A Change.org is Gonna Come (to Your Non-Profit Org)

A Change.org is Gonna Come (to Your Non-Profit Org)

BY Micah Sifry and Joshua Levy | Wednesday, December 5 2007

Change.org — the social network that seeks to connect people around social issues — recently announced a major new addition to its platform. Calling itself the “Ning for nonprofits,” the site now lets nonprofit organizations create “branded networks” that can tap into Change.org’s community of users but retain their own look and feel.

Ben Rattray, Change.org’s founder, has spent the past year building up the community on the site, and the announcement represents a second phase of the sites’ development as well as a response to the needs of many nonprofits and also for Change.org to tap into a larger user base.

Recently, we had a chance to catch up with Rattray by phone, and here’s what we learned.

Two years ago it was blogs, and now startups and traditional organizations often want to set up their own social networks. If it works on MySpace and Facebook, why wouldn’t work on my Save the Seals site? But, to oversimplify, an online social network is only successful if the sponsoring group has a large userbase, compelling tools, and a confident, guiding hand that helps those users build a community. We come across tons of projects that, while they might be interesting ideas, are simply close to dead in the water because they have no core group of users and thus little reason for random visitors to come back and hang around.

Nevertheless, almost every mid-size to large non-profit wants their very own social network. That’s where Change.org thinks its new branded networks come in. “Look, nonprofits are important,” Rattray says. “How do we help them transform their relationship with supporters and become more active in the Change.org community?”

First, Rattray says, Change.org solves the preexisting community problem. Change.org’s userbase isn’t huge — they have about 50,000 users and about 3,500 unique visitors a week — but the site has a lot of buzz (and a great URL), and thanks to a handful of similar sites and projects (Project Agape’s Causes Facebook app, Razoo) the notion of social networking around big issues has started to catch on. A nonprofit looking to engage its members in a social network could simply plug in to Change.org’s existing software and network. If their members aren’t already on Change.org, they’ll become members automatically, getting the chance to connect to other Change.org users.

Second, organizations will be able to capture data from their members’ Change.org profiles, and the site will soon be able to plug into a variety of CRM platforms, starting with Democracy in Action. Rattray says an organization’s branded network would then become a “social layer” that lives on top of the organization’s CRM or CMS software. This includes email. Organizations can choose to post their email campaigns to their Change.org so that members can see all of the emails in one place and take action directly from Change.org. This is where email campaigns and social networks could meet. Since the broader network of Change.org users could theoretically stumble upon action messages that originated as direct emails, nonprofits and organizations could wring much more value out of those campaigns. The whole would become greater than the sum of the parts.

A third benefit for a nonprofit situating its social network on Change.org: it can tap into communities built up around similar organizations, enabling them to create a meta-organization of members surrounding a social cause.

Rattray refers to these larger communities as watering holes, in that both members/donors and organizations will tap into them to create a larger community and broaden their networks.

This new approach underlies a significant switch in how Change.org thinks about how its users network. Initially, the site was completely focused on the experience of individual users, who would come to the site looking to form connections with other individuals around social causes. The first question you see if you come thru the site’s home page is “What Do You Want to Change in the World?” Now, the focus on the individual is still there, but — in a probably unintentional twist on corporate personhood — organizations are also treated as individuals, in that they too have profiles and can be linked up with other similar organizations. The result is what Rattray envisions will be “meta-organizations,” loosely-bound groups of similarly-minded organizations.

Before, organizations were almost incidental to the causes individuals were interested in. Now, the focus on the issues is the same, but the site is structured so that both individuals and organizations are built around them.

The idea — untested at this point — is that a group of environmental organizations would connect around global warming, bringing their communities together to interact. But organizations with similar aims haven’t historically liked to share resources, people, or time.

Most of what Rattray describes about organizational cooperation is still being developed. His first step is to get some big organizations with lots of members to play along. Right now, Change.org is partnering with more than 50 groups, some of which — Amnesty International, Greenpeace USA, The Humane Society — are among the largest nonprofits in the country. They are paying Change.org a modest monthly subscription fee for the branded service, a good sign for Change.org’s bottom line. But even these groups have yet to pull in significant numbers of people, not to mention money. Amnesty has 565 supporters on the site, Greenpeace USA has 252, and the Humane Society has 256.

These relatively small numbers — Amnesty International’s Facebook group boasts 13,450 members and there almost the same number in Amnesty’s Facebook Causes group — point to the crux of the challenge facing Change.org. Having organizations set up their own sub-network within Change.org certainly solves one problem, in that it may pave the way toward a viable business model through subscriptions, but how will Change.org deal with the larger issue of populating these sub-networks, and the site in general, with a critical mass of people?

“The key is getting a core constituency who is passionate about using the service and who can then spread it to their friends,” Rattray told me. “If we can get the buy-in of nonprofits to help spark this, we’ll be off running.”

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