Ben Rattray, founder of Change.org, had a clear message for the audience at the Inc. 5000 conference in Washington, D.C.: You may not realize it, Rattray told the room of entrepreneurs, but "every company is a social good company in some way." No matter what product or service you sell, you're already in a position to have a positive effect your community and, at the very least, your employees.
Rattray wasn't always interested in social causes. As a child, he dreamed of being just like the fictional character Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street--you know, the one famous for saying "Greed is good." (Rattray couldn't wait until the day when he, too, could wear a double-breasted suit.) As a student at Stanford University during the Internet boom, he was more interested in building the next dot-com dream company than the usual undergraduate concerns. He planed to start a sports betting website--until he realized that was actually illegal.
An emotional encounter during which his brother revealed that he was gay made Rattray realize that he was in a privileged position to take notice of the injustices around him and affect social change. But he wasn't doing anything with that power. So he founded Change.org, an online platform that lets anyone start a petition for social causes. (You can read more about his start-up story here.) The site now boasts more than 40 million members, with about two million new members joining each month. Successful citizen-led petitions created on the site have prompted 1-800 Flowers to sell fair-trade bouquets and Crayola to start recycling the millions of pens the company sells every month, among many other feats.
You could say Rattray's journey was a classic 180-degree pivot. That's not to suggest, however, that he's not interested in growing a successful business. Change.org is a for-profit company, because Rattray believes a business that makes money is in a more sustainable position to invest in social good. The company has been criticized for using a ".org" web address, which is usually associated with non-profits. Rattray explained that, although the .org domain may not reflect the company's tax status, it does reflect its mission.
During his keynote address, Rattray explained how the ubiquitious nature of social media gives companies even more reason to adopt a focus on social good. "Everything is transparent," he said, citing the fact that the CEO of 1-800 Flowers ultimately responded to the Change.org petition, in part, because his daugther had seen a negative comment about the company on Facebook. Sooner or later, Rattray said, "everyone is going to know what you do." Whether that's good or bad for your company is up to you.