There are endless ways to create change. With the advent of technology, information dissemination is becoming easier. Everyone has something they want to change in society; what if you could provide not only the means to do it, but also the potential to profit from doing so?
“Change.org” allows people to make petitions for things they care about, and now has millions of members. From beginning with only 10 employees, Ben now employs about 200 people from 170 different countries. They started out as a social network, as the idea of making petitions the core mission was more of an afterthought. However, the site has revolutionized the way people make their sentiments known. Not only that, it allows convergence so the aggrieved can seek justice by having the aggressor respond to their issues.
More often than not, speaking out will not do the trick by itself. It can certainly create a buzz, but it can only go as far as generating publicity and dying down once the controversy is over. So Ben figured that for change to happen, action must be taken, along with having information known. The result of this realization was Change.org, which Americans can thank for convincing Bank of America to drop their hated five-dollar transaction charge. But Change.org’s reach has gone far beyond America; they have pushed the African government to address the issue of “corrective rape” after an African woman wrote a petition to change the by-laws in her country and condemn the practice of raping lesbians in the guise of “helping them resolve their identity crisis.”
What many people don’t know is that Change.org is for-profit; it’s a B-certified corporation with missions in its by-laws. Ben is changing the game of how good deeds are done by remaining a for-profit company without compromising his mission.
Ben was born to Michael Rattray and Judy nee Mcaffrey on 16 June 1980, and raised in a conservative household. Michael works as a Defense Manager for Raytheon, an aerospace company, while Judy is a Sales Manager at First American Title. Aside from Michael’s day job, he is also the CEO of Santa Barbara County’s “Girls and Boys Club.”
Ben came after Zack, their eldest son, and was followed by Lindsay, Nick and Tyler. Apart from their mother, Lindsay is the only girl in the family. Every summer, the Rattrays went to Scottsdale, Arizona, to stay at their grandparents’ home. As a kid, Ben showed an aptitude for business when he began trading baseball cards to friends who did not know the cards’ values.
He recalls his childhood as “all sun, sports and success.” He was a happy boy, and his parents allowed him to be a child by not imposing too many rules. His parents provided him with a sense of balance and support at times when he needed guidance and, being naturally smart, Ben performed consistently well in school.
With great siblings, as well, Ben couldn’t ask for anything more.
His Brother’s Confession
Knowing he had a flair for business and earning big bucks, Ben had one goal in life as he was growing up: to walk down Wall Street in a double-breasted suit and earn as much money as he could. At his high school in Dos Pueblos, Ben was a heartthrob. He was athletic, the Student Council president, and a really brilliant student. His schoolmates adored him.
To prepare for his Wall Street endeavor, he enrolled in Stanford University’s Political Science and Economics program. He showed a great deal of potential for business and performed well at the university. One summer, during his long stay at home, his brother Nick told him something that changed his life: he confessed to being gay.
Ben did not know what to do. Obviously, his brother was asking for his support, albeit discreetly due to ever-present homophobia, even in their own home. Nick was a well-behaved child, but he began doing things that attracted attention as his identity crisis worsened – such as skipping classes and doing drugs. Ben was silent all along; even when Nick finally came out of the closet, shocking the whole family, Ben remained silent.
It’s something that he regrets to this day. With a homosexual brother, he was able to see the biased treatment and stigma that comes with the admission of one’s homosexuality. He did nothing to help his brother, but soon realized it was not too late to change the game for him. What if he could use his technological knowledge and business know-how to start a socially-responsible business that will enable people to voice their sentiments and exert pressure on institutions to do something about their call?
It was an ambitious thing to do, but he was not the first to have thought of it. Back in the early days of the internet, “Care2” was founded to care for the environment and uphold human rights through the use of social media. Founded by Randy Paynter, who derived the inspiration from chain e-mails, it provides bloggers with an avenue to start discussions on pressing issues, and a petition feature is also provided to advance their goals. In a sense, chain e-mails are trying to disseminate information and call for action; he set up “Care2” to give worthy causes a way to find the right people and work together to make their sentiments known.
What really kick-started Change.org, however, was the dawn of Facebook. Social media aims to connect people and enable virtual friendship and free correspondence in a way that was never possible before; when Facebook became a million-dollar company, Ben knew the idea was here to stay.
Ben left for London after graduating from Stanford to further his Political Science degree, and attended the London School of Economics and Political Science. While in London, he spent most of his time reading books and taking inspiration from the greatest thinkers of the past and present. The book that inspired him to create change through social media was “The End of History and the Last Man,” in which the author posits that liberal democracy can now be easily attained, as people-power is made possible and more powerful by technology.
Ben no longer wanted to only earn money and work on Wall Street. Ben’s readings, as well as his brother’s coming-out, led him to consider a career in public-interest law. He decided to enter New York University and study to become a lawyer. But, when someone first showed him Facebook, everything changed. Inspired by the thought of using social media to create positive change and aware of the imminent power at his fingertips, he began to consider starting his own tech company.
He dropped his lawyering plans, which initially alarmed Judy:
"When Ben abandoned the Wall Street plan, it was a little scary... I figured he could always return to it. But he taught me to re-examine my assumptions about success, about money, about gay rights. His generation is about experiences, not things. If you have an intention and follow it through, that's powerful." (SOURCE: SF Gate)
Setting up “Change.org” certainly wasn’t easy. First and foremost, he needed money; he had to convince his business partner, Mark Dimas, to leave his high-paying job to help start the company. It was founded in 2005 as a fundraising website for non-profit organizations.
