Cape Town - By mid-May 940 000 people had signed the Bring Back Nigeria's 200 Missing School Girls petition on Change.org. But it's just a drop in the ocean for a site that has counted almost 70 million individual users and sees countless petitions launched on the platform every day.
It is surprising to hear then that this monolith of social activism has its roots in South Africa.
“It's something few people realise,” said the site's chief of staff Benjamin Joffe-Walt.
Much like the site, he also has his roots in the rainbow nation. The son of a South African couple who emigrated to the US in the 1970s, he wears his heritage proudly.
After finishing his studies in the US, Joffe-Walt decided to work in South Africa where he freelanced for local newspapers, including the Cape Argus, while filing copy abroad to the UK. It strengthened the connection he felt with the country and would later lead him to have a “light bulb” moment that would dramatically shift Change.org's focus. In 2005 he was given his dream job, writing features for the Guardian Group in England.
“In retrospect (taking that job) was a big mistake,” he admitted.
He was immediately dispatched to China where he caught wind of a village under siege.
“An activist was going to get me to this site but when we arrived we were surrounded by a group of 30 guys with baseball bats who started beating him.”
Joffe-Walt wrote a first-hand account of the incident, which suggested his contact had been killed. It was splashed on the Guardian's front page.
“It turned out he wasn't killed,” he said. “It became a huge international incident around my reporting and the Guardian's bias around China.
“It was a moment of hubris. I'd been this young star journalist, I was very much brought down to earth and it changed my life and what I wanted to do.”
It eventually led him to join the ranks of Change.org as an editor. It is a site that back then still functioned very much more like a traditional online news source.
In 2010, Ndumie Funda - a South African activist - launched a petition against “corrective rape”, the act of raping a lesbian in a bid to “correct” her sexuality. Joffe-Walt took a special interest in her cause, and started helping Funda tailor her petition, picking out the Department of Justice as the petition's target. For every signature an e-mail was automatically sent to the department. There were over 150 000 signatures.
“We get this call from (then) justice minister Jeff Radebe's chief of staff that he couldn't work,” said Joffe-Walt. “He said ‘my iPad has just crashed because of all the e-mails I'm getting from your petition’. I said, ‘it’s not our petition we just built the platform’.”
The petition got people talking and eventually Radebe appeared on SABC, committing to push for legislation related to corrective rape.
It was the company's “big light bulb moment”, spawned from a coincidental link and resulting interest in South Africa. The site switched its focus to petitions, every journalist and editor was moved into teams to help tailor petitions and “empower change”.
Funda's campaign was a flagship moment, the model which Change.org is now building and improving on. The site went from one million users to 70 million.
“We don't measure our success by profit margins. Our metric is our victories,” said Joffe-Walt.