Helping file petitions in a few clicks
New Delhi: What is more important: removing a television host for allegedly promoting inequality, or regulating acid sales to prevent attacks on women for unrequited love? Bringing back a dead character in a television serial or linking Gurgaon Metro station with DLF Cyber City?
For many of us, the answer is clear, but does that make any of the four demands less important than the others? No, says Preethi Herman, country lead at Change.org, an online petition platform. “The variety of petitions we get is amazing. Every issue is important for someone out there. And this is what Change.org does, empowering people with proper tools,” she says.
At Change.org, anybody who wants to make a change or is looking for justice can start a petition, address it to a target, get people to sign it and achieve actionable results.
According to Herman, it was always believed that social change was the responsibility of the activist class—the so-called jholawala groups.
“But that is the biggest misconception... ever. Finding solutions to the problems is everyone’s responsibility and right. Our mission is to have a world where no one is powerless,” she says.
Change.org claims to be the world’s only petition platform, providing a tool for anyone to start a petition. It began in 2007 as a social platform offering several services like blogging, petitions and fund-raising. But later on, the company decided to just focus on petitions. Indians woke up to Change.org in 2011 and now the site has two million users. Till now, 26,000 petitions have been filed in India with 246 victories.
Around 800 petitions are filed every month, says Herman. “People look at us as an activist organization or an NGO (non-government organization), but we are not. What we are is a tech platform, a business for social good. We want to empower people and provide a platform to bridge the gap between people and decision makers.”
The company compares itself to social networks like Twitter and Facebook. Herman explains how Facebook and Twitter provide a platform for social interaction and information sharing. “What Change.org does is provide an open platform to anyone to create a campaign about any issue they are concerned about,” she says.
The website has an elegant, user-friendly interface. To file a petition, you have to sign up first. The first step is to fill the petition form which has been kept to the basics. It asks for information like who the petition is addressed to—it could be one or more decision-makers, a person or a group of people or an organization.
The next field asks what you want to do, or the call for action for the decision-makers. The form also asks the petitioner to explain the importance of the petition, or why people should support it, the need for it and how it can make a difference.
There is an option to add a video or picture, as they attract more attention. While adding information about decision-makers, it also asks you to add their email addresses. Once the petition is online, the decision-makers or authorities are regularly notified when supporters sign the petition, building pressure for action.
Once a petition is filed, the next step is to promote it among the petitioner’s online network of contacts. Change.org provides basic how-tos for promoting a petition online. The website urges the petitioner to email friends and families, post about it on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, talk to people in offline gatherings, keep updating the petition with milestones that happened. You can also put faces to signatures.
Herman gives the example of R.P.S. Kholi, who used Change.org to win Sikh athletes representing India the right to wear a turban in international basketball competitions. The petition was filed after an incident in July at the Asia Cup Championship in Wuhan in China, when two Sikh players were asked to take off their turbans. Kholi also took the campaign offline and managed to get support from star singers such as Daler Mahndi and Yo Yo Honey Singh. The victory led to the International Basketball Federation (Fiba) reversing the ban.
“Honey Singh is an interesting example here. From being the target of a petition to being part of a Change.org campaign, that’s a long way to come,” she adds. An online petition was filed against the singer in 2012 to cancel a New Year’s concert in Delhi. The petition accused him of obscenity in his song titled Balatkari.
After a petition gains enough signatures in support, the petitioner can choose to talk to the decision-maker. It helps drive home the fact that you are serious about bringing change through the petition. Either you could call or meet them in person or email them regarding your petition. The website gives you instructions about how to proceed in a structured manner.
“There are certain petitions that don’t reach their ultimate goal, but have managed to start a conversation. Even that is a milestone for a petition starter. You can try to garner media attention with that conversation,” Herman explains. “It may be started by one person, but gains momentum slowly, making it a cause for a lot of other people in the process.”
Some of the other victories include a petition to regulate acid sales and another asking the Tamil Nadu government to regulate auto rickshaw fares in Chennai after a year-long campaign. A person who lost four friends in a car accident started a petition to try and get the popular television show Satyamev Jayate to broadcast an episode on road safety. An ongoing petition asks sportswear maker Nike to make customized shoes for athlete Swapna Barman, who has 12 toes.
Change.org earns revenue through targeted advertising in the form of sponsored petitions. Basically, these are petitions and campaigns started by organizations, looking for supporters. A sponsored petition is suggested to a user based on his interests and past petitions and signatures.
The company is looking to put together a website in Hindi to reach out to more people. “The features and functionality on the website would also evolve as we expand. In fact, we are exploring technological solutions specific to India to cater to the niche demands,” Herman says.
Mint has a strategic partnership with Digital Empowerment Foundation, which hosts the Manthan Award.