Change.org is a two-year-old online community dedicated to tackling some of the world's most entrenched problems: climate change, immigration, ethnic cleansing and so on. But this week, the organization is looking inward to effect its biggest change yet. The focus: itself. The site—which despite being called "Change" has no affiliation with either presidential candidate currently harping on that motif—is morphing into a media company that will publish a suite of 13 individual blogs, each dedicated to a specific topic. Think of it as an activist Huffington Post (only without a socialite figurehead) or a Gawker Media for good (without the empty vitriol).
Josh Levy, Change.org's managing editor, envisions the revamped site as a new hub for its 120,000 members, a one-stop shop for the latest news on a given topic and tools for taking action. "People want to do stuff, but how do you make it easy and fun and connected to their life? This is an attempt to solve that," says Levy, who had formerly been an associate editor at the Personal Democracy Forum's group blog, techPresident.
Change.org "allows us to reach out to audiences that we normally wouldn't reach," says Lindsay Sparks of World Neighbors, a grass-roots development organization that raised nearly $20,000 through the site before the relaunch. "People are learning more and more that they can give smaller gifts. They don't have to give $100; they can give $5 and make an impact." The site has been so effective at tapping issue interest that she registered her own nonprofit on Change.org: she set up a page for her Central Oklahoma Greyhound rescue group and quickly raised $100—which is $100 more than she would have otherwise had.
"I think there's definitely a role for this in the world of social entrepreneurship," says Tom Watson, author of the forthcoming book on peer-to-peer philanthropy called "CauseWired: Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World" (Wiley). "This is sort of like what's happened in the political space" online. The political blog Talking Points Memo, for example, has exploded in growth thanks largely to the voice of its editor, Josh Marshall. Daily Kos has has found a niche as a watercooler for a group of like-minded wonks. The popularity of both is testament that the so-called millennial generation has not only been raised online but is becoming politicized there: 47 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the 2004 national election, up from 36 percent in 2000, according to the Case Foundation. This year, 43 percent of the 18- to 29-year-olds voted in the New Hampshire primary (up from 18 percent in '04).
Of course this speaks largely to the appeal that Sen. Barack Obama has among young voters—as well as to the technological sophistication with which his campaign has been run. "Obama's campaign has shown this enthusiasm and energy among young people for organizing and connecting with each other to get something done," says Levy, who has no affiliation with the campaign. "I really do see this [Change.org relaunch] as: what do we do next, after Nov. 4? How do we retain that energy and this mind-set towards actual social goals?"
There's the rub. "Change is clever in the way that they have positioned themselves to pick up on that group that's been involved with the Obama camp," says Nancy Schwartz, a marketing consultant to nonprofits. "But that level of involvement hasn't been sustained even throughout the campaign." Schwartz would also like to see each of the topic-specific blogs have more than just one voice, if not multiple perspectives. "If they really open it up on the Huffington model, that could be really interesting."
For now, Levy et al. can take comfort in a few more statistics: from 1989 to 2005 the rate of teenage volunteerism more than doubled, to 28.4 percent, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service. There has also been a 20 percent increase in the number of college students volunteering between 2002 and 2005 alone—meaning high-schoolers don't necessarily outgrow their application-padding social activism once they attend their first kegger. For that, Change.org can raise a glass.