
Sorry, you didn't answer my question.
I asked how you feel when those causes you strongly disagree with WIN thanks to your promotion -- either because you accepted money from an org, or because you promoted it on your front page.
I'm not arguing about what your policy should be. It's your website, make your policy whatever you want. I'm really just interested in how you feel when that happens.
There will be a lot of campaigns that will win on the site that I personally disagree with, and I accept that. When I started seeing this happen I wasn’t exactly excited about it, but I personally believe that the most important challenge we face is a lack of civic engagement and a belief that everyday people can’t make a difference, and that’s what I care most about. So I’m most concerned with our broad mission of empowerment and goal of increased civic participation.
Do you ever get concerned that people signing the petitions don't have enough information to make an informed decision? Most times, it is just one side of a situation, made with a desperate plea from a family member or someone you feel for. However, I often find myself wondering what the other side of the situation is. Is there a way to better inform your users, before clicking sign? george
This is a challenging issue that I’d actually be interested in Redditors’ responses to: how does an open platform simultaneously empower people to start their own petitions in their own voice and also empower people with the information they might want to decide whether to support it?
This is difficult because it’s not our place to insert ourselves into the causes our users care about. At the same time, I do understand the desire for people to find out more info about the campaigns they’re joining.
There are two things we’ve been working on to give people more information about the campaigns they might want to join: the first is to highlight endorsements on petitions from people or organizations (like EFF) that signers might trust, which would help validate the campaign. The second is simply encouraging petition creators (through tips on the site) to add as much information to their petitions as possible in order to preempt questions that others might have.
But this isn’t easy to solve and I’d be interested in anyone else’s thoughts on how we thread this needle.
Change.org makes their money nearly exclusively by offering "partner petitions" as secondary actions in the "daisy chain" and then selling any emails (and associated information) to "partners" for somewhere in the neighborhood of $1-2/email. Partners then add these email addresses to their own email lists.
Your most noteworthy campaign to date, and what is probably one of your biggest individual drivers of list growth, was the petition Prosecute the killer of our son, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin created by the parents of Trayvon Martin. You would've then taken those new-to-list emails and then sent them to campaigns that then 'chained' to paid partner petitions.
How much revenue have you made to date off of Change.org list members originally added to your list as part of the petition created by the parents of Trayvon Martin?
I was deeply moved by Trayvon’s parents’ petition on Change.org, and many new people became users of Change.org because of Sabrina and Tracy’s call to action. Many of the users who first signed that petition have gone on to start petitions of their own and work toward creating change in other ways. Some of those users have also joined other nonprofits and causes through the advertising we provide - though we do not keep data tracking those exact numbers.
It’s important to clarify something here, though: we don’t sell email addresses. Our advertising revolves around choice; people choose to opt-into learning more about campaigns and organizations that interest them.
The way our model works is organizations that want new members can advertise their campaigns on the site, and our users can then choose to join them. It serves everyone since it gives our users a chance to find out more information from organizations they’re passionate about; it gives organizations a way to connect with new members for their causes, and it helps us build and run a platform that anyone can use for free.
what was the first successful petition and how did that impact you?
The first hugely successful petition on the site was started by a woman in South Africa, Ndumie Funda, to stand against the horrible practice of corrective rape (where men will rape lesbian women in the attempt to ‘turn them straight’). It received more than 170,000 signatures, leading to a massive amount of press in South Africa and mobilization outside of Parliament, and after ignoring the issue entirely for decades, the government of South Africa responded by starting a national task force to investigate and stop the incidence of corrective rape.
I actually had the pleasure of talking with Ndumie via Skype during the campaign (this is when having a viral petition on the site was quite rare), so I developed a personal connection to the issue. When I found out about the victory, I was frankly stunned and pretty emotional. It was that experience that showed me more clearly than anything previously that new technology has truly shifted power – that even the seemingly least powerful people in the world could have immense impact.
Hi Ben- since petition creators bring you revenue- would you consider profit sharing?
This actually isn’t something that we’ve considered, but it’s interesting. To be clear, while we bring in revenue, we reinvest 100 per cent of that revenue back into our mission of empowering ordinary people. The goal is to build the most effective platform for social change - available for free to anyone in the world. So we don’t have any plans to implement a formal profit-sharing policy, but I’m always open to ideas if you think it would be in service of our broader mission.
Who is your favorite engineer?
Dr. Emmett Brown
There are a lot of petitions relating to politics, but without innovating congress, those impact will be limited.
Why have politicians debated in highly inefficient manner in congress? It is ridiculous that more than 100 congressmen listen to one speaker who only read his/her memo in stead of publishing his/her memo on the web, isn’t? If debates are held on Reddit, twitter, Google+ hangout, Salesforce or Evernote etc, debates are open, easy to continue and highly cost-effective. Who can make new congress?
Mr Steve Case’s answer is here.
I absolutely agree that our current political environment is broken, although I also think that with technology we have an unprecedented opportunity to change this.
As Steve Case noted in the link included, a large part of the problem is that elected officials spend a huge amount of their time raising money from a small number of large donors. What’s notable, though, is that they don’t do this to pocket the money – they do this because most voters don’t pay a lot of attention to politics, and in order to mobilize them, politicians need a lot of money to buy ads. In short, politicians don’t care about money per se – in fact, many of them also hate this perverse campaign contribution game – what they really care about are votes, and right now the best way to get votes is to buy lots of media.
However, if you give politicians a better way to communicate with their constituents at massive scale, and therefore a better way to mobilize voters, you start to change their incentives. This is what we aim to do – by mobilizing a large percentage of the voters of any given district and engaging directly with elected officials - and doing it all online, where anyone can see what’s happening - you will get very different behavior.
