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An exclusive interview with Preethi Herman, India Country Lead & Campaigns Director for change.org
Online petitions in India: Their Impact, inclusiveness and power.

Q.        You have been working with change.org for about four years now. In context of India, as a platform, how have you seen change.org evolve?

A.         When we launched the platform in India, online petitions & crowd-sourcing weren't very familiar concepts at that time, so people were experimenting with the platform. Initially, there were some campaigns & pledges or some people wrote the views they had about something. But, in the last four years, people have begun to understand the power of having a platform like change.org. What has evolved, now, is the style of writing & the content in the petitions. We have seen a lot of interesting campaigns & campaign ideas with many people engaged with them. Now change.org has about 4.3 million users in India (150 million, worldwide). This level of growth on a platform like this requires a very high level of engagement. The first level of engagement on a campaign is signing a petition which, in itself, is reasonably a higher level of engagement than just liking a post or retweeting it.

Q.        What are the major differences in types of petitions that are filed in India as compared those filed in, say, Europe or US?

A.         As compared to many other countries where the petitions are individual based, in India, mostly petitions are regarding issues that have larger impact, issues that are cause or system based.

Q.        Once a petition receives the required number of signatures and it is delivered, what after that? Does change.org believe in only gathering signatures or it is concerned about change on ground as well?

A.         The biggest misconception about change.org is that since it is an online platform, everything about it is restricted to the internet. But we have seen petition starters organise these signers into communities, have meetings and develop and execute crowd-source campaign strategies. Various times petition signers use different strategies such as lobbying, fund raising or getting media help to take their issues forward.

It is crowd sourced campaigning, so it is not limited to one person or just the internet. Change.org is a platform where people start engaging on an issue and then it takes on different levels of engagement.

Let me cite my favourite campaign as an example. Balandur Lake in Bangalore was so polluted that it was rotting. The methane levels, present in the river, were so high that once, the river caught fire. An IT professional, with no background in activism started a petition to save the lake. Then, she wrote to all signers of the petition and requested for their help in strategizing the campaign. They designed a plan to do a tweet action at the Chief Minister to get his attention. Once they had the attention, they went on to meet the CM, who formed a committee to look into solutions and the cleaning up process of the lake has already started. And it didn't end there. This group of people have become like a vigilant community that kind of keeps an eye on issues around them and are compelling the authorities to take action against the same. We witness this every day. People are taking different kind of actions for different kind of issues. So basically, even saying that it is restricted to the online world is a grave injustice for the huge movement that it is.

Q.        Is there any plan to take change.org to offline audiences?

A.         A lot of petition signers take a print out of the petition, along with the online signatures it has gathered and go & get offline signatures. And the petition is then taken to the concerned decision maker. As a platform, we have experimented, with users who are not on internet, through phone call system. But we have realised that one of the USPs about change.org campaigns is the level of engagement & commitment a person shows to take the issues to victory. Calls did not prove to be a very conducive environment to engage on an issue. So as a technology platform, we are focusing on the online platform that we provide.

Also because we know that India is headed towards an online revolution, both in cities as well as rural areas. And we, at change.org, want to ensure that when it happens, we are there as something considerable, something that people can see.

Q.        Regarding the recent rape & murder case of Jisha from Kerala, about 19 petitions have been started. Why doesn't change.org have some mechanism to make the petitions more effective by linking relevant petitions and thus increasing the number of signatures?

 

A.         Change.org doesn't run any of these campaigns. We provide a platform where a petition starter is solely owning & running the petition. As a technological solution, it is possible to link the petitions, but linking the petitions can solely be the petition starter's decision.

Q.      But won't it be better to let users know, once they try to start a petition, that there is already a relevant petition on change.org that they might want to link with?

A.         
This is something that our product team is already working on.

Q.        There are no petitions regarding farmer suicides, tribal or adivasi rights. What steps are you taking to include petitions from people who are who are not privileged enough to use the internet?

A          Let me answer this in two parts. One, acid attacks for example, as an issue, were not so much into news until petitions were started about them, on the platform. One petition, started by a Dalit girl from a small town in Bihar, was asking for justice for a girl who was attacked with acid. Immediately after that, another petition was started by Laxmi, an acid attack survivor. She was asking the then Home Minister of India to pass guidelines that would regulate the sale of acid. It was interesting to see how something that was never really an issue for the main media, built from one person's story to become something that would demand a seismic change. She had been fighting for the cause for several years. But with this petition, she was able to mobilise people, attract attention, and gather more support around her cause and all this ensured that the required guidelines were passed. So that is the power of change.org. It was not about issues of a particular privileged group. Dalits as well as tribals are definitely part of the spectrum. The girl, from Bihar, who started the campaign against the acid attack, was a Dalit girl. We do see Dalit issues on the site. May be that's not what you see on the main page, but they are there. Though many of the issues are probably more urban and may be more middle class issues. But there are always interesting campaigns started by people who don't belong to that privileged class.