The site was silent for the next three years, so they decided to hire bloggers to write about issues to draw more traffic. It did the trick, and people began to check them out. In 2009, however, he hit a gold mine.
The petition feature was available on the website at the time, but nobody really thought it would achieve something; this was until the site hosted a petition created by someone who saw a homeless man being ticketed by a policeman for sleeping on the streets. No one thought it would gain attention, but they were surprised to see many signatures coming in and driving traffic to the site. It also drove the Mayor crazy, who was bombarded with e-mails pressuring her to address the issue. A protest of 20 people was held that same day, and the Mayor eagerly changed the law.
“Change.org” Focuses on Petitions
It was the beginning of what “Change.org” would later do so successfully: create petitions. With a specific petition that appeals to people who share the same experiences/sentiments, an otherwise-powerless individual can work with others to get good things done and exercise the spirit of democracy.
Ben knew they were onto something really meaningful. Petitions need not be on a large scale; in fact, it could only be relevant to even a few people who want to change the system for the better. That was the beginning of Ben’s change of strategy. They were wrong when they said online petitions no longer work – the process just had to be managed and tweaked.
In December 2010, “Change.org” helped change the lives of Swahili women. A lesbian was raped and beaten by men in a “corrective rape,” a form of abuse experienced by lesbian women at the hands of men who want to “set them straight.” Although hard to believe, this is condoned in some parts of Africa where women still have limited authority and power.
The victim’s friend posted her case on “Change.org” and called out the government to spurn corrective rape and abolish it. She soon amassed over 170,000 signatures, and it attracted the attention of none other than the South African Minister of Justice's office, who requested that Ben take down the petition because the office could not do any work with e-mail bombardments crashing their servers.
When Ben tried to bargain by arranging a meeting between the office and the aggrieved party, the office refused. They didn’t believe Ben when he said refusing the petition would prompt “Change.org” to get the story out to the press. The scoop sparked controversy within 24 hours, and the Parliament was pressured to create a taskforce to abolish corrective rape.
Taking on “Bank of America”
Another of Change.org’s unbelievable achievements was successfully convincing Bank of America to rescind the five-dollar transaction fee they charged to their customers. A 22-year-old nanny, Molly Katchpole, had been complaining for some time, but there was no way Bank of America would hear her out. She was just one of their millions of customers; they wouldn’t go out of business if they lost her.
But Change.org literally changed the game for Molly. Using the site’s petition feature, she mobilized a move against the giant bank to take down their five-dollar transaction fee. Thousands of people signed up and, when Bank of America refused to budge, Molly cut her card in front of the press. Clients took their money out of the bank, and the bad publicity did not let up until a compromise was reached. Bank of America, one of the biggest banks in the United States, was taken down by a 22-year-old nanny. And the rest, as they say, is history…
Low Net Worth in Spite of Success
Ben has no intention of selling out or making his business into a non-profit. It’s important for Change.org to stay the way it is, according to a Tech Crunch write-up:
“Rattray and company are on a mission to prove to startups, investors (and the world) that it's possible to build a socially-minded, mission-driven business without being a non-profit. A business that can have a real impact, but also make money and afford to hire the same level of talent that the Facebooks and Googles of the world attract regularly.” (SOURCE: Tech Crunch)
It does make sense when we see it from that perspective. Indeed, Ben is bent on making it work; he’s no longer interested in earning alone. When asked how he fends for himself:
"Right now friends and family are supporting me. I plan on paying them back sometime in the foreseeable future. I spent money from the consulting job on the site. I put all the money I had into this—it's my baby." (SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal)
Ben has yet to become a millionaire, but who cares? The joy he feels now is priceless!
Organizations and Programs Supported
- Amnesty International
- Decision Maker
Awards and Achievements
- 2007: Founded “Change.org”
- 2012: Included in Time 100 list of the “World’s Most Influential People” and listed as one of Fortune's “40 Under 40 Rising Young Business Leaders”
Wikipedia (Ben Rattray)
CNN (40 Under 40: Ben Rattray)
Fox News (Online petitions crack through board rooms, capitals)
Washington Times (U.S. petition website helps Saudi women hit the highways)
The Wall Street Journal (Q&A: Ben Rattray of Change.org)
Readwrite (Change.org: Social Network For Social Activism)
Venture Beat (Change.org moves from social media to blogging in order to raise cause awareness)
The Baltimore Sun (Consumers are starting to flex their newfound muscle)
The Washington Post (Change.org emerges as influential advocate on issues from bullying to bank fees)
Business Week (America's Most Promising Social Entrepreneurs 2011)
The New York Times (After Recess: Change the World)
Tech Crunch (With $15M From Omidyar And 35M+ Users, Change.org Wants To Prove Socially-Minded Startups Can Attract Big Numbers)
Fast Company (How Ben Rattray's Change.org Became a Viral Consumer Watchdog)
The Huffington Post (The Case for Change)
LinkedIn (Benjamin Rattray)
Gay.net (Ben Rattray Created Change.org When His Brother Came Out As Gay)
SFGate (Ben Rattray and Change.org)
Forbes (The Business Behind Change.org's Activist Petitions)
Good.is (The Fact That Changed Everything: Ben Rattray and Change.org)