Perhaps no one is less popular these days than our elected officials. A recent Gallup poll revealed the Congressional approval rating is an abysmal 13 percent. As divided as the country is on issues from gun control to immigration, there's one thing most Americans seem to agree on: the people with all the power, be it in business or in politics, aren't really listening. Ben Rattray is on a mission to make them.
Rattray is the founder and CEO of Change.org, a San Francisco start-up that allows people to post free online petitions about causes they care about. "Right now the communication mechanism between citizens and elected representatives is broken. You have one chance every two years and you get a single voite," Rattray says, adding that the same goes for customers and corporations. "We want to built an ongoing communication channel that's effective and transparent."
Last year, Change.org is where three high school girls from New Jersey petitioned the Commission on Presidential Debates to choose a woman to moderate a debate for the first time in 20 years. It's where Nobel Peace Prize Winner Desmond Tutu petitioned for the release of Liu Xiabo, a fellow Nobel laureate, imprisoned by the Chinese government. And it's where the parents of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old who was shot and killed last year by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, urged the Florida Attorney General to prosecute Zimmerman and subsequently set off a national discussion about the state of race relations in the country. That last petition launched Change.org into the national spotlight, garnering nearly 2.3 million signatures.
Change.org wasn't always a petition platform. When it launched in 2007, Rattray envisioned it as a social network for social change. He was inspired to launch the site when his brother told him he was gay and opened up to him about the prejudices he had faced. "He told me the thing that hurt him most was seeing good people stand by and do nothing in the face of discrimination," Rattray says. "It was the first time I ever thought about what I really wanted to do and the legacy I wanted to leave."
"Change.org is saying, 'Hey, this actually does work,' to a group of disenchanted young people."
But the social network never took off. "People focused too much on broad objectives and not creating daily change," Rattray remembers. So he transitioned Change.org into a blog network and began allowing people to make petitions based on the stories that interested them. "I, personally, was skeptical that these petitions would even work," says Rattray. Then, one petition in particular, changed his mind.
It was posted in 2010 by a South African woman, who was a victim of so-called "corrective rape," a violent crime that aims to "cure" gay people of their sexual orientation. The petition asked the South African government, specifically the Minister of Justice, to take action against this troubling trend. Within seven days, the petition had garnered 100,000 signatures and caught the attention of major media outlets in South Africa, which also pressed the minister to take action. The following year, the South African government formed a task force to address the problem. "At that point we were like, 'Okay. This is an incredible ability to empower even the least powerful people.' We decided instead of crafting the narrative ourselves, we'd let people tell their own stories," Rattray says. "We ripped out all the blogs and decided to focus on people power."
Back then, Change.org was growing at a rate of 100,000 new members a month. Today, the site adds 2 million members a month. Last year, it generated $15 million in revenue. It's free for anyone to post a petition. Major philanthropic and political organizations like Amnesty International and UNICEF pay Change.org to sponsor petitions that align with their goals.
Going forward, Rattray hopes that the many victories being achieved through Change.org will convince people around the world that they have the power to make change happen. "Our generation's criticized for being apathetic, but we're not born apathetic. We're bred to be over time because all our experience has shown us we can't make a difference," he says. "We want the next generation to grow up expecting to make a difference and inspiring each other to do it."