You’ve likely heard the famous Mahatma Gandhi quote, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Change.org – a company that helps people and organizations start online, petition-based campaigns to create meaningful change in their communities – takes Gandhi’s words into the digital realm.
Since it was launched in 2007, Change.org has helped bring about more than 100 victories on local, national and international campaigns. Recent campaigns include petitions to curb manipulative fast food marketing to kids, petitions to urge school districts to allow the formation of gay-straight alliance clubs, and petitions to pressure companies to treat their workers with integrity.
Change.org’s Director of Partnerships, Zachary Dominitz took some time to talk to Repair the World about his fascination with human communication, what inspired him to join the team at Change.org, and the unique power of internet-based organizing.
What was your background with service and social change work?
I grew up in Northern California and my dad was an environmentalist and the sort of first rule of being an environmentalist is that everything is connected. And at that time, the environmental movement was still in its relative infancy, so social change was part of who I was from a very early age. I even started volunteering with an environmental center at the age of seven.
Most of my career has had a pretty big social change focus. I studied communications in college, and then went to the White House hoping to change the world, but ended up writing propaganda under the Clinton administration. Following that and a couple years of travel I got involved in a lot of social entrepreneurial ventures. I helped launch an organic cotton and hemp clothing company; I worked as a communications director for an environmentally responsible consumer goods company; I did a lot of writing and strategy for start-ups, as well as exploring other areas. I was a schoolteacher, I was a message therapist.
And you lived in the UK for a while, right?
I left the country when we bombed Iraq and moved to the UK where I was born – it was self-imposed political exile. I lived there for 7 years. During that time I got an MBA at London Business School because I figured it was a generalist degree and if I was serious about affecting change, people will listen to your message more if you have those credentials.
I worked for a water charity organization supported by the Anita Roddick (who started The Body Shop), and did environmental consulting – all focused on social entrepreneurship. Then I was asked to build and run a Corporate Affairs department for the largest Fairtrade company in the UK, a coffee, tea and cocoa company called CaféDirect. It is an innovative organization started by coffee farmers and Oxfam in the mid-1980s. These farmers were literally starving to death and sent beans to Oxfam UK, who helped them rally church groups and local supporters who sold the beans out of cars at the beginning. The coffee was terrible at first, but they grew and developed. It was a tremendous learning experience.
How did you end up back in the US working for Change.org?
I was asked by a start-up here in New York to help launch their company called Call2Action, with a bespoke technology that combines video with the tools to take action – it helps organizations raise awareness about and engagement with their issues. Back in the states, Obama had just been elected and I felt like there were new exciting times in America. Plus both of my parents were originally New Yorkers so it felt right to move there. I actually discovered Change.org while I was trying to sell them Call2Action’s technology! I was so moved by their mission and what they do, that when they in turn started pursuing me,I left the company I helped to start.
What was it about Change.org that appealed to you so deeply?
Change.org aims to be a platform for social action the way that Amazon is a platform for e-commerce and YouTube is a platform for video. I’ve always been fascinated by the evolution of humanity and communication, and how each drives the other forward. The way we communicate has sped up significantly in the 15-20 years since Al Gore “invented the internet,” and I love how Change.org harnesses those technologies to empower people for action. Our CEO is also young and a visionary with a talent for bringing together young, bright and motivated people who mesh well.
What does Change.org do on the ground?
We help build bridges between online and offline organizing. Anyone can use Change.org to start, join, and win campaigns for a social change. We have a community of active, engaged users who have joined the site through taking action on issues that matter to them, and the community is growing by close to half a million people a month. We work with nonprofits to connect our members to those groups doing the best work in the areas of community members’ interests. And that supports our fulltime team of editors, organizers, and campaign specialists, who mine user-generated campaigns and lift up and support the most salient, important ones. We help the campaign starters win campaigns, through media outreach, extending campaigns across the platform, targeting local decision makers, and so forth.
