The future of social business

Paul Hilder

VP of Global Campaigns at Change.org. And social entrepreneur who helped launch Avaaz.org, 38 Degrees and openDemocracy

We live in an age of crisis. From 9/11 and Iraq to financial meltdowns and Arab awakenings, the pace of change is accelerating. While the future is uncertain, the order of things is shifting. And amidst the turbulence, remarkable new possibilities are opening up.

Markets and governance have always had social roots – think of public opinion, brand perception, consumer demand or community needs. What is new is that today those roots are spreading like never before, sending up green shoots all over the world.

Every day on Change.org and other digital platforms, we see citizens and consumers discovering their own social power. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Over the next decade, I think this bottom-up wave will change the rules of the game for businesses and governments everywhere. And I believe that, while this transition will not be without its challenges, it will be overwhelmingly for the better.

This prediction is grounded not only in observation of how people are using our platform to reshape business models and political incentives, but also in our own experience of building Change.org as a new kind of social business.

Change.org is a mission-driven company, and our mission is simple: to empower people everywhere to create the change they want to see. This mission is the singular compass our company navigates by, and the touchstone for every major strategic decision. In this sense, we might resemble a non-profit.

Yet we are simultaneously building Change.org into a world-class technology business that thinks big, executes relentlessly, and scales rapidly to achieve global reach.

We do not talk about shareholder value, even profit. Mission is our single bottom line. But it is precisely that extraordinary, aspirational mission of universal empowerment which demands that we generate significant surplus revenue, so that we can expand our platform’s footprint and augment the service it provides to users.

Is it working? Over the last two years, Change.org has grown from a few million users, mostly in the US, to over 50 million spread across every country in the world. The platform has been widely adopted in Europe’s largest markets: in Spain we are racing past 15 per cent penetration of internet users, and we are also growing fast in countries like Brazil, Argentina, Thailand and the Philippines.

Our leadership team includes executives who came from Google, Twitter and Zynga. All of them are energised and excited by our mission-driven environment.

We have a robust, advertising-based revenue model that has funded most of our growth, with the rest coming from enthusiastic mission-aligned investors like Omidyar Network and Uprising, as well as prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

With an engaging brand and accelerating usage, prospects for future diversification and growth are strong. But we have publicly committed to never sell or float Change.org, and turned down significant offers of capital which were not fully mission-aligned.

We are building this company to last and flourish, not to be acquired; so we have invested heavily in organisational culture. Our mission is underpinned by a set of values for which staff feel deep ownership: ‘we embrace openness’, ‘we serve with passion’, ‘we demand excellence’, ‘we love and understand’.

We are seeking to take the best institutional DNA from across cultures and disciplines, from Silicon Valley to social movements, and weave these strands together in a new and transformational hybrid. Change.org is an empowerment company. Our mission and our entrepreneurialism are inextricably linked, and support each other organically.

One of the secrets to Change.org’s dynamism is the integrity of our social contract with our users, and the quality of relationships that flow from that.

People trust the platform because they feel at home in it. They know from their own experience, as well as our public statements, that Change.org is designed first and foremost to fulfil our promise to them – ‘come and create the change you want to see’.

More traditional commercial businesses sometimes struggle to maintain user alignment as they seek to monetise and deliver shareholder value. They risk being torn apart when a gap opens up between their commercial imperatives and the promises they are making to the users, consumers and constituents whose buy-in generates much of the business’s value in the first place.

At Change.org, the mission of empowerment that drives all our decisions is centred on authentic service to our users. The alignment and value generated by this commitment is extraordinary.

This service-oriented ethos encourages our users not only to take action themselves, but also to get their friends, family and networks involved in the platform. It also helps build trust in our advertising model, which is based on permission marketing, matchmaking and delivering value to users as well as advertisers.

