Care2 CEO Explains How Social Action Isn't Just Social Networking [Interview]

randy paynter care2 Care2 is the largest social action network on the web with over 14 million members and growing at a rate of one new user every 10 seconds. Founded in 1998 by Randy Paynter, Care2’s growth comes through its members spreading awareness through word-of-mouth – illustrating the power of mobilizing people for a good cause. Care2’s mission is to help individuals live a more healthy, sustainable lifestyle and enable members to take collective action and make their voices heard to influence governments and businesses. We were lucky enough to chat with Randy Paynter about this network, and he reveals how Care2 grew up before Facebook or MySpace had hit the scene, and how people can connect on a deeper level if they are passionate about an issue. Read on for this insightful interview.

Why did you target the Care2 network towards doing social and environmental good?

I travelled up the Amazon River with my family when I was eleven years old – and was struck by the impact of deforestation and the negative consequences of modern civilization on the wildlife as well as the indigenous populations. I wanted to help, but I didn’t know how. After college I spent months travelling to remote tribes to see if I could find a product I could commercialize to create an economic incentive to protect the forests and its peoples. While I failed to find the answer, the experience helped me realize this was such complex problem – with all of these environmental and social issues interconnected – that to truly change things for the better required a massive shift in society… and that shift would only happen if enough people changed their opinions and their behavior. So that’s why we’ve tapped into social networks to engage and empower as many individuals as possible in such a wide array of causes.

What challenges and successes did you face in the early stages of Care2?

We immediately hit a chord with a lot of folks who shared our interest in making the world a better place. However, back in the early days, the big challenge was creating a sustainable business model. We had to develop an entirely new model for business where our actual product was “Goodness” – so that the more revenue we made, the more good we’d do, and vice versa. I’m pleased to say we were able to do that. The more active and engaged our community is today, the more revenues we generate through our advertising based model… and if our community believes we’ve strayed from our ideals, we’d no longer have that engagement or revenues. In this way, our “mission and margins” are aligned.

Another early success came in 2001, when we launched ThePetitionSite – a site where members can create petitions and collect signatures to impact social change. Just weeks after launch, one of our members started a petition to convince the Alaska Board of Game to create a buffer zone around Denali National Park to protect the wolf population living in the park. Any wolf that wandered outside the park boundaries was fair game for trappers and hunters. Within a week, she had over 1,000 signatures and was able to deliver the signatures to the Board of Game, resulting in the implementation of a buffer zone to protect the wolves – a wonderful win!

What were the general features of social networking that Care2 began with? How have these changed and evolved over time?

When we first launched the Care2 social network, Friendster had just launched and there was no Facebook or even Myspace, so things looked very different. Our initial goal was to create a “network of networks” by helping nonprofits build their own social networks on top of our site, whereby a rising tide would lift all ships. We offered profiles, groups, personal messaging and a fair bit of customization for nonprofits. However, we found few nonprofits were willing to participate, despite the fact that our own community was growing rapidly. On the positive side, because of the nature of the causes we support, we found that many of our members found kindred spirits on Care2 that they couldn’t find in their own towns. Because the community developed in this truly organic way, there developed a sense of ownership, support and engagement that’s rarely found on other sites. It’s impossible to create true community from the top down, and it was those early roots that I believe made a huge difference for Care2. So while Facebook has come to dominate the social network for “friends”, Care2 connects members through their shared passion for making the world a better place.

Many of the same tools that were popular when we first launched are still how members spend their time on our site today – sharing messages through our messaging system, leaving comments on blog posts, chatting with friends in groups, and forwarding messages to others. What has changed is how they are sharing those messages outside of Care2. When we first launched, most of those messages would be shared via email where now our members are sharing causes they care about on Facebook or Twitter. We also have a very active Facebook community with over 50,000 fans.

What does the typical Care2 user look like, demographically speaking?

Like most social and environmental cause movements, the vast majority of our members are female. Women are the power behind most social and environmental progress today. Women control more than 80% of consumer spending, and they’re moving that spending to be more in line with their values. That’s why we see so many consumer brands suddenly racing to be more sustainable – they realize toxic ingredients and green washing are no longer going to cut it – they need to meet the expectations of these influential women.

How do you think the “niche” (although with 13 million users one can hardly call it a niche) of green living and social justice appeals to today’s social networkers?

Today, over 80% of Americans could be called some shade of green (source: NMI), so social and environmental values are fairly ubiquitous among social networkers. Care2’s unique role is that we make information on these topics very accessible to the mainstream while providing immediate opportunities for our members to take action. Our members can spend a few minutes on our site and feel as that they’ve learned something and taken action to change their community. Taking action is also a powerful way to show your friends you care – which in turn is a great way to get them involved as well.

For topics like animal welfare or women’s rights, we’re also able to cover a topic in ways that the mainstream media doesn’t. We have many excellent bloggers who not only write about topics they are passionate about but also work in those same fields. For example, many of the bloggers in our education causes section are full-time educators. That provides a level of authenticity you won’t get from other news sources.

Can you give me some examples of successful petitions/awareness/fundraising campaigns that have originated or gotten support from the Care2 network?

Absolutely – in addition to helping our 14 million members learn how to live more sustainable lifestyles, and empowering many thousands of groups and individuals working in their local communities, we work with over 500 nonprofit organizations on the front lines of campaigns around the world. Our members have helped protect Old Growth forests in Oregon and Canada, helped to get the Matthew Shepard Act enacted, helped protect Women’s rights, saved untold number of animals from shelters, petitioned for the recently announced end to bullfighting in Catalonia, Spain and many other campaigns. I recently wrote a post on “Slacktivism” that goes into considerable depth on how online activism has made a powerful impact.

What’s in store for Care2 in the future?

Our mission is to get as many people as possible engaged in making a difference. To that end, we’ve recently launched a petition widget that allows anyone to host petitions on their website. For publishers, it’s a great way to let readers take action on causes they care about without ever leaving your website. For petition authors, it’s a great opportunity to reach an even wider audience. Our widgets are now on many of the largest progressive media sites reaching millions of additional people each month. We’re also expanding our blogger network to provide even more of the best, most up to date information on causes available. We’ve got a long way to go to help create a more just and sustainable society which so many of us are working toward, but we’re making progress and invite everyone to join us!