Will Change.org change...well, anything?

Submitted by Bonnie on Tue, 03/20/2007 - 11:41am

Sonny Cloward, NPower NY

[Ed. Note: Some of the information in this article may be a little dated.  For more on the changes happening at Change.org, read our blog.] 

A little over a month ago, social good networking site Change.org launched with exposure few startups, much less nonprofits (which Change.org is not), could dream of - they got Techcrunched. Lots of do-gooders like me jumped on the site and were presented with the audacious yet simple question: what do you want to change in the world? The premise is pretty straightforward - connect people with one another and organizations to push forward common causes (i.e. changes). I perused the site, thought it was a great idea, didn't dig very deeply, felt a moment of kumbaya with my fellow do-gooders and then quickly forgot about it. And based on Change.org's Alexa traffic rankings, I wasn't alone.

So is Change.org just another fly-by-night project of some well meaning people with a good concept - just badly planned and executed - awaiting a slow descent into the dead pool? The site has a nicely streamlined and accessible UI, so it's obvious someone put some thought and resources into it. Yet it has nothing in the way of features that hook me and keep me engaged and active in issues and people that matter to me (via dashboard, email, or RSS). Or is it, as Matthew from theCoup.org said in the comments on the Techcrunch posting, "yet another website for me to log into? Another place to blog and check messages?" While there's a value-based incentive, we are becoming fatigued by social networking sites and more scrutinizing about how they are relevant in our lives and how we engage in them. In a landscape where there are really only two social networking players (MySpace and Facebook), where thousands of nonprofits already have pages where they connect with supporters - not to mention at least a dozen other comparatively minor social good networking sites - why Change.org?

I spoke with Change.org co-founder Ben Rattray about these observations. He graciously conceded that their "soft-launch" garnered a bit more attention than they had anticipated from the Techcrunch posting. (Seriously, what did they expect from a post on one of the most read blogs on web?) Although Ben says they are still getting upwards of a thousand hits a day, those hits are not translating into users (based on blog posts, profile creation, and actions), much less creating a better world from better networked activists. Again Ben concedes here that the necessary features that hook users in and give them tools to leverage networks were not in place. However, Change.org is in the process of developing the next release of features, due out sometime next month, which will give both users and organizations better tools to engage around issues and create tangible actions. Features include more RSS and email integration; "widgetizing" with personal badges; integration with issue tagged content streams from the likes of Flickr, Technorati, and YouTube; group/event based networking for collective action/advocacy activities; and possible collaborations with other nonprofit service providers like VolunteerMatch and Democracy in Action.

While Ben has no delusions about becoming a portal or destination point, he does believe that Change.org has the potential to change the way in which nonprofits and activists engage with one another, and ultimately organize, take action, and fund issues. He has some very salient criticisms of how organizations currently engage their supporters online - what often feels like list building as an end in itself. He wants to "democratize" the advocacy and funding tools available to nonprofits (think Convio) so that activists are able to collectively choose which issues and organizations are best to put their energy and support into - something Ben called Virtual Foundations. Furthermore, Ben acknowledges that the social good networking niche is already pretty saturated. Although he believes Change.org is unique because no other site is built on the triangulation of issues, organizations, and people at its core, which are the ingredients for rich communities of action.

I admit I like Ben. I like his vision, I like his energy, and I completely support his mission to disrupt how nonprofits engage their constituents online ("the system is broken"). But do I like Change.org? Do I think Change.org will change how individuals and nonprofits try to change the world? Based on their soft-launch strategy, I have my misgivings. Communication with the public and current users has been non-existent. It doesn't seem clear that they know who their target audience truly is. Ben wants people to engage deeply on issues in a rich community, but people who want to engage on that level don't need Change.org – they’re already doing it. It feels a little too much like they are trying to be everything to everyone, every cause, every organization. Additionally, while Ben espouses network-centric advocacy and decentralized giving networks, he sees Change.org as the center of this activity - a very centralized and unaccountable third party player. As a for-profit and closely held entity, I can't help but be a little suspicious. The irony in all of this is that I don't think Change.org sees what may be their most disruptive change opportunity.

A key component to the success of any web-based initiative is metrics. Most social networking sites measure this by number of page hits and people in one's network. Metrics in the context of Change.org would need to not only be more multi-faceted but need to be core to its value proposition. As a nonprofit I would want a dashboard, similar to Chipped In, of all my members and their activities. We want to see how our most engaged members are building up their network and how much of an impact they are having on our issues - letters written, donations brought in, calls to legislatures made, etc. Like Digg.com, those members with the highest metrics get exposure and perhaps some sort of capital to encourage more of the same. We give them their due recognition and put a badge on our website to create incentives for other's to join (win-win for our organization and Change.org). As an individual I want to have my own "Personal Impact/Action Center." A dashboard that aggregates all my social/political activities across issues and organizations as well as provides me insight on how my network and I are having an impact on the issues we care most about. I see my success rate for creating and sustaining active users and I can put a badge on my personal site to show off all my successes. Change.org has automated email features that create challenges to members in my network to walk the talk and take action. Furthermore, the platform is smart enough to suggest other people, organizations, and issues based on my activity and profile to further leverage my engagement. In turn, Change.org has very transparent metrics and provides them with the legitimacy and trust they need.

I hope Change.org can bring a good percentage of its initial sign-ups back with its next release of features. I hope that it can reach a critical mass tipping point. I hope Change.org is as altruistic as they proclaim. It feels like they have tripped out of the starting gate and have some proving to do, in addition to some trust to build. While I'm all for grandiose movement building and world changing, I believe the most interesting opportunity that Change.org provides the nonprofit and organizing community is not another way to communicate with each other, but a better way to measure our personal and collective impact in the work we do.

Thanks to Marnie Webb on her idea for the nonprofit dashboard.