Change is tough. Facilitating change is tougher. When Preethi Herman joined Change.org as Country Director, India, in 2012, there were 50 petitions being signed in India every month with 150,000 users. In five years, the number has surged to an average of 2,000 petitions a month with 7.5 million users who have either started or signed petitions.
"It was a long process of learning to start the right petitions that are focused and have the potential to gather momentum," says Herman. Before she took charge, petitions were usually very broad in their scope on topics such as End Poverty or Seek World Peace. Such objectives are unexceptionable, but they are vague. To draw widespread support, she felt, a petition needed to have a sharply defined goal and focus on a community, which it provokes and thereby gets involved.
Right after Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced a proposal in the 2016 Union Budget to tax withdrawals beyond 40 per cent from the Employee Provident Fund, for example, a chartered financial analyst, Vaibhav Aggarwal, started a petition on Change.org asking the government to withdraw the decision. He explained in detail why it was a draconian act. The petition gathered the support of 237,015 people. The government ultimately withdrew the proposal.
"The government did not say it was due to Change.org but when a lot of people get together and make a noise, the chances that their voices will reach decision-makers is a lot stronger," says Herman.
Change.org does a lot of offline work as well, organising meetings and running the Change Academy programme: 10-day-long training sessions spread across one year to teach petitioners how to run campaigns effectively. A new initiative called 'Be the Change' will start from November, a course helping women transition from petitioners to issue leaders. It has also made a conscious effort to draw in people from beyond the urban elite. It launched a Hindi version in October 2015. It has tied up with CGNetSwara, a voice-based online portal run from Central India, where tribals predominate, which allows people to phone in local news and also trains them to start petitions.
For Herman, the challenge was accommodating diverse ideologies. At times, there have been conflicting petitions on the platform, for instance, pro and anti-beef ban or pro and anti-reservation. "The biggest challenge is to accept different ideologies and build tolerance for this kind of diversity," she says.