These ideas of social value and the public good are even more important in relation to the impact Change.org has on the world around us, and the wider mega-trend of social empowerment. They inspired Caroline Criado-Perez, for instance, to start her successful Change.org petition calling on Bank of England Governor Mark Carney to put women on banknotes.

“Decision-makers and institutions that operate transparently, responsibly and authentically… can expect not only to survive – but to prosper and flourish”

These same ways of thinking were what impelled Brazil’s public prosecutors to start a Change.org campaign that stopped Congress from granting itself immunity from investigation for political corruption. And the very same narrative helped stir a French association to use Change.org to ask ERAM, a major shoe business, to eliminate deforestation in its supply chain. ERAM has responded, committing to do so by 2015, and is now collaborating with the association to implement its commitment.

Every month, these ideas inspire thousands of Change.org users to start campaigns, and millions of others to join those efforts and spread the word. Every day we see more and more campaigns winning through the site. But this is just the beginning.

At the time of writing, Change.org is piloting a new offering – Decision Makers – which will enable any decision-maker, from politicians and officials to corporate CEOs, to engage in public dialogue with their stakeholders, consumers and constituents.

Early adopters in the political space include the Mayor of San Francisco, the Mayor of Barcelona, US Senator Elizabeth Warren of the Democratic Party and former Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan. We are now inviting expressions of interest from major corporations about adopting Decision Makers, and are already in active dialogue with several businesses.

In our experience, the idea of maximising social value is both dynamic and transformational. In this era of growing social power, it may also be an idea whose time has come – especially as more mercenary business concepts start to look untrustworthy or morally bankrupt.

Harvard professor Michael Porter, the father of competitiveness theory and company strategy, has recently been exploring similar ideas of shared value. Even cutting-edge technology start-ups with more commercial business models than ours are considering models of user alignment and mission-driven governance that flow from similar sources.

Meanwhile, vanguard blue-chip companies like Unilever have been exploring how to transform their business models, turning away from the treadmill of quarterly earnings results to focus instead on generating long-term value, and trying to increase the social impact and sustainability of their operations. And to repeat, all this is just the beginning.

The internet and social networks are connecting people, information and ideas faster than ever before. Simultaneously, we are seeing a remarkable wave of social evolution.

Attitudes, relationships and modes of organisation are all in flux. Citizens and consumers are starting to play an increasingly active role in governance and the marketplace, not just in Europe, America, India or Brazil but also in parts of Africa, East and Southeast Asia.

This new networked reality is disrupting traditional political and business models and shifting power from institutions to people. It may on occasion feel unsettling, even revolutionary, to incumbent power-holders – particularly when it’s allowed to degenerate into conflict and confrontation. But in the long run, this shift is the best hope for the renewal of our democracies and businesses.

Why? Social power does not operate like military force or oligopoly market share, which are for the most part zero-sum games. On the contrary, when social power is well-channelled, it becomes a positive sum equation.

Legitimate governments and businesses empower and serve their people. They generate social value, build meaningful relationships, and in the process they themselves become reinforced and reinvigorated.

This is the promise of social power and social value. This is the win-win opportunity that some of the most foresighted political and business leaders in the world are already starting to explore.

“We do not talk about shareholder value, even profit. Mission is our single bottom line”

Of course, many different models will be tried along this path, and we look forward to the innovation and experimentation that results. Change.org’s particular model of social business is specific to us, and some of its details may not be appropriate for many other companies. But the ideas that animate our approach, and have driven our success to date, are much more generally applicable.

I have no doubt that the 21st Century will be the era of social business and social government. Those who fail to embrace these dynamics may find it tough going: they risk getting bogged down in a lengthy and distracting guerrilla war with their publics.

Meanwhile, though, decision-makers and institutions that operate transparently, responsibly and authentically, that engage with social power and make social value a core mandate, can expect not only to survive – but to prosper and flourish.

This is an exciting time, full of promise and danger. Many of the pathways to that better future are still to be blazed. We look forward to walking them with you.