Two years ago, Molly Katchpole, a 22-year-old nanny working two part-time jobs, found out that her bank was about to start charging $5 a month for the privilege of using a debit card. First she got mad. Then she got online, went to a site called Change.org, and turned her gripe into an Internet petition. Within a month, 300,000 people had signed, the story blew up into national news, members of Congress were publicly fuming, and Bank of America ditched the disputed surcharge.
That victory was a signal event for Change.org, which was founded in 2007 by then 26-year-old Ben Rattray. It also served as a wake-up call for companies unaccustomed to such public outcry. As the destination of choice for amateur activists and squeaky wheels of all types, Change.org now helps 40 million global users launch as many as 1,000 petitions a day, guiding them step-by-step through the process of writing and promoting petitions online and providing a highly visible platform for publishing them. This "army of Davids," as Rattray calls it, has taken aim at politicians, government agencies, and, with remarkable success and increasing frequency, some of the world’s biggest businesses.
Disgruntled customers have used Change.org to pressure insurance companies into covering denied treatments and force mortgage lenders to halt foreclosures. A 2012 campaign launched by 10-year-old Mia Hansen convinced Jamba Juice to ditch Styrofoam cups for an eco-friendly alternative. Another, started by 14-year-old Julia Bluhm, persuaded Seventeen magazine to stop Photoshopping models. In May of this year, 18-year-old Benjamin O'Keefe called out Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries on the lack of larger sizes in the company's stores, and two weeks and 75,000 signatures later found himself in a meeting with Abercrombie execs discussing ways to make their brand more inclusive.
When Change.org launched, petitions were just a small part of the site, which was conceived as a social network for activists and soon shifted to a blogging platform where contributors wrote about issues such as poverty and human rights. In December of 2010, a woman at a Cape Town Internet café launched a petition that would mark a tipping point. Calling for action to end the "corrective rape" of lesbians in South Africa's shantytowns, it collected 170,000 signatures worldwide and pushed the South African Parliament to convene a national task force on the issue. Its viral success convinced Rattray to refine the site. "Instead of building more," he says, "we needed to strip away the other features and focus exclusively on creating an empowering platform for petitions." The pivot to a full-on petition site was completed in a matter of weeks.
Before Change.org, the typical online petition was started by a professional activist demanding that the President or the United Nations pay more attention to climate change or hunger. Change.org petitions, by contrast, are started by people who are directly affected by an issue and ask for a very specific response. That focus on personal issues with achievable solutions has been crucial to Change.org"s success. "The campaigns that rise to the top are based in strong stories of individuals standing against injustice that anyone can understand," says Katie Bethell, Change.org’s director of campaigns.
To increase its "wins," Change.org also gives some signature drives a boost. Bethell heads a team of 22 employees (out of a total staff of about 185, in 18 countries) who monitor petitions for viral potential and offer what Bethell calls "petition optimization" services—things like refining language and making sure the right decision makers are being targeted. About two-thirds of the petitions that get support from Bethell's team receive a response from the target.
Not surprisingly, many companies are struggling with how to handle being on the receiving end of a Change.org campaign. A senior communications executive at one large corporation that was the subject of a recent Change.org campaign complains that although the petitions can offer a sense of how consumers feel, "half the time what people get upset about isn’t quite right—it’s based on half-baked facts. You can try to get the facts out on your own, but it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle. That’s challenging and in some ways unfair." When businesses reach out to Change.org to complain about petitions, the staff encourages them to communicate directly with the people who started them. "We don’t often take petitions down unless they violate our terms of service, which they almost never do," says Change.org’s managing director of communication, Brianna Cayo-Cotter.
Rattray insists that the factual information presented by petitions on the site is "not often questioned [by targeted businesses]." But he does think that Change.org could do a better job of enabling two-way communication between the public and petitionees. To that end, starting this month, Change.org will begin to offer "decision makers"—its polite term for campaign targets—a more prominent presence on the site. For the first time, companies will be able to post a public response to any given petition (currently, they can only respond to the person who started the campaign). They will also be able to create their own Decision Maker page, which will show all petitions against them, the number of signatures gathered, and their statuses.
But will companies really want to jump in and engage tens of thousands of consumers who are fuming about some aspect of their business? "If you get 50,000 people who are passionate about your products or services and would like you to do something, that’s an opportunity," says Change.org director of external affairs Jake Brewer, who is heading the Decision Maker project. "Engaging with them becomes a way to be seen differently. We want to make it a carrot, not a stick. But there is a stick if you don’t engage here."
[Photo by Jake Stangel; illustrations by Bandito Design Co.]
A version of this article appeared in the September 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.