Scaling and Sustaining ChangeMay 26, 2017
We started Change.org 10 years ago, at a time when many people were skeptical of the potential power of technology to advance social change.
Since then nearly 200 million people have used Change.org to drive more than 20,000 victories, demonstrating the extraordinary impact that everyday people can have when given easily accessible tools to mobilize others in common cause. We’ve seen this across thousands of issues, from every corner of the globe — from protecting the health care of retired coal miners in Kentucky, to curbing the violent practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in The Gambia, to freeing prisoners of conscience who have been jailed in Iran.
But as much as technology has given people new outlets for civic participation, governments too often still ignore the voices of their citizens, and hundreds of millions of people feel they are not being heard. We are in the early stages of the development of a new, more participatory form of democracy, and in order to realize the potential that technology has to transform civic engagement, we need to build tools that give us wider reach and enable deeper involvement.
To enable us to do this, we’re happy to announce a new investment round of more than $30 million, led by Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn. Reid is widely known as a brilliant, visionary entrepreneur and investor with extraordinary success scaling internet platforms. He is also deeply mission-driven, and is a powerful advocate of the importance of civic participation and the potential of technology to advance social change.
As a demonstration of his commitment to our mission, Reid is pledging to donate any of the increase in the equity value of his investment to charity, including the Change.org Foundation. You can read his blog post about the investment here.
We’ve been lucky to have a remarkable group of investors supporting the company throughout our journey, without whom we would never have been able to impact so many lives, or be in the position we are today to impact hundreds of millions more. We’re also fortunate that many of these investors will be involved in this financing round — including Bill Gates and Sam Altman.
As part of the investment, we are significantly expanding our board to help us grow. I’m excited to welcome the remarkable and accomplished social entrepreneur Nancy Lublin, founder of Crisis Text Line, Allen Blue, a world-class product leader and co-founder of LinkedIn, Sarah Imbach, a renowned operator and strategist who was COO at 23andMe after leadership roles at PayPal and LinkedIn, and Joe Greenstein, co-founder of Flixster and an immensely valued advisor to Change.org in our early years.
We’re also excited to announce that we will soon complete the process of transitioning from a certified B-corporation, to a public benefit corporation (PBC). This will enable us to put our mission at the core of our business operations, as our commitment to empowering people everywhere will become legally part of the company’s corporate charter.
The funds from this investment will enable us to do two things critical to realizing our mission: (1) build out our platform to expand from petitions into movements, and (2) scale our new crowdfunding and membership revenue lines.
Expanding from Petitions to Movements
Over the past few years we’ve focused on making civic participation easy and accessible, enabling anyone to quickly start, join, and share campaigns on the issues they care about. More recently, we’ve started to see our users show the potential of transforming their petitions into deep, ongoing movements.
Last year, sexual assault survivor Amanda Nguyen started a petition to pass a Sexual Assault Bill of Rights in Congress, which among other things would instruct states to stop rape kits from being thrown away before testing in sexual assault investigations. She quickly mobilized 100,000 people, and then drove them to further action alongside her — raising $20,000 to fly dozens of other young women to meet their Members of Congress to tell their story, organizing a press conference with Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, and helping the bill pass unanimously in both houses of Congress. Moreover, Amanda didn’t stop with this legislative victory; she then announced that an organization she founded would be launching campaigns with other young women in 50 states through Change.org to pass state laws protecting sexual assault victims.
Over time we’ll be building tools to enable people like Amanda to more and more effectively develop their campaigns into immersive movements — to win not just single legislative battles, but to build a network of campaigns that create systemic change, through a set of tools that enables users to take additional action such as organizing events, raising money, calling their legislators, and crowdsourcing ideas for further mobilization.
The process of developing this movement-building toolset is not a project for one quarter or even one year. It’s something we’ll be dedicated to for years to come, and we look forward to working with our users to identify the most powerful ways to increase their engagement and impact.
Growing our Crowdfunding and Membership Products
The second thing this investment will enable us to do is scale our new user-generated revenue lines and create a sustainable business model.
Until last summer, our primary revenue line was an ad product that helped nonprofits grow their base of supporters. While this was generating more than $20 million per year in revenue, it wasn’t growing quickly enough to scale our operations and faced increasing competition from other ad networks.
As a result, we announced a new focus on user-generated revenue lines, including an expanded crowdfunding product allowing users to accelerate campaigns either by contributing toward material goods for the campaign — such as in-person petition deliveries or billboard ads to pressure decision-makers — or contributing directly to raise awareness and visibility for the petitions they are most passionate about through our Promoted Petitions product. We’ve since generated millions of dollars of revenue through these crowdfunding products, and will continue to improve and expand them in the months and years ahead.
We also announced a new monthly membership program, which beta launched late last year and has since grown to tens of thousands of paying monthly members. This program enables our users to subscribe for a monthly fee and receive a range of benefits depending where they live — from exclusive content, to invitations to events, to merchandise. These subscriptions fund the development of our free tools and enable us to provide petition starters expert campaign advice and coaching to help them increase the impact of their petitions.
Member subscriptions are a powerful, growing force in sustaining important civic infrastructure — including organizations like The New York Times and The Guardian — and we believe they will fuel much of our work in the future. We have the largest audience of people taking civic action in the world, and through their membership aim to generate the resources needed to support hundreds of millions of more people.
The Responsibility of Technology to Serve the Public Good
The potential we have to support a much wider and deeper set of global movements in a financially sustainable way gives us an immense opportunity to accelerate the growth in citizen power we’ve seen over the past decade. It’s what makes us optimistic about the future.
Yet optimism about the future of democracy is currently in short supply.
While the primary concern we heard in our early years was that technology would have little impact on social change, the biggest concern we now hear is that technology is having too much impact on our civic space – that through filter bubbles and misleading news, technology can pose serious challenges for effective democracy.
But technology itself isn’t good or bad; it’s a tool that can yield widely different outcomes depending on how it’s designed. Intentionally or otherwise, it can be designed in a way that amplifies the spread of misinformation, or it can be designed to amplify the spread of movements that make history. And many of the challenges we face today result in part because much of the new technology we use to communicate wasn’t designed with civic consequences in mind.
One of the most important projects for the future of democracy is therefore to design technology in a way that encourages a healthier civil society — one with widespread civic participation, responsive elected officials, and trusted information.
There is widespread interest in this potential future. Over the past year 50 million new users have joined Change.org, and we’ve seen an unprecedented amount of civic action across the US and around the world. Our aim in the years ahead will be to design the type of scalable, sustainable technology that will channel this energy into ever-more effective, constructive action. In doing so, we hope to help create the world most people want — a world in which no one is powerless, and where the policies of governments and practices of business reflect the public good rather than private interests.