Winning the Internet

Experts speak: All about Care2

In the wake of Change.org’s change to their advertiser policy, many organizations are still looking for alternatives to tools they can use to build their email lists. Today Clint O’Brien, Vice President of Business Development at Care2 talks about how nonprofits can use Care2, and the company’s advertising policies.

 

Can you share a little bit about yourself and your role at Care2?

I joined Care2 in 2005 after working for many years at the nonprofit Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), and an earlier career as a news reporter. At Care2, I lead the nonprofit services team, which works with our more than 1,000 nonprofit clients. We help them to grow their base of donors and supporters from among Care2’s 21 million members. I’m based in Care2’s office in Washington, DC. Our main office is in Redwood City, California.

 

What is Care2 and how can nonprofit organizations and causes use it?

Care2 is an online community of millions of highly engaged citizens who take action every day to support causes they care about. Our two websites are at www.care2.com and www.thepetitionsite.com. They are filled with cause-related content and “take action” opportunities, plus lots of member activity (including peer-to-peer) visible on our many “cause channel” blogs, discussion boards, e-alerts, our news network, our Daily Actions and other features. Care2 was started 14 years ago by our CEO, Randy Paynter, as a social enterprise, seeking to prove that you can make a profit and do good in the world at the same time. Four years ago, we became a certified B Corp.

Care2’s membership has grown entirely through word-of-mouth. We are ranked among the top 150 U.S. web networks by traffic (we’re measured directly by Quantcast). Thousands of citizens start petitions on Care2 every month, and many win important victories locally, nationally and worldwide. More than 200 media partners, including Daily Kos, The Nation, AlterNet, Mother Jones, Grist, TreeHugger and Democrats.com, feature a Care2 “take action” widget that brings Care2 petition campaigns to their own audiences.

Nonprofits use Care2 in many ways, including awareness-building and to drive traffic to their own sites, or to grow their Facebook presence quickly through a service we offer. But the “killer app” way that most nonprofits use Care2 is as a source to help them recruit lots of new donors and supporters for their organizations, fast and cost-effectively. Care2 actually pioneered 12 years ago the whole category of using behaviorally-targeted, contextual and (usually) advocacy-based campaigns to persuade activists to voluntarily sign up for a nonprofit’s email list. For this service, Care2 charges only a cost per signup recruited. So the client pays Care2 only for the most tangible result (the voluntary signup), without having to pay anything for the branding, awareness and advocacy value that Care2 provides to the client as part of the campaign. Nonprofit fundraisers and organizers see Care2′s model as a more attractive alternative to online advertising, which can cost a lot, yet provides no guarantee of any real results. Over the years, Care2 also has become a key alternative to direct mail, which has become less effective in recent years as a way for nonprofits to grow their donor base.

 

Tell us about the most successful petition an organization has run on Care2.

Success can be measured in different ways. Some petitions get huge numbers of signatures, but victory has not yet been achieved. For example, in partnership with TakePart and SaveJapanDolphins.org, we collected about half a million signatures calling for an end to dolphin slaughter in Japan’s Taiji cove, but the fight continues.

The right petition at the right time can make a big difference, even if the number of signatures isn’t huge. For example, an activist recently started a petition on Care2, calling for a halt to a development project in the Cayman Islands. An American ex-pat was planning to build an ecologically irresponsible seaport in the Island’s East End, destroying seven acres of healthy coral reefs. The petition became an organizing tool for the local community and a focus of local press. Over 65,000 people signed the petition. Petition signatures were brought to public hearings and delivered to the Premier. The project was cancelled, and local activists felt that their petition on Care2 was integral to the victory.

Hundreds of Care2 petition successes are cataloged here.

 

What’s the biggest thing organizations struggle with when running a petition on Care2?

Many petitions are created by first-time activists, and they need coaching on how to effectively use petitions to achieve real world change. Our Campaigns team has produced activism guides and works with petition authors to help them achieve success.

 

How does your tool further social change for good?

As a real community of millions of passionate people interacting with each other — and with nonprofits — all the time, Care2 is not a “tool,” per se. It’s a friendly army of people that one person or organization can mobilize, amplifying their voices and actions to achieve together what none of us could achieve on our own. However, it’s certainly true that Care2 provides our members with many tools – especially on our petition site — to organize and win victories for social change.

