SAN FRANCISCO -- A block from where the San Francisco Giants play baseball at AT&T Park, a team of social media engineers in jeans and T-shirts is helping activists from more than 100 countries try to change the world.
Founded four years ago by Stanford University grad Ben Rattray, Change.org has attracted more than 3 million members around the globe and is revolutionizing how ordinary people can effect social change by starting online signature campaigns targeting lawmakers, companies and nations.
Last week was a good one for the group. Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei - the subject of a Change.org petition drive - was released after months in detention. And Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton took on the group's fight to win driving rights for Saudi women.
Rattray, 31, hatched the idea for Change.org while a senior at Stanford. He hosted a weekly bull session in his dorm room where students across the racial and political spectrum debated immigration, war, poverty and racism.
"We cared about many different issues, but didn't feel we had the power to change the things we cared about," Rattray said.
So he wrote an 80-page business plan for Change.org, a for-profit company that would make it easy for people to launch online petition drives and help them identify targets for those petitions who had the power to take action.
Rattray raised $2 million in venture capital, enlisted his friends as engineers and launched the company in 2007. The number of employees has grown from four to 50 and soon will reach 100, said Rattray.
Change.org now draws 150,000 visitors daily and hosts about 5,000 online campaigns. It will bring in more than $5 million this year from paying clients, Rattray said.
People can start a campaign by using the site to launch an online petition. No issue is too big or too small.
More than 141,000 people signed the petition started by the Guggenheim Museum to free Weiwei. Nearly 200 have signed a petition to get Sacramento to repeal its no-camping ordinance for the homeless.
Another drive persuaded the Giants and four other Major League Baseball teams to create "It Gets Better" videos to help prevent gay teens who are getting bullied from committing suicide. Sam Maden, a 12-year-old from Nashua, N.H., collected more than 9,000 signatures to get the Boston Red Sox to take part.
"We're finally taking off and things are exploding on the site," Rattray said. "We saw this as a unique opportunity to connect the technology of the web with social engagement."
By following simple instructions, people across the globe "can come together, share ideas and take action on climate change, gay rights, homelessness, human trafficking," Rattray said.
Change.org is "like a mall for change," said Charlene Li of the Altimeter Group, a technology consulting firm in San Mateo, Calif. "In the past, if you wanted to do social activism it was a real pain. You had to stand on street corners and wave signs."
Now, through the company's online platform, "you already have an audience," Li said.
Rattray's firm "appears to be the leader in international advocacy," said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy. "It's interesting they've made such a splash - they're harnessing the power of the Internet to amplify people's voices."
Anyone can launch a Change.org petition for free, and any issue is fair game as long as it doesn't promote violence or bigotry, Rattray said.
The site verifies email addresses to ensure each signature is unique and provides online tools to help people target recipients for their petitions, from politicians to captains of industry.
"People start campaigns they don't actually know how to win," Rattray explained. "If you start a campaign asking Jerry Brown to block the use of plastic bags in your town in NorCal, Jerry Brown doesn't have the power to do that."
That's where Change.org comes in. "You don't need just people, you need strategy and direction," Rattray said. "When you sign a petition, it automatically sends it to the decision-maker."
So, for example, instead of focusing broadly on immigration reform, people start petitions around individuals facing deportation. "We have an immigration organizer connecting them to members of Congress," Rattray said.
The company gets its revenue from about 250 paying clients who buy the services of Change.org's engineers and professional organizers. Clients include Lance Armstrong's Livestrong Foundation, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Humane Society, the American Heart Association and Amnesty International.
"Change.org has helped us reach new audiences to take action on urgent human rights cases," said Amnesty International's online marketing manager Kyra Stoddart. Stoddart has teamed up with Change.org to recruit thousands of people to write letters for a variety of causes, including the release of Egyptian novelist Musaad Abu Fagr.
There's no telling what's going to bubble up on the site. "Apparently every state's got a 'Roseanne Barr for President' campaign," said company spokesman Brian Purchia.
And more than 20,000 Serbs have launched a boycott of E! network until comedian Chelsea Handler apologizes for insulting Serbs on her show.
(Contact Stephen Magagnini at email@example.com)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)