How Change.org Turns a Profit by Doing Social Good

by Katherine Gustafson on December 2, 2013
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Change.org, a website that spurs collective social action by hosting online petitions, has become a profitable business by working to change society for the better.

Founded in 2006 by Ben Rattray and Mark Dimas, the company — which started making money in 2011 — today employs some 200 people worldwide. Its mission is to help activists and organizations take positive social action in a wide range of issues.

How Change.org Works

Change.org monetizes its mission by connecting people who are interested in social causes with organizations that can facilitate their involvement in those issues.

“It’s an advertising service that allows nonprofits, primarily, to tap into our audience by running sponsored campaigns on the site to find people who are taking action and expressing interest in the issues they work on,” explains Matthew Slutsky (pictured), managing director of business development.

He calls Change.org “a matchmaker,” noting that anyone can mount a campaign for free on the site. When an individual or group pays for premium service, Change.org identifies individuals on the site’s network who are most attuned to the cause and invites them to connect with it. Organizations typically pay $1.50 to $3 per new, qualified supporter that Change.org recruits on their behalf.

The Business Model’s Evolution

It took a bit of trial and error for Change.org to settle on this successful model. The site started as a content-heavy, blog-oriented site that covered diverse social issues and provided online activism tools alongside the text. This format evolved into using the blog content to ask readers to take action. Change.org’s breakthrough moment came when the site shifted focus to online petitions and the enormous potential of its global network became apparent.

A petition on the site asking South Africa’s Department of Justice to do the right thing on a controversial topic caught the eye of Change.org staff. They realized they could marshal their extensive network to make a difference.

“This was one of those light bulb moments,” Slutsky says. “We said, ‘We have a couple hundred thousand people. We should send an email out on behalf of this [petitioner] and ask all the people on the Change.org list to take action.’”

Within days, 100,000 people worldwide had signed the petition, and after a few weeks of pressure, the justice department and South Africa’s Parliament were pushed to take concrete action.

“From that moment on, we’ve been focused on building a platform for anyone anywhere in the world to start a campaign or join a campaign and potentially win by using our site,” Slutsky says. “It was a shift toward more of a user-generated, people-powered model.”

Tapping a Huge Customer Base

As Slutsky sees it, “people power” is the key to using social change to one’s advantage. With the rise of social media, companies have the ability to really listen to customers and prospects in a new way.

“Social media — sites like Change.org and Twitter and Facebook — have provided more of an accountability culture around business and corporations,” he says. “People want to interact with businesses that are doing the right thing. From a bottom-line perspective, there’s a huge customer base out there that wants to spend its money in a way that’s aligned with [its] values.”

Businesses can reach these customers by engaging in an authentic dialog with them and using the conversation to learn and connect. Companies that do this are much better off than those that use the information simply to plan PR in response to negative feedback, Slutsky says.

“Businesses no longer have to guess what their customers want,” he notes. “That’s pretty basic, but it’s surprising how many companies aren’t embracing that. Whether you’re a local business or a Fortune 500 company, really listen to your customers and what they’re saying and then engage authentically. You will find people will feel different about your brand and will want to spend more money with you if you do that effectively.”

Katherine Gustafson is a business writer for Intuit and is passionate about solving small business problems.

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