ON LOCATION - October, 2016
Making a difference
REPORTERS: Arjun Aujula, Parker Bizjack, Becky Booth, Ryan Copeland, Ben Horsey, Liza Lachter, Logan MacKinney, Maia Manzagol, Jonathan Palfy, Julian Reiss, Lilah Richman, Kylie Sebastian, Eve Sloan, Wesley Slavin, Gisele Turchon, Owen Wright
Do you have a really powerful story that might make other people care about an issue that they’ve never heard about before? Were you personally affected by something that you feel should change? Change.org is an organization that gives the voiceless a voice, and gives people the opportunity to make a difference in the world. When people don’t believe that they can make a difference, Change.org helps empower individuals to stand up for what is important, and provides the opportunity to state their opinion and take a stand for whatever they feel strongly about.
Walking into the San Francisco office of this company that can, has and is, our eyes scanned the tall, brightly colored fire red walls, taking in the bold letters spelling out the word Change.org. We met with Jon Perri and Kelly Sawyer, both Associate Campaigns Directors at Change.org who told us, “Our mission is to ‘empower people everywhere to create the change they want to see.”’
Perri said, “We help figure out what might make a great campaign on our site. We help people who are already starting those petitions to optimize or tell their story a little bit better. We’re here to make it easier for them to understand what goes into making a strong online petition.”
Anybody can start a petition,” Sawyer explains. “If you see something that’s happening in your community that you want to change or something that’s happening in your state or the country or even around the world, you can start a petition and we try to make that as easy as possible.”
Change.org has grown a lot since 2007, when the company was created. The company now has over 150 million users with teams all around the globe, from India, Australia, Russia, Latin America, Europe and Southeast Asia. According to Perri, there are 22,000 petitions started a month, 5,000 petitions started a week—that’s approximately 700 per day. “We have petitions that win almost every hour, so there are petitions that are around the globe that we’ve never touched that are being won by people that just started them on their own every day.” Perri gave the latest figure on the number of victories at 18,240. “These are victories all around the globe in about 196 countries.”
Perri explained what defines a victory is essentially “when a person starts a petition and then that petition’s goal is reached. Maybe they want to pass a bill in their state or they want to pass a bill in Congress or they want to get a company to change a business practice. If what they’re asking for in their petition actually achieves that goal, that’s considered a victory.”
Perri and Kelly explained what would make a good campaign to help a petition succeed in a victory. The first is a great narrative, a great beginning. Perri told us, “You need a compelling story that other people can care about. Your issue might be an issue that they’ve never heard about before. People want to hear personal stories about why issues have affected people and this makes it easier for them to understand why they should care about it.” The second is what Perri called “the theory of change.” He explained that you have to think about what a campaign is asking for. Could your petition push to have a bill passed in Congress and how could something like that win? Is it something that could win? In some cases, there may already be a bill that exists that could possibly pass through Congress. Perri explained that in this situation, “there is a is a strong theory of change, because members of Congress can take it to committee, they can talk about it, they can vote on it, and it could win.”
Perri added, “We also see petitions sometimes that say Barack Obama turned the sky green. He doesn’t really have the power to do that. Barack Obama has no power to turn the sky green, as far as I know. It doesn’t have a good theory of change.”
Perri explained how often they see petitions that might have a good idea, but they don’t really have a good way to actually become victories. In this case, the organization works with people and encourages them to perhaps change the way that they’re talking about it so that it might have a good chance to win.
Recently a lot of campaigns have cropped up about gun control legislation in the wake of some of the mass shootings. When something big happens in our country, they see a lot of petitions that come up in response to that; it does help to make a petition more popular because people are thinking about it, talking about it online, and so it is more likely that people will see the petition.
Perri and Kelly went on to explain the “victory pipeline.” This is the lifecycle, or process behind a campaign petition. A petition starts with a story and moves to an online petition and begins gathering signatures to build support. Perri added, “Next is escalation or going beyond the petition. You may get 10,000 people to sign your petition. You might want to ask them to also send a tweet after they sign it to the person you’re petitioning—maybe send a tweet to the president or send a tweet to the CEO of some company. You might ask them to make a phone call to their senator or their legislator about the issue that they signed they signed their petition on. Another part of this is the decision-maker engagement. This is actually the person we know are decision-makers, because they have the power to make the decision that you’re asking. You want to engage them, you want to reach out to them, and a big part of what we realized here and what we’ve really worked hard on over the last few years is decision-maker engagement and making it more than just yelling at someone. In a lot of ways, petitions become a lot of noise. What we’re actually trying to do is create a conversation. If you start a petition it’s not enough to just kind of yell at this person.”