We also that think Care2 is unusually good at “meeting people where they are” and then levering them up to more actions, and higher engagement, so that they end up being very activist in their lives. So we “grow” new activists. We do this partly by providing many different “doorways” into the Care2 community — including simple things like healthy living tips and other content for personal growth and sustainability, to free electronic greeting cards, to Click-to-Donate pages, to our cause channels (blogs) and our “Daily Action” emails, etc. – but then we do our best to “cross-pitch” collective action opportunities to these same Care2 members, so that they gradually evolve into real activists.

We also track all of the actions that our members take, so that we can report back to them and celebrate victories that they helped achieve; this encourages them to keep taking action. We even award “Butterfly Rewards” points to our members as part of a really cool loyalty program we have in place, here. It’s sort of a mashup between an “Oxfam Unwrapped” style, symbolic giving program and a Jet Blue-style frequent flyer program. Our members can “redeem” their Butterfly points (it’s a kind of “currency for good”) for helpful gifts like food, medicine, trees and carbon offsets — for which Care2 is actually paying real dollars, not to our members, but rather to our nonprofit partners such as Oxfam, Unicef, ASPCA, CarbonFund.org and Trees for the Future.

 

What’s your policy for accepting sponsored petitions and causes?

Anyone can start a free petition on Care2’s petition site, and lots of people do this all the time. But our “sponsored” petitions are the ones that clients pay us to create (in collaboration with them) and then to promote to our millions of members. These petitions include the client organization’s own branding, and we work closely with our clients to help their campaigns succeed.

For 14 years, we have faced up to the messy challenge – and inexact science — of deciding how we reflect our values as a company in the clients that we agree to work with via paid petition campaigns. This includes nonprofits, NGO’s and the occasional for-profit social enterprise, too. Over those years we’ve become well known for helping nonprofits that are considered to be “doing good,” which of course can be difficult to classify in absolute terms.  Care2 wants to support organizations that are working to make a better world. So we think it’s our duty to accept or reject clients on a case-by-case basis, according to several factors, and especially whether they’re a good fit with our millions of members’ positive social values. For example, our members are passionate about protecting the environment, stopping the abuse of animals, defending human rights, providing equal opportunities to the poor, etc. These are mainstream social values that are at the heart of our purpose as a company and among the reasons that many Care2 members join our community in the first place. So we can’t accept clients that are in conflict with these social values.

One key point is that we see our sponsored petition campaigns as being very different from “advertising.” There are many differences, but the main one is that, unlike say, the Washington Post, which can publish ads at arms-length without endorsing its advertisers, Care2 cannot help but endorse every nonprofit whose paid petition campaign we conduct. That’s because typically our own staff campaigners personally write and sign the call-to-action email messages (which even include our campaigners’ photos) in which we urge Care2 members to voluntarily sign up for the client’s list — and sometimes to donate to the nonprofit, too. So in effect we are leveraging the trust that we’ve earned from our members, and asking them to trust the nonprofit, too. Our relationship with our individual members is very much at stake. That’s why it’s important for us to do our best, despite the difficulties involved, to identify those clients whom we can confidently endorse, and avoid working with organizations whom we can’t support. We’ve made mistakes in this messy process before, and may do so again. But we will fix mistakes when we recognize them, and keep building on our long record of trying to work only with the groups that we feel good about endorsing.

 

In the past, you’ve worked with Michelle Rhee’s group Students First, which is at the center of the Change.org controversy. Are you currently working with them and would your policies prevent working with her and similar groups in the future?

Yes, that organization was a Care2 client, and we recruited supporters for them until early June of this year. At that time we re-evaluated our relationship and decided to end it. We haven’t done any work for them since June; we have no relationship now. In terms of the future, we will always make those decisions case-by-case, and organizations can evolve in positive ways if they choose. But for now, we’re at peace with our decision to stop working with them.


About Melissa Foley

Melissa is the New Media Program Director for Netroots Foundation and Lead Mentor for New Media Mentors. She aims to use her business school background and nonprofit experience to teach organizations to use new media tools strategically.

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