CIVICUS speaks to Katherine Baird, International Projects Manager at the Change.org Foundation, an organisation that envisions a world in which no one is powerless, and to that aim incubates and accelerates movements giving disenfranchised people a voice. In-country teams provide resources and systematic support, including training and technology, to civic leaders and organisations who are behind movements addressing some of the world’s biggest challenges, such as violence against women, environmental destruction, access to healthcare and lack of access to democratic institutions.
- While many of us will have signed a petition on Change.org, perhaps fewer have heard of the Change.org Foundation. What does this organisation do?
The Change.org Foundation builds on what the Change.org platform has achieved over the past seven years. Change.org is an online platform and a vehicle for people anywhere in the world to start a petition or a campaign on any issue that they feel strongly about, to spread the word, gather support and engage with politicians and decision-makers in order to obtain a certain decision or result. Change.org has been very successful and has engaged over 200 million people around the world in campaigns that were started by individuals.
The Change.org Foundation is quite new: it’s been around for about two years. With the Foundation, we have basically moved into civic space ourselves, in order to leverage the reach and the network that is already there and take the next step in terms of impact.
For the time being we focus on Asia and Latin America and we work on two broad global issues: civic participation and democratic accountability, and women and gender equality. We decided to work on those issues because they relate a lot to the global trends of civic space restrictions that we are seeing, and also because they are already out there in the petitions that many people have started on their own. But political contexts are different in the various countries where we work, so we are trying to find out what these issues look like in each specific country and what issues are emerging where. The foundation will allow us to experiment and innovate on different models of civic participation.
At the Change.org Foundation we believe that people should take action on the issues that affect their lives and that they care about. They don’t need to work for a civil society organisation (CSO) or to have access to vast resources; having an experience of something and being able to talk about it compellingly can create change. We therefore put citizens at the centre of our work. We also work with organisations and often link people who have started campaigns with organisations that are working on those themes, but our focus is on individuals bringing about change to their communities, cities and countries.
- Have you devised any way of measuring the impact that the Change.org Foundation is having?
Yes, that is something the Foundation is working on, because measuring the impact of a campaign is something that not just us, but other organisations as well, usually struggle with. When for instance a woman starts a campaign to gain access to medicine or a hospital for her child, and goes on and gets the law changed at the national level so all children now have access to the same thing – that’s pretty easy. But most often it is not like that, so we typically struggle with two sets of questions. First, what makes for an impactful project, programme or campaign? Does impact mean changing the law, or maybe changing the national conversation around an issue, or raising awareness about it in the media? And how shall we measure this? Second, what’s the impact on people themselves? That is, what is the effect that becoming a champion on a certain issue may have on a person? What journey does an individual go through from being a person sitting on a sofa, angry about something, to being a person that goes forward and talks to their parliament or writes in a newspaper? Those are the two areas in which we are looking at impact.
We believe in citizens raising issues themselves and therefore taking a step into civic space. But governments haven’t so far really stepped up and the mechanisms they use to involve citizens have not proven to be particularly effective. So here is where we come in. About one and a half years ago we piloted a project in Mexico City. A new city constitution was being drafted and the government wanted a way for citizens to bring input into the constitutional process. Our team was a little nervous about this because levels of cynicism around politicians and government are very high in Mexico, so they wondered why people would participate in these when they didn’t feel particularly engaged. But Change.org was used so that people would propose ideas of what they wanted included in the constitution, and the government promised that if enough people signed onto them, they would look into those ideas and submit them for consideration to the constitutional council. Over 200,000 people participated!
We realised that the problem wasn’t that people refused to participate, but that the channels usually available for participation were not appropriate because they didn’t fit into people’s everyday lives and concerns. So it was just a matter of the government going to where people were, and offer a channel for taking civic action that they were familiar with. In Mexico City, the level of engagement with Change.org was already high, so it was clever for the government to use the platform and meet people there.
We also realised that there was an appetite to move beyond petitions and do more with the network that we already have – maybe finding out what issues people in a particular country care about and then engaging politicians directly with commitments and pledges on those issues, or something bolder still to be defined. There must be something we can do to help bridge the disconnect between what the media, the government or CSOs are talking about, and what people on the ground care about, feel and want.
- Who’s your typical user: an individual or an organisation? If the former, do you think the platform functions as a substitute for organisation?
We have a variety of users. In Latin America, for instance, about 26 million people are using the platform, and their age range is extremely broad. Given that this is a technology-based platform, the fact that it is not concentrated overwhelmingly among young people is quite surprising. Users are spread out in terms of gender as well, although this varies from one country to the next. In India, for example, there is a much lower percentage of women on the platform, and this is an issue that we are working on. But broadly speaking, across countries the composition of users is quite balanced in gender terms.
The platform itself is about engaging people who are not the ‘usual suspects’ – that is, already civic-minded and socially engaged. Many people are driven to the site by personal stories, not by issues. So they may not be mobilised around, say, health issues, but they see a story about a woman who didn’t get access to the healthcare that she needed and this drives them to become involved in the campaign.
In terms of the balance between people and organisations, if you look at all the campaigns ever started on Change.org, you will see an overwhelming prevalence of individuals. This is something that we push for quite strongly, so even when an organisation wants to start a campaign, we let them know that their campaign will be more successful if an individual runs and leads it. This is because we have found that the stories of individuals are usually more powerful and have wider mass appeal to people beyond CSOs.
