How Change.org is Reaching Scale While Remaining Mission-Focused

By Ben Rattray, CEO and Founder.

Last year, I received a concerned email from a friend who is a successful internet entrepreneur. He had recently heard me publicly state that we would never sell Change.org or take it public, and that instead we are committed to remaining an independent, mission-driven company focused on social impact. He had also heard about us declining funding approaches from some of the world’s leading venture capital firms because they were not fully aligned with our mission.

He told me that he thought I was crazy.

I replied that I understood his concern, but that I was serious about building a company focused on long-term impact, and that means doing things differently – including how we structure the company and from whom we take investment.

It wasn’t the first time I had encountered this misunderstanding. I founded Change.org in 2006 as a nonprofit, but decided to shift our structure to be a mission-driven company before our launch. I realized that if we wanted to have the agility to build and then rapidly scale a platform that can sustainably support hundreds of millions of people creating change, we’d be better served through the structure of a company rather than that of a nonprofit.

Ever since, people have been trying to box us into old categories that simply don’t apply. Many in the nonprofit sector can’t see why we’re a company if we care so much about impact – and many entrepreneurs and businesspeople find it difficult to understand why we focus on more than just maximum financial returns.

 Most of this misunderstanding is because the social enterprise sector is still in its infancy; while there are some remarkable social enterprises emerging around the world, this model of social change is still not ubiquitous or widely understood. But it will be — and we’re already seeing what’s possible with this approach ourselves.

Over the past two years, we’ve grown from 1 million to more than 35 million members, we’ve expanded into 18 countries, and every day people are winning campaigns – from stopping the closure of rural schools in Thailand to increasing bike lanes in Buenos Aires to securing health care for firefighters in the United States.

What has helped drive this success is that we’ve built a scalable business model that provides sustained value to other organizations – mostly nonprofits and political campaigns. This has enabled us to hire a world-class team of 170 people to build free tools and provide free support for millions of people seeking to create change around the globe.

We’ve always known we could move even faster with additional resources, and being a company gives us greater access to investment capital than is available to nonprofits. But one challenge we’ve faced is that while there are few companies operating at a global scale in this sector, there are even fewer investors who recognize the power of business for social change.

 One notable outlier is the Omidyar Network, a pioneer in the space of mission-driven investing. Started by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, the Omidyar Network is one of the first investment vehicles to fund both nonprofits and mission-driven companies, recognizing that some social problems are more effectively addressed through companies than nonprofits.

This unique structure has allowed the Omidyar Network to fund disruptive nonprofits such as the online lending platform Kiva and socially valuable companies like Meetup.

More than a year ago, we started talking with the folks at Omidyar Network about our respective visions, and we found a tremendous amount of alignment.

Like us, they believe in the power of people everywhere to create change if given the opportunity. But unlike most other investors, they also understand Change.org’s unique structure – that we never intend to sell or go public – and they recognize and respect the importance of our founding team retaining control of the company to ensure that we maintain focus on our mission.

Thanks to this deep alignment of vision, I’m happy to announce that we’ve received $15 million in an investment round led by Omidyar Network. They’ve been joined by other mission-driven investors including Uprising, a new social investment fund.

For the past several years we’ve had a vision for an expanded technology platform that we know can massively democratize power around the world, and we now have the resources to build out a product and engineering team to make that a reality.

In the coming period, we’ll be building tools that will more effectively empower hundreds of millions of people around the world; we will deepen our toolset to enable people to build long-term movements on our platform; we will personalize each user’s experience to better connect people to the issues and organizations they care most about; we will ensure people can organize for change on any device; and we will develop disruptive new tools for citizen empowerment.

Along the way, we will continue to do things that some people think are crazy. We will continue to focus entirely on our mission, we will invest in areas some people think will never generate financial return, and we will continue to maintain our independence.

This doesn’t mean we’ll be indifferent to practical things like revenue. On the contrary, we’ll continue working to provide increased value to organizations through our paid offerings. We can only achieve our vision if we continue to build revenue in a way that can scale to sustain our growing global team and platform. But we will do so in service of our mission.

Although this mission-focused approach currently seems unique, we think it will become increasingly common. We believe one of the most promising opportunities in social change is using the power of business to solve large social and environmental problems, and we hope to demonstrate that it’s possible to build a successful technology company focused on massive social impact. In the process, we hope that — along with some of the growing number of successful social enterprises — we can inspire many more entrepreneurs, investors, and partners to join this emerging movement.

 If there’s anything that makes me most hopeful about the potential of this disruption in traditional ways of doing business, it’s the increased excitement I see among young people for new ways of making impact.

I recently witnessed this first-hand after giving a talk to Stanford University’s incoming freshman class, which boasts students from dozens of countries.

One young woman approached me afterward to tell me that all the people she met wanted to work on important social problems, and to ask if I was worried that there wouldn’t be enough people willing to work for “normal companies” in the future.

 I smiled, and responded that I didn’t think that was a problem yet – but that I hope we can help make it one by the time she graduates.

Some might call this crazy. But it’s also crazy to think that people around the world can change national laws and the behaviors of multinational companies with a simple petition tool. Yet that’s exactly what’s already happening every day on Change.org all around the world – and we’re just getting started.