Perri and Kelly told us about petitions that were successful such as one in Jacksonville, Florida that involved a dad creating a petition to get the school his daughter attended to change the name from Nathan Bedford Forest—which was the name of a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Once he started this petition, he sparked a whole new conversation about things. As he built the signature base, all the sudden this became a really big national media story. People who were on the school board and people who worked in this community suddenly had eyes on something that really was framed in a fairly negative way, the idea that there is a school in their city that’s named after a Ku Klux Klan leader. Once this dad was able to build up those supporters, he was able to engage with a lot of media and a lot more people start to really build a campaign for changing this name. This is an escalation example. Starting a petition is often not going to be enough. A petition is a component of a campaign. If you’re really committed to creating change, you have to do more than just create your petition.
Kelly elaborated on one of her favorite campaigns—a campaign about rights for women and girls around the world. Over the past year, she worked with an amazing woman from Ethiopia, named Aberash Bekele. Kelly told us, “Ethiopia has a very large problem with what is known as child marriage which often means that young girls are sold into marriage at a very young age. They’re taken out of school and they essentially become slaves. It’s a horrible situation. This happened to Aberash. She was kidnapped and sold into a marriage when she was 14. She escaped that marriage but as she was physically escaping, running away—her husband tried to stop her. She ended up killing her husband in self-defense as she tried to leave. In Ethiopia, there was no law for self-defense for this kind of situation. Aberash was tried for murder. After a two-year-long trial, she was acquitted. This was the first time in Ethiopia that someone had been found not guilty because they were doing something out of self-defense. She was only 16 at this point, but she became a huge advocate for ending forced and child marriages not just in Ethiopia but around the globe. She started a petition asking for President Obama to release an executive order that would help to address child marriage around the globe. When she started her petition, we did a lot of escalation, including a petition delivery to the State Department. They talked to a lot of high-level government people.In the end, this campaign won. There was a huge strategy that was released by the White House to help address child marriage through negotiations and through international relations which was began by this one young woman who went through something obviously extremely traumatic but has become a huge advocate because of it. This is one of my one of my favorites.”
Perri and Kelly came into the organization from different backgrounds. However, both joined Change.org because they were excited about the platform, what they were building and the opportunity to work in a different way on these issues. Perri had worked at an organization focused on criminal justice and Kelly had a background in advocacy, but had actually worked in Hollywood. She was working developing television shows and what she loved about change.org is that she gets to tell huge stories and create big narrative campaigns, telling stories that really matter and that have impact. She added, “I loved that I was able to use my advocacy background and also storytelling and the stuff I’d learned in Hollywood and bring them together for a good cause.”
Kelly added that she thinks a strong point about Change.org’s platform is that the majority of the people that start petitions are not advocates themselves. They’re not professional campaigners. Anybody can come to the site and start a petition. A lot of people start petitions about something because it was directly impacting them and it’s not because they have this particular political bent or agenda about an issue.
We learned there are a lot of celebrities that support petitions. The Change.org site ability allows someone with a verified Twitter account—celebrities, politicians, big-name famous people, to support the petition on Twitter. If they tell their followers they should sign this petition, their tweet will actually get pulled into the petition itself and it will show up on the petition so you can see people who support it. There is also a new feature called Endorsers where you can see right on each petition if anybody has a verified account through our decision-maker database, anybody who has endorsed a petition. Both the President and the first lady, Michelle Obama have written decision-maker responses. This will help make a campaign successful.
We wanted to know if very many youth start petitions. If so, how many and what advice might you give to young people who are looking to make change?
Perri told us, “ There definitely are and it is something we need to get better at identifying and engaging with young people who start on the platform. There’s a significant number of young people under the age of 18. You have to be 13 to start a petition on our site and if you are under 13, you have to have a parent or guardian help you. I would love for you all to start petitions when you can, or if you want to, and also continue to sign them. When we send you emails, we try to tailor them to you based on what you might be interested and what you’ve signed before, so if there’s certain issues you care about, sign those petitions and then there’s a better likelihood that we’ll be able to send you ones that you really care about.”
The Internet has allowed so many more people to participate in conversation and politics in our society than we ever could before. It is easy to put your voice out there, to say something on the Internet. Kelly and Perri helped us see that we have a responsibility as citizens to be sharing our stories of what we see is wrong and needs to be changed now that we have this opportunity—a way to do it. If something is happening that you don’t like, that you want to change, you now have the power to actually raise your voice, to gather signatures and to get other people to help you make a change. Let’s do it.