We’re starting to see the early signs of this on Change.org, as elected officials from mayors to members of Congress are now starting to directly respond to their own constituents’ petitions through our Decision Makers tool. But we’re just at the very beginning, and in the future I think that we and places like Reddit can be the sort of scaled channel of communication and mobilization that will make money matter less.
Were you a social or political activist growing up in any way prior to establishing Change.org? Perhaps your upbringing inspired you, or a particular subject matter, or you've just always been an activist at heart...
When I was younger I cared about social issues, but it wasn’t a big part of my life. Instead, I was actually on a path toward becoming an investment banker. This all changed when I was a senior in college, when one of my younger brothers came out as gay. He told me that what was most difficult for him witnessing discrimination every day was seeing good people stand by and do nothing – people like me. This was a painful experience – it was the first time I think I felt truly ashamed. It was that experience turned me away from a future in finance and set me on a path toward wanting to empower others to stand up and speak out on the issues they care about.
I strongly think that it is good for more people to use Change.org, how do you get more users especially in Asia?
One of my favorite things is to watch Change.org take off in new countries - particularly in places where the act of a citizen raising their voice is not common.
We’re seeing this happen across Asia right now – and we actually have staff in Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and India helping to empower citizens to start their campaigns. We now have more than 7 million users across the region, and the most exciting is that we’re seeing people win their campaigns on a near-daily basis, which is driving further action and civic participation.
I have no question for you and just wanted to say hello and thank you for all you've done with Change.org. It really is a great platform that can and does drive great change in this world.
Thanks for the support! We have no impact ourselves without users, so thank you for taking action.
Hi there, this was the original idea when you first started the project or you change it in time?
We’ve had the same mission since we started the company: to empower people to create the change they want to see. But when we launched our founding CTO Mark Dimas and I had no idea which online tools would be most effective for advancing offline change – so we built a huge number of features to test out (things like virtual political action committees, skills-based volunteerism, project-based fundraising, etc).
The problem is that we built way too much and overcomplicated things. The irony is that the thing we found by far most effective – petitions – was also the simplest. This is one of the lessons of the internet: platforms often succeed not despite their simplicity, but because of it.
So the features and structure of the site have definitely evolved, while our mission has remained the same.
Hey Ben, thanks for doing this AMA. I love signing petitions and like to think I'm contributing to social change by signing, but I wonder truly how much a digital signature does to change our world...I feel like my generation (at least in the US, obviously not in other parts of the world) has a lethargic approach to social change or revolution -- a lot of us will click a petition but few will march in DC; does Change.org contribute to that lethargy or is it a response to it?
One of the most frequent questions we get is whether online petitions really matter, and whether they will reduce civic participation or encourage it.
A few years ago I think the jury was still out on this question. But with the thousands of campaigns that have won on Change.org over the past few years, and the more than 25 million people who have participated in at least one of these victories, I think it’s pretty clear that when petitions are well-crafted and have a clear strategy they can have immense power.
Sometimes this surprises people, who think that getting an elected official or a company to respond to the public shouldn’t be as easy as it’s become. But I don’t. The fact that it’s possible to change public policy without having to physically protest in front of Congress isn't something to lament; it’s something to celebrate. The goal isn’t to make social change difficult – it’s to create an environment that facilitates a world in which the policies of government and the practices of companies reflect the public good rather than private interests. And petitions do this remarkably effectively.
To be clear, action beyond signing petitions is often helpful or even necessary; in fact, many petition creators use our tool to mobilize signers to take further action, sometimes delivering the petition in person, sometimes raising money to buy ads in newspapers, sometimes doing media outreach. In these cases having signed a petition doesn’t make people less likely to participate – it makes them more likely since they’re already connected to the campaign.
I think the ultimate impact of all of this – of the ease of participation and the increasing effectiveness of campaigns – will help to change the culture of indifference you refer to and create a new generation that feels far more empowered than any before to take social action.
Edit: *isn't something to lament
What's your very best life advice?
When making decisions about what you want to do with your life, challenge yourself to the following thought experiment: when you’re in your twilight years, telling your grandchildren about the decisions you made in your life, what do you want to be able to tell them? This is a clarifying question - it doesn’t impose any external value set on your decision-making, but is rather your best guess of what advice you’d give yourself with perspective. If you ask yourself that question, I think you’ll be surprised to find that you also know the right answer.
Can you share your top diet and fitness tips?
I don’t have any of my own, but here’s what my mom has been telling me for the past 33 years: eat your veggies and exercise at least 30 minutes a day. Unfortunately I don’t always listen to my mom.
Being the founder of change.org, you don't seem to have a shortage of revolutionary ideas. What should I name my child due in a month?
Mister (or Miss) Splashy Pants
You built an open tool free for everyone. But you also choose what petitions to promote. And then you accept money from organizations to promote their petitions, per each one signed, and basically guarantee them signatures.
How do you feel when you actively promote causes that you’re opposed to — not just allow for the creation using your tool, but actively promote — either by ads or by front-paging it, or on social media… and then they win, thanks in part to your work?
Not trolling. I’m honestly curious how what it’s like to promote causes you disagree with, either because they’re an advertiser, or because it got popular and you decided to front page it.
I can give an example, but for all I know you favored him on free speech (or other) grounds so that’s difficult, and I’m more interested in how you feel than a defense of a specific instance: but in case it’s helpful, an example could be front-paging the Duck Dynasty guy getting his show back even if "homosexuals do not agree."
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