We recently launched our website in Hindi. One of our first petitions, for reservations in UP, was started by a member of the Dalit community. So there are a reasonable amount of such petitions. It is a trend that is evolving. Honestly, our mission is to empower people everywhere to create the change that they want to see. And to make that possible, we try to reach out to everyone possible. And it is a big challenge in India, a country which has such a huge spectrum of people. We do think that one internet is an equaliser and it is working in different ways that is happening more & more at change.org. We proactively are in touch with the organisations that are working in rural areas. And we have had tribal issue related petitions started by some of them. So we have had petitions in that area. But if you only focus on the trending ones, it might give an impression that change.org is very middle class or consumerist. But that's not the case, there is a huge variety.

Q.        But if you search for keywords like 'suicide', 'Maharashtra', 'drought', 'farmer suicide', these key words do not show up any petitions. So why doesn't change.org collaborate with organisations that are working for such issues and ask them to start petitions or have their in-house staff start petitions regarding issues that are ignored by the people who are already using change.org?

A          One, we do work with organisations. We try to support organisations to start petitions on any issue that they feel strongly about. In fact, there is a team that tries to provide strategic content for campaigns to various organisations. Also, there are many who reach out to us about different petitions & different issues.

Second, the reason that we don't we start petitions on our own is that we are not an advocacy organisation. Actually we are not even a non-profit organisation. We are a business for social good. It's based on the US law where you can be a business but you are mission oriented, it makes profits but the profits get pumped back into the mission - a B Corp. Now, when we started, we had bloggers to blog about specific issues but then we realised the scope of social change is very limited if you try to define what that change is. So, instead of trying to box social change into a certain criteria, we decided to open it out for people to tell us what they want to start talking about. And then, as long as they are following community guidelines, it's an open platform where anybody can start a campaign on any issue that they care about.

In India, I think there is a huge opportunity, if you look at the way the internet is growing. It's no more about privilege; we see it's becoming more of a basic commodity. Rural areas & small towns are a huge part huge part of it. And change.org is providing these people an opportunity to raise issues that concern them. Internet is empowering people. There are various tribal & Dalit rights groups such as NCDHR that we are supporting and we have quite a few petitions regarding that.

Q.        What if the decision makers choose to ignore the petitions, no matter how powerful they are? What are your strategies to make the petitions more powerful & effective? For example there are politicians on twitter and if they ignore something that is trending against them, it backfires.

A.         A few years ago, it would have been impossible to believe that decision makers would respond to something like this twitter trend. Now that has changed. This is the equalising process that is happening. Soon, ignoring people's voices in places like change.org will come at a heavy cost to the politician's image. Accountability is becoming extremely important. And many politicians are aware of that. Politicians are aware of change.org, of petitions and they are willing to talk.

So there are two things we are going to do. Petition starters have an option of including a decision maker's e mail ID in the relevant field, and then the decision maker is informed about the petition and the way it is growing. And the decision maker has the option to respond to the petition directly.

Second, we are diversifying the features for decision makers so that they can start engaging better with people. Soon they will be able to respond to the petitions through audio & photographs. So that it's not the logistics that is holding the decision makers back.

There are quite a few decision makers who are interested in creating their profiles on change.org so that they can actually see the different petitions targeting against them and start responding & engaging with people on those issues.  So by the end of this year, we would have a very robust list of decision makers, who have already begun to do that. Our hope is to convince people of the opportunity that is there on change.org to engage with people directly.

Q.        Change.org is, not wholly, but heavily dependent on other social media sites such as twitter or Facebook for spreading awareness about the campaigns that have been started. How does change.org plan to grow an independent audience of its own?

A          I don't think it is required to have an independent audience of your own. We are meeting people where they already are instead of pulling them into something else. People use different mediums to share information and spread news about the campaigns. We want to make that more convenient by giving them more options. A technological platform cannot be alone. You need to be interacting with other forms of social media around you in a mutually beneficial process.

Q.      In India, on an average, how many campaigns are started every month?

A          1500

Q.        And how many of them are victories?

A          It's not feasible to answer that because some campaigns run for weeks and some go on for years. So it's a little difficult to say that. But of the 43 lakh people that change.org has, one third of them have been part of at least one successful campaign.

Q.        "One third of them have been part of a successful campaign" is a nice way to put it. But globally, you have about 25000 campaigns starting every month and 720 victories every month. How does change.org plan to decrease this gap?

A.         By giving more information to petition starters to help them build stronger campaigns, by providing features that will help decision makers to mobilise people, and by reaching out to media & decision makers. We are already working on this. But it will be unfair to compare the number of petitions started with petitions won because it is easy to raise an issue. The difficult part is mobilising people, building good content, having a good story in your petition, talking to the media about it, reaching to the decision makers, running through with your campaign till it reaches victory. It's not like a tweet or a post; it actually takes a lot of time & commitment.

Petitions started should be seen in the context of people willing to at least now raise the issue and victories should be seen in the context of the number of emerging citizens who are directly being involved in social actions.

Q.        Is change.org is really interested in growing in terms of strategies, innovations & methodologies rather than just in number of users or number of petitions?

A          Absolutely, our mission is to empower anyone, anywhere to create the change they want to see. And that's not going to happen because we provide ten features on a platform. It needs to be a holistic approach. And nobody has done what we are doing right now. We are trying out different things, failing a little bit, winning a little bit, and that is very evident in the numbers you see in the website.

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