Yesterday I had a conversation with a friend about how to create a bigger pool of people taking action to make the world a better place. ‘What makes a person move from wanting action on one issue, to taking action on other issues, and getting more deeply involved?’ she asked. It just so happened that this question coincided neatly with my second day of a six week contract at Change.org, the world’s fastest-growing platform for social change.
I have to admit that when I first heard about Change in 2007 (at a party full of interesting people with interesting hair at the M+R office in San Francisco) I didn’t really ‘get’ it. I duly signed AYCC up for an organisational account (it was free, why not?) but then promptly forgot about it.
Back then, Change.org hadn’t really honed its purpose. It started out as a kind of social network for nonprofit organisations and campaigners. But we already used Facebook, so there wasn’t much point. Soon after, it morphed into a kind of socially responsible blogging hub. Teams of bloggers wrote about environmental and social justice-related stories, and then you could also take action by signing a petition about the issue you just read on the blog. This worked for a while; but blogs and online content creation are a pretty saturated market. Change realised this, and decided to focus instead just on the ‘take action’ part. It’s not information that changes the world – it’s people taking action on that information. So the new version of Change.org was born – a campaigning platform with the goal to empower anyone, anywhere to start, join and win campaigns on issues that are important to them.
What makes Change different to GetUp, where I worked in 2008 as the climate campaigner? Well, it’s a fundamentally different model. Firstly, it’s not a team of professional organisers deciding to start a campaign and emailing a large list of members. Anyone can create a petition, email it to their own networks, and Change is just the platform. The best explanation I’ve heard is this: in the same way YouTube hosts videos, Change hosts campaigns.
The second difference is the nature of the campaigns people use Change to work on. GetUp is there to win national campaigns and Avaaz to win global campaigns. But Change is there for people to run campaigns themselves on issues of any size – and usually the issues are local and personal, with people constructing campaigns around their own experiences. It’s truly grassroots organising, happening online. This results in campaigns that are often less controversial or ‘political’ than those run by GetUp and Avaaz – campaigns with the potential to unite, rather than divide, people.
Hence the victory of the Year 4 students who won their campaign to get Universal Pictures to ‘speak for the trees’ by include environmental information on their website about The Lorax movie, or the successful campaign to get Bank of America to drop it’s new $5/ month banking fee, or the baseball fan’s petition to the San Francisco Giants asking them to become the first sports team to create a video against gay bullying (they did, after 6,000 fans joined the campaign). In Australia, a Queensland priest recently won a campaign to abolish an outrageous ‘gay panic’ defence to murder that was still legal in Queensland, and a group of women successfully forced many of Today FM’s sponsors to drop their support for Kyle Sandilands’ radio show after he called a journalist a ‘fat slag’ and threatened to ‘hunt her down’.
How is Change different from a simple website that ‘hosts’ petitions? The difference is that the Change team can help amplify certain campaigns. When a campaign really takes off on the site, the Change team takes notice. If it has a good chance of winning, a compelling narrative of individual empowerment and people power, is engaging, and unites people around a common value set, it might get some extra support.
The Change staff will often notify a subset of other Change members asking them to sign a campaign that’s taking off on the site. For example, if it’s an environment petition, it might get emailed to members who’ve signed previous environment, health and animals campaigns. This builds the number of petition signatories. The team also supports the campaign creator in things like strategy, press outreach, lobbying and petition delivery. The heart and soul of the campaign remains the person who initially created the petition, but this help from the Change team can give the campaign an extra boost.
This isn’t to say campaigns can’t win without support from Change staff. I’ve just read through an astonishingly long list of campaign victories that were started, run and won on the website without any help from the staff – from convincing a pizza company to stop a discriminatory and offensive TV ad, to preserving public funding for a renewable energy research centre in Denmark.
Change campaigns often actually WIN. People are using the website to win more than one campaign every single day. This gives people a sense of their own power and the realisation that change can come from the bottom up. Being part of a winning campaign can literally change peoples’ lives, like what happened to me when I was part of winning my first campaign in high school. Once you’ve won a campaign, your whole understanding of how the world works can be turned upside down.
And successful campaigns on the site often lead to hundreds of copycat campaigns, as people realise they can win a similar victory in their own community. This is why Change is currently exploding in size, gaining nearly 1 million new members every single month.
Change’s business model is pretty simple: advertising. Nonprofits are always looking to increase their members and supporters, yet the pool of people who already care about their issues isn’t that big. Change allows them to advertise their campaigns to people who have already taken action on a similar issue. This gives the person a chance to get more deeply involved in issues they care about through a number of different organisations; and helps build a bigger pool of supporters for social change movements in general. In addition, when you advertise with Change, you get free advice from top-tier campaign consultants around the best way to integrate these new supporters (the people who respond to your campaign ad) into the other campaigns your organisation is running. This makes sure they get a good experience and aren’t turned off all online organising by being bombarded, for example, with tons of donation requests all at once.
What Change is doing through this model – and why I’m so proud to be working with them on this six week contract – is managing to increase the pool of people involved in citizen organising. It’s the answer to my friend’s question about how you move people from taking action on one issue, to wanting to change the world in a much broader way. In terms of entry-level campaigns, it doesn’t get much better than Change. People are asked, usually by a friend or someone they know, to take action on an issue that is local and personal. It’s a low barrier ask, and you often end up winning.
So Change is bringing a whole new layer of people into community organising. They start out willing to support a local campaign on one of Change’s issue areas (animals, environment, criminal justice, gay rights, economic justice, health, education, human rights, human trafficking, immigrant rights, sustainable food and women’s rights). Then they have the immensely positive experience of being part of a winning campaign. Finally, they’re presented with opportunities to deepen this new-found part of their identity by being asked to take action on another similar campaign. A few years of this, if done well, means you’ve actually managed to expand the pool of people taking action to build a better world.
Which brings me to the final point of my blog. I’m working for the next six weeks to help Change.org expand this pool geographically, into Asia. So far Change has mostly operated in English-speaking countries, but soon the platform will be available in over 30 languages. Right now, they’re starting the process of setting up teams in a bunch of new countries to support local campaigns there.
Right now, Change has teams in the US, Australia, Spain, the UK and India – and my role for the next six weeks is to find Campaign Directors who can lead Change’s presence in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan. The demand is clearly there – for example in Indonesia there are already over 10,000 Change.org members. The task now is to find the fantastic campaigners who can set up their own semi-autonomous country offices!
And here’s the bit where I ask for your help. I’m hoping to connect with as many people as possible who can offer some insight into the political and campaigning landscape of those six countries and help find the right potential candidates. I majored in Asian Studies at University, and already know some organisers in most of the six countries, but I have a LOT to learn and only six weeks to find the right people. I kind of feel like the Prince looking for Cinderella with only a glass slipper to guide me (in this case, the slipper is a metaphor for Facebook and my existing networks in Asia).
Again, the countries we’re looking to hire in are Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan. So – assuming we could hire anyone in those countries for the Campaigns Director roles (even if they would be very difficult to get) who would you recommend? As an added incentive – if you recommend a candidate that we eventually hire, we’ll pass on a $1000 finders fee (if you were the first person to recommends them). The job descriptions are up here.