It’s pretty amazing too to see Change.org connect people who might feel like they are all by themselves on an issue. Sometimes it can be tough to feel isolated in your belief that things aren’t right and need to change – you can feel left out and excluded. But to see people of all ages start a campaign and all of a sudden have people they’ve never met from around the country and the world getting involved and supporting them, it’s powerful. It’s a type of community empowerment that only an Internet platform can provide.
Can you give me an example?
There was a gay black woman in South Africa who was walking home one day when she got attacked – beaten and raped – by a man she knew. It was what is called corrective rape, where a man rapes a woman in order to “cure” them of their homosexuality. She was a strong woman and was able to organize other woman in the community who had been abused by the same man. They got him arrested, but just a short while later he was released on $10 US bail – where he started to go after the women again.
From the safe house to where she fled, she started a Change.org online campaign that targeted the Justice Minister to ask him to acknowledge the crime—it’s common in South Africa, but has never been addressed. One of our editor/organizers reached out to her and interviewed her on Skype and helped get a lot of buzz around the issue. A week and a half later, our CEO got a call from the Justice Minister of South Africa. He said, “I don’t know who you are, but you have crashed our servers and made it impossible to do our jobs, and you need to stop.” And our CEO said, “Not only will we not stop, but if you don’t make this an issue, we will.” At that point the Justice Minister hung up and we kicked into high gear.
Fast forward a week and a half later, and we have 172,000 people in support of this woman’s campaign, from 163 countries, our organizer has flown to South Africa to meet the woman, brokered a meeting with the Justice Minister and forced him to go on television to talk about this issue. It is one truly powerful example of the scope of technology in doing this work.
You’re Change.org’s Director of Partnerships – what does that mean?
I work specifically with non-profits that are looking to connect directly to new supporters. I help them to build movements and a supporter base by by creating and running online communications and campaigns—we have a pretty unique team-based model of support that has been tremendously successful, and is why we are growing so fast. I specifically focus on religious groups, human rights, international development and human trafficking and immigrant rights issues.
Do you notice any particular trends in the causes that people support? Are there any issues that are particularly popular right now?
Our platform aims to be agnostic and therefore ends up being reflective of society in general – it’s like having a front row seat to people’s beliefs. That said, the campaigns span any number of issues. We see so many people who are tremendously passionate about their issue, but it’s a pretty even spread.
What is an exciting campaign that Change.org is working on now?
We have an online petition that has been signed by more than 130,000 people in support of Chinese activist and artist Ai WeiWei. He was detained by the Chinese government on April 3rd – an attack on his freedom of expression as an artist – and has been denied due process under Chinese law. In response to the petition, Change.org is currently experiencing a denial of service attack from China on our website, which is both a sign of how successful this campaign has been, and also how necessary this work is. We are continuing to help supporters organize on behalf of free speech and freedom to organize.
Do you connect the work you do with your spirituality/Jewish heritage?
It’s interesting – my dad was raised Orthodox (though he now calls himself an atheist Jew), and I grew up with a strong sense of Judaism. But I was never attracted at a young age to Judaism in a religious sense. I always felt more attracted to Judaism’s cultural aspects – our collective humor and curiosity, and compassion.
I felt and still feel this wonder and fascination about my parents and grandparents living as new Jewish immigrants in New York. I was born in London and have lived so many places. I think our generation takes for granted how mobile we are, so I try to connect back to their experience. In that sense it has been great for me to live in New York – it’s the first place I’ve lived that’s been so overtly Jewish.
How can people get involved with Change.org?
Change.org’s online campaign platforms are totally free, and we encourage anyone and organization to use them. If someone is part of a nonprofit that is looking to grow its base of supporters and donors, then please have them reach out directly to me, Zachary[@]change.org. People can also go to the site and see some of the campaigns that are being run, and perhaps they can get involved directly with an organization doing work that matters to them.