Notes for TWiST ep.616 — Change.org Founder Ben Rattray launches Change Politics & shares 9yrs online citizen activism

Ben Rattray, Change.org

We live in fascinating, changing times.

On today’s TWiST episode (audio, video links) host Jason Calacanis is joined by Ben Rattray, founder and CEO of Change.org, world’s biggest petition platform that has changed how people gather around the causes they care about.

Did you know Change.org is a b corp and what standards is it help up to?

Do you want to know what are the biggest victories people untied under the same petitions were able to attain?

Are you wondering if Jason is going to become the next major of San Francisco and how Rattray’s new platform can and probably will change how people decide who to vote for?

Subscribe to the podcast on Itunes and listen or watch to the episode or read these notes.


  • Ben Rattray is the CEO and founder of Change.org, a website where people -can start petitions to bring change to the causes that matter the most to them
  • It was launched in 2007, he started to work on it in 2005
  • Over 100 million users used the petition site

B Corporation

  • It’s a b corporation
  • A b corp is a c corp with a difference: the company has made an explicit commitment to being in service of social change
  • It must follow rigorous standards on sustainability, community investments, purpose and mission
  • B-lab is a non profit certifying entity that assesses and ensure the standards are respecteed
  • If you are not making enough of a positive impact, it will de-certify it as a b corp
  • B corps were introduced in 2007–2008
  • Handup.org is another b-corp fighting homelessness Jason has invested in
  • He had the founder on the show, a smart guy who insisted for him to invest
  • He’s trying to say yes more

Profit vs non-profit

  • They were a bit stigmatized for having .org domain — in tech there is some skepticism about non-profit in general
  • Over the past 40 years the number of non profits that got to 50 million dollars in revenue/donations a year is about 150, more than 10000 companies have done the same in the same time
  • Social change shouldn’t only be for non-profit
  • “You can do well by doing good”

Petitions and brand damage prevention

  • For most consumer company the most important thing they have is their brand so they are quite sensitive about what people think about it
  • A lot of petitions on the change.org ask companies to change their policy and they comply all the time because they are afraid of brand damage

“Making a murder”

  • After Netflix aired the show “Making a murderer” — somebody made a petition to have Steven Avery released
  • Millions of people responded to it: idrew so much attention that even the president of the US responded
  • People want to hear about these issues

Company stats

  • They have raised 50 millions total to make a petition site that scales massively around the world with 100 million users
  • They have 300 employees in 19 different countries, biggest social change organizations online
  • They are not breaking even yet, it will take another couple of years
  • They will likely raise another round of funding
  • Once they reach profitability, they can buy back shares, give stocks to their employees
  • They haven’t takem no institutional funding from VCs, only high net worth individuals to have a longer time frame for their business, not to be forced for an early, short-minded exit
  • VCs usually want to get a return in 10 years, Charge.org is into this for the next 30 years
  • They want to leverage the hundreds of millions users they’ll have to empower people to have their voce heard with their votes, time, money

Business model

  • The offer sponsored campaigns and native advertisement for non-profit organizations, political campaigns and companies to post pay petitions on the site
  • Non profits need members: they are in the business of donor acquisition and historically they have used direct mail
  • All petitions one can see on the site are organic and free for people to set up
  • When you sign for a petition, you can sign for another sponsored one based on the interest you’ve showed in the first one
  • It’s like CPA (cost per action) offers: they pay between 1 and 2 dollars on average and they get an email the can send an email to
  • The links they get all opt-in, those people are taking action on a issue they care about so once they receive a request for donations from companies lots of them become donor
  • Amnesty International could pay them 50k to get 25k people to email to and try to get them to become donors

Biggest successes

  • Boy scouts of America are accepting gay members for the first time in their history as a result of petitions
  • They didn’t until a few years ago: they had won the right to discriminate gay people as a private organization after a ruling of the Supreme Court
  • There was this 17 years old gay kid who was a week away from his boy scout badge
  • The boy scouts found out he was gay and kicked him out
  • His mom started a chan ge.org campaign, half a million people joined and many other campaigns were started by people caring about the issue
  • It always starts from a personal story
  • Another personal story: A scout leader was removed because she was a lesbian mom, she started a campaign to force a change in the Boy Scouts of America policy to no avail
  • She then found out that 2 CEO of 2 gay friendly companies were sitting in the board of the Boy Scouts of America
  • Campaigns were made to put pressure on them and those companies
  • Intel was the biggest donor and have a no-discrimination policy: petitions were made to pull their financial supports to Boy Scouts of America
  • A few months later, Boy Scouts of America dropped their no-gay policy

Why he started it

  • He started this website because his brother came out of the closet and told him that the most painful thing about wasn’t people explicitly against gay people, but people who refused to stand up against them, people like him
  • As a older brother he felt ashamed and instead of becoming an investment banker, he decided he wanted to make a change
  • Dozen of success stories every day around gay rights, women issues, acid attacks, female genital mutilation

What’s permissible on the site

  • As long as it’s not explicitly hate speech, potentially lead to violent or personal harm it’s ok
  • Most frequently petitions to be taken down are bullying ones, kids bullying other kids with petitions
  • There are way more petitions are started against bullying
  • A French mom started one after her daughter committed suicide and got France Prime Minister Hollande to start working on a law against bullying
  • Yet you can start a petition for death penalty

Anonymity on Twitter

  • Anonymity on Twitter is a problem
  • It allows people to say what they want, whistleblowing but also to threat
  • Too many personal treats against people and women are made, so much that some women don’t use Twitter for that reason
  • They should introduce the real name policy like on Facebook
  • People can’t use pseudonames on Change.org (unless they are in countries were they could be threatened for stating their opinions in the open)

Russia

  • The country he’s most worried about is Russia
  • They have a Russian team, but they don’t live in Russia (too dangerous)
  • There are 7 million Russians on the site and the Russian government has started to work with change.org (they condemned it first)

Changepolitics.org

  • Nowadays elections are a horse racing dominated by fundraising and polls
  • Changepolitics.org is a platform they built that shifted power from parties and paid ads to citizens by allowing anybody to ask direct questions to candidates
  • Politics should have well-reasoned debates and do tests: want to improve the traffic in SF?
  • You run a test (no parking on such roads for 10 weeks) then gather the data and share it publicly
  • More people should run at primaries: if anybody has the opportunity to communicate to people at no cost, everybody has equal opportunity to respond to citizen questions and make proposals the field would be fairer
  • It’s a marketplace of ideas, where people with stakes in the debate can argue their positions and influence others
  • You could get celebrities that get enough tweets as a sign of backing and interest that could attract more attention to the topic than the candidates themselves
  • People may not want to become politicians but they want to shape politics with their ideas and their way of delivering them, presenting facts and asking questions
  • The platform allows also to follow people you trust (say Jason, Andreessen, Reid Hoffman), follow their opinions and their perspectives and see how they are endorsing
  • Money in politics matter so much cause voters have no idea who to vote for and the best way to influence them is to buy ads that influence their vote
  • In the future people will be voting based on trust and endorsement on a smartphone app instead of money and tv ads

Not all campaigns are serious

  • A few years ago the band Nickelback was to play at the halftime show of Detroit Lions game at Thanksgiving
  • Somebody petitioned for Nickelback to be kicked out and it got such a huge response that Nickelback made a video in response to that

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