We live in an era of massive public marches and standing-room-only town hall meetings. People today expect opportunities to actively engage with the legislators who govern them and the companies they do business with.
Change.org, the global hub for collective action, is a crucial democratizing force in this era of growing civic participation. It helps enable a world where you don’t need to hire a lobbyist to have real impact on the issues and policies that matter to you.
Change.org is accessible, it’s transparent, and it’s flexible enough to help people collectively pursue everything from lower monthly banking fees to better criminal justice system policies for sexual assault survivors.
In fact, I believe in Change.org’s mission so strongly that I’m leading its latest funding round of more than $30 million, with the largest personal impact investment I’ve made to date.
Why Change.org Matters
Change.org performs functions that are key to a healthy democracy – functions that were once mostly the domain of daily newspapers and other traditional news outlets. It informs its users about issues and developments that are of local, national, and even global relevance. It gives a megaphone to marginalized and disenfranchised communities. Its users and petition starters hold powerful interests accountable.
Most importantly, Change.org functions within the framework of what Tim O’Reilly calls "an architecture of participation." At Change.org, users don’t just consume information. They act on it, by starting and signing petitions that have real impact. That’s why, since Ben Rattray founded Change.org in 2007, the platform has attracted nearly 200 million users in 196 countries.
In its decade of existence, Change.org petitions have resulted in more than 21,000 victories, i.e., instances in which a government agency, corporation, or other entity has changed a regulation or a policy in the face of a Change.org petition urging it to do so.
So when Change.org’s users sign a petition, they know they’re not just sounding off on a message board or engaging in empty rhetoric. They’re leveraging the human capital of their voices with thousands or even millions of like-minded others, in a way that regularly results in significant impact.
Indeed, Change.org petitions have helped achieve grants of clemency for dozens of people serving lifetime prison sentences for nonviolent offenses. In the U.K. last year, a Change.org petition signed by more than 650,000 people and delivered to the British Prime Minister’s residence by the family of computer scientist Alan Turing helped convince officials to pardon 49,000 men who’d been convicted of felonies under homophobic laws. In Mexico City, residents and municipal leaders used the Change.org platform to collaborate on the development of the city’s new constitution.
Because of Change.org’s intrinsic architecture of participation, it harnesses the full power of its users’ knowledge and interests. Petition signers become petition creators, and Change.org effectively becomes a marketplace of civic engagement, where many campaigns are presented and the most relevant and powerful ones achieve traction.
As with most platforms and marketplaces, information spreads fast on Change.org. Feedback loops are tight and easy to analyze. As a result, innovation, iteration, and replication all accelerate. Activists seeking to drive change of some kind can experiment with different petitions, to find which ones resonate most with users, and which ones lead to real change. Once such petitions are identified, they can be reproduced and replicated. A petition that leads to a regulatory change in one city can serve as a template for similar petitions around the country.
Change.org benefits from the same virtuous cycle that Amazon, Airbnb, and other consumer Internet giants depend on to improve user engagement, identify the products and services that consumers want most, and increase revenues.
Early on, Ben Rattray recognized that the power of networks and platforms should be applied to social impact as well as consumer Internet businesses. While critics sometimes dismiss online petitions as "clicktivism," the premise underlying this critique is completely misguided. It isn’t bad to strive to make civic engagement more accessible and convenient and personalized, as effortless as one-click shopping. It’s good! As Change.org has proven over and over, petition signatures can lead to victories and real policy changes that make the world better.
As a society, we should be doing everything we can to build powerful, easy-to-use civic spaces where upstarts and idealists can effectively challenge entrenched interests. Where people believe their participation makes a real difference. Where every day, in transparent fashion, individual citizens can join forces in highly democratic efforts to make the world a better place.
That’s why I’m making this investment in Change.org.
Investing Philanthropically In Change.org
In my primary capacity as a partner at Greylock, I invest in and serve on the boards of companies that focus on increasing their equity value. Many of these businesses, like LinkedIn and Airbnb, have strong social missions, but their principal long-term responsibility is to maximize returns to shareholders.
Change.org is different. From its inception, it has emphasized increasing social good over maximizing shareholder value, and it will continue to do so. In fact, it will soon be transitioning from a certified B corporation to a full-fledged benefit corporation – a structural status that will legally establish and ensure its commitment to public social benefit.
Because Change.org balances social impact and investor returns in this way, my investment in it will be a personal one rather than through Greylock.
While I and other investors participating in this round believe Change.org’s equity value will increase over time, it’s important to ensure that its social mission remains its primary objective as it expands into a platform that turns petitions into movements and enables deeper and more powerful collective action.
As part of my commitment to help Change.org achieve its mission, I am pledging to donate any increase in equity value I realize from this investment to non-profit organizations, including Change.org’s own charitable arm, the Change.org Foundation.
Building Change.org For Scale
Whenever I evaluate potential ventures and projects, including philanthropic and impact investments I’ve made in organizations like Kiva.org, Segovia, Endeavor, Mozilla, and Change.org, I consider the organization’s capacity to scale.
In doing so, I consider number of users, the depth of impact on those users, and how that impact plays out over time.
In other words, the organizatoins, products, or services that achieve the greatest scale don’t just attract millions or even billions of users. They also engage them in meaningful ways. And persist over time.
To achieve impact over time, you need financial sustainability – whether you’re a public benefit corporation like Change.org, a non-profit like Kiva or Endeavor, or a foundation like Mozilla that owns a revenue-generating for-profit subsidiary.
Because many other Internet leaders believe like I do that Change.org will play a key role in empowering crucial new forms of collective action over the coming years, we’ve been able to assemble a world-class Board of Directors to assist Ben Rattray.
Nancy Lublin, founder of Crisis Text Line and former CEO of Do Something, will be chairing the new board. Allen Blue, LinkedIn’s VP of Product of Management and one of my co-founders there, will be serving on the Change.org board as well, as will Joe Greenstein, founder of InnerSpace and Flixster, and Sarah Imbach, an angel investor and entrepreneur who was COO at 23andme and a longtime colleague of mine at LinkedIn and Paypal. I have personal experience with how talented each of these board members are through my work with them in other capacities over the years.
As Change.org’s founder, Ben has always believed that Change.org could deliver the most social impact over time by developing strong revenue streams and the financial autonomy that comes with that. That’s one of the reasons I was attracted to Ben’s vision, and why I made my first investment in Change.org in 2014.
In its early years, Change.org pursued an ad-based revenue model that relied heavily on large non-profit sponsors and other similar entities. While this model generated tens of millions of dollars in revenue and helped thousands of nonprofit organizations reach new supporters, it wasn’t able to keep pace with Change.org’s rapid user growth.
So Charge.org has shifted its model to incorporate user subscriptions, crowdfunding, and a promoted petition product that is accessible to individuals and organizations.
Moving forward, a major focus of the Board will be to help Change.org continue developing and refining its business model – in ways that increase its capacity to pursue its mission for the long term.
With Change.org, financial autonomy plays a particularly strategic role. A global utility that anyone can use to persuade governments to change laws and corporations to change policies must be completely reliable. It needs to be transparent, and beholden to no special interests or agendas.
That’s why it’s so important to improve and diversify Change.org’s business model, and ensure that it has the resources to continue adding features and tools that can help turn petitions into movements.
The Future Of Collective Action
With its nearly 200 million users, Change.org is already a major global platform.
But I believe we’re still in the early stages of what Change.org can accomplish.
As NYU professor Clay Shirky explained in his book, Here Comes Everybody, the kinds of collective action human beings have traditionally engaged in have been limited by the costs that come with managing large-scale group efforts. "For the last hundred years the big organizational question has been whether any given task was best taken on by the state, directing the effort in a planned way, or by businesses competing in a market," he wrote.
Now, however, the Internet, email, smartphones, and related technologies have dramatically lowered the costs of group organization and management — so much so that individuals can self-organize and collaborate, in decentralized, asynchronous, and loosely coordinated fashion, on projects that once only formal organizations would have had the resources to pursue.
Platforms like Change.org further amplify this new capacity for decentralized collective action by making it easier for people to find the issues and campaigns that matter most to them, and giving them an evolving set of tools to leverage their impact.
The potential for individuals to create real and lasting change through collective action — by influencing electing officials, by influencing corporations, by connecting over shared interests and pooling resources — is rapidly growing more powerful. Every day brings new opportunities to act on your values and ideals. Recently, I signed a Change.org petition started by a doctor who has been on the front lines of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Syria, calling for world leaders not to forget the carnage and chaos in places like Aleppo. If you feel similarly about this issue, I invite you to join me.