If Facebook is where you share with friends, and LinkedIn is for professional contacts, then Matt Mahan wants Causes to be the online place to engage in civic life.

Causes was one of the first apps on Facebook, launched in 2007 by Sean Parker, the online entrepreneur, and Joe Green, a college roommate of Mark Zuckerberg. The idea was to help Facebook users enlist support for their favorite issues. Backers hoped for a modest profit from things like donation-processing fees, but the app lost steam and the founders turned to other efforts.

Mahan became CEO in 2012 and began an overhaul that led to a re-launch last fall. San Francisco-based Causes is now a free-standing social network where users can trumpet the political and social issues they care about, share information and enlist others in activist campaigns. Mahan, who grew up in Watsonville and shared a Harvard dorm with Zuckerberg, discussed the new Causes in this interview, edited for clarity and length.

Q When you re-launched Causes, you wrote a blog post that said: "Online engagement for social good is broken." What did you mean?

A We helped invent online "clicktivism," which is kind of