Do you ever wonder if those online petitions work? Thanks to a young Santa Barbara native, Ben Rattray, founder of Change.org, they often do. Rattray has built a successful company — and landed on the 2012 New York Times’ World’s Most Influential People list — for acting on his beliefs.
Rattray graduated from Stanford University and the London School of Economics after attending Dos Pueblos High School. He altered his career path from investment banker to “the pursuit of effective collective action” after personal and political events changed his worldview. His goal in founding Change.org in 2007 was “changing the balance of power between individuals and large organizations.”
Wikipedia quotes Rattray in a company email as saying, “What’s needed for [grassroots organizing] to be truly transformational is a solution that turns people-power from a force that is episodically realized to one that is deeply embedded in our political and social lives — something that makes people-power pervasive and sustained.” The online petitions do just that.
Change.org now has more than 15 million users. They have petitioned for action along a broad array of issues, including the environment, education, economic and criminal justice, and gay and women’s rights. While most petitioners bring topics related to progressive causes, “It’s a totally open platform,” according to Rattray in a Stanford Magazine article.
Petitions are considered “won” when the petitioner reports that the goal has been met. By this measure, some 800 victories have been declared. Undoubtedly this is a small percentage of petitions, but represents some important actions even at this early phase.
Some recent victories:
» Three high school girls started a petition to have a woman moderator for a presidential debate. When Candy Crowley was selected, they won.
» American Jason Puracal’s sister was able to have him released from a Nicaraguan prison where he had languished for more than two years for a crime he didn’t commit.
» Retired U.S. Marine Sgt. Jerry Ensminger started a petition that resulted in a bill signed by President Barack Obama to cover medical costs for military families sickened by water contaminants on military bases.
» Walmart took action against a supplier after the supplier’s workers started a petition alleging forced labor and other abuses.
» A wildfire fighter won health insurance coverage for seasonal workers beginning with a Change.org petition.
Some label online petitioning “slacktivism,” arguing that it lacks public pressure in the form of media attention or public protest. But if the first step is to nudge two parties to deal with an issue, the results show that this can be an effective nudge.
While users can post a petition for free, Change.org makes money by sponsoring petitions for a fee. Nonprofits and others, including Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Oxfam and the Sierra Club, have used this service.
I recently received a blast email from Change.org encouraging me to start my own. In support of Rattray’s people-power goal, my petition would follow the lead of Colorado Fair Share. It proposed a measure, now on that state’s ballot as Amendment 65, that limits corporate contributions and expenditures and supports efforts to overrule the Citizens United decision by amending the U.S. Constitution.
What petition would you write?
— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor (www.DecisivePath.com) and a freelance writer (www.CanyonVoices.com).