On the other hand, what we do when someone starts a petition on a certain issue is connect them to local resources and CSOs that may be able to support them. For example, in campaigns on domestic violence there are often legal aspects or other kinds of support that a person working on them might need, and we are in a position to offer it by connecting them with the right people.
- How does the transition between the online and the offline spheres of social activism take place? In other words, how does a petition started on the Change.org platform get - or doesn’t get - to have an afterlife in the offline world?
This is a very crucial issue, because starting a petition doesn’t in and by itself create change. Having lots of people sign your petition does not suffice to effect real change. A petition is just a first step, and there are a few key things that we think can make this transition successful. One of them is media engagement. We encourage people whose campaigns are taking off to get the word out and put some thought into the framing of their issues. For instance, in some countries with less open governments it is difficult to run campaigns on human rights issues, but it helps if the campaign is framed as the story of an individual. Of course it depends on the context, and there is more need to be careful in some countries than in others, but this way can be a way to get a warmer reception by the authorities and more coverage by the media.
Another crucial thing we have learned is that a campaign needs to be specific and targeted in its demands. If you want the government to make a change you need to find out who in the government is able to get it done, and how you can connect with that person. This is the key offline step, so once the signatures have been collected, we encourage those who have started a campaign to reach out to the official in question, seek a response and engage in dialogue.
We can potentially provide support for this, particularly in the context of a bigger campaign in one of the countries where we work and on specific issues that we want to engage with. There is a first layer of support that we provide to all users, through online resources that can be accessed directly from our webpage. But clearly there is no substitute for actually having someone there to help you, and this is the role that in-country teams play.
Besides running the platform, then, in some countries we also have staff teams who know the local context well. Sometimes our staff reach out to people who have started a campaign, and sometimes they reach out to us. In India, for example, we have a project to increase the number of women starting campaigns, and in that context we are proactively identifying campaigns and women to support at a higher level than we would support the average campaign starter.
- Change.org is about helping people mobilise to get the change they want. Is there any restriction or limit on the type of change that can be sought through the platform, or any mechanism in place to keep anti-rights groups out?
We do have some mechanisms to keep anti-rights groups away. First, we have strict community guidelines, which basically means that we are not Twitter: we don’t tell people that our platform is theirs to say or do anything they want. We have rules regarding hate speech and discrimination, and we use those for monitoring to make sure that campaigns and even conversations are respectful to the rights of others. We have tools that allow us to kick out of the platform anybody who does not respect these rules.
The campaigns that we choose to amplify tend to be more closely related to human rights. Vast numbers of campaigns are started on the platform, because it is so easy to do so, but the ones that generate more movement are a small subset of those, and within that subset there are some that we choose to engage with specifically as an organisation.
Sometimes there is energy in a direction that a team would not necessarily advocate, but we have studied quite a lot how people who are interested in some issues can become interested in some other issues, and found out that people are generally not all black or white, and there are ways in which to channel energies generated around specific issues towards other, more rights-related issues.
- This is new compared to the classic CSO model of advocacy and campaigning. Do you see any connections between your work and the classic CSO approach?
Such connections are necessary to create change. The most interesting, thrilling and at times challenging part of what we do is the fact that we don’t directly run the campaigns. We provide advice and support, but ultimately the responsibility lies with the person running the campaign. This is exciting, it captures media attention and may engage decision-makers, but it cannot fit into a six-month strategy. It can be unpredictable and can go off in directions that you don't always necessarily predict –in a direction that you might not suggest if you were planning this on paper, as a formal CSO. Of course we work on campaign strategy and there are steps we follow which we explain to campaign starters, but ultimately they run their campaigns themselves. There are inevitable tensions that arise when people have real ownership of the campaigns, that is, when they are not just the faces that organisations put on the campaigns they run or when they don't just act as an organisation’s spokesperson.
We also work with traditional CSOs with issue expertise. We are not experts on every issue, and that’s where our role in linking people with organisations that have been working on their issue for a long time is extremely important. When this goes well, it can create powerful opportunities to push for change on an agenda that both the person running the campaign and the formal CSO are working on.
- How do you deal with governments that restrict civil society and civic space?
In Asia, we have country staff in India, Indonesia, Japan and Thailand; and within Latin America, we work in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico. All of them are countries that have interesting things going on politically and civically, but some countries are more complex.
In Thailand for example, restrictions exist against people gathering physically in groups, and if you sent out a flyer inviting people to a meeting on human rights, many members of the public would not come. So we strive to stay open as an online space where it is still possible to gather virtually and have a conversation that is not always possible to have offline.
This tension hasn’t stopped us, or the Thai people, from working on many campaigns including the push against the single internet gateway. At the moment there is a campaign on changing the bail system, because people who cannot afford bail can sometimes end up serving six months of jail while waiting for trial. As with the other countries we work in, we are not running the campaigns ourselves; they are led and supported by Thai people. But it’s a tightrope that we are walking on at all times.
Now many people in Thailand will have known Change.org through many kinds of campaigns on animals and environmental protection, consumer rights, education, public healthcare and so on. This diversity happened both organically and by design. They help governments in countries like Thailand see that we are a platform that has campaigns on a range of different people’s causes and enable us to stay open as online space for citizens to engage and take action.
Get in touch with the Change.org Foundation through their website.