American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Today, the online social action platform, Change.org, is making it increasingly easy for small groups of committed people to defeat some of the most powerful corporate and political interests around through online petitions.
Founded in 2007, the company’s mission is to “empower anyone, anywhere to start, join, and win campaigns for social change.”
And win, people have.
Take Ted Wells’s fourth-grade class in Brookline, Mass. In January of this year, Wells’ class challenged Universal Studios to include a stronger environmental message in their promotions of their new movie “The Lorax.” 50,000 signatures later, the studio complied, launching environmental partnerships with children’s’ programs across the country and helping local communities green their communities.
More recently, a petition was formed by Groundswell, a justice movement, demanding that Backpage.com stop selling ads that others use to sell minors for sex, by shutting down the Adult section of the website. As of this week, the movement had nearly 228,000 signatures.
Every day, every minute, people across the globe are using platforms like Change.org to launch campaigns that will create real change in their community, city, or country.
According to Change.org, the company is growing by one million members a month and 10,000 petitions are started each month with each success leading to countless more copycat campaigns. The website makes revenue by running sponsored campaigns for advocacy organizations such as Amnesty International and list-building services to partner organizations.
One of Change.org’s most successful campaigns was launched in November 2011 by Molly Katchpole, a 22-year-old nanny with two jobs who was outraged by a new $5/month banking fee that Bank of America was planning to impose on its debit fee customers. Infuriated by the additional charge, Katchpole started a petition against Bank of America to drop the policy, stating that American consumers shouldn’t have to pay additional fees during a “financial crisis the banks helped create.”
Within a month, 300,000 people joined the campaign and Bank of America dropped its new fee. Katchpole subsequently parlayed her successes into a job with a new advocacy group, Rebuild the Dream, which seeks to improve the economic well-being of middle-class families.
Over the years, everyday Americans have created petitions on Change.org to fight for the issues they care about. It has created thousands of David vs. Goliath stories by giving the little guy a direct way of taking action. As Change.org explains, a campaign can be about anything, “From supporting curbside recycling programs to fighting wrongful deportation to protecting against anti-gay bullying.”
Their list of all-time most popular petitions include action to protect workers making iPhones in Chinese factories to a movement to create a law that will make it a felony for a parent or guardian to not notify law enforcement of a child going missing within 24 hours.
The most popular petition on the site today is a call for justice in the shooting of a 17 year old Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a white Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer. The petition calls for the prosecution of Zimmerman who shot Martin while he was walking back to his father's house after purchasing a bottle of iced tea and a bag of skittles at a local convenience store in a gated community in Orlando, Florida. As of March 28, it had gathered more than 2.1 million supporters, the largest number of signatures for any campaign in Change.org's history.
The fact that Zimmerman was not arrested for Martin’s murder has ignited a firestorm of protest and outrage across the country, and while the outcome is still yet to be determined, internet tools like Change.org are playing a pivotal role in spreading awareness about the murder to millions of people worldwide.
Petitions like Molly Katchpole’s, Ted Wells’, and the pitch for Trayvon Martin provide a dramatic illustration of the ability of social media to galvanize a cause. Goliaths of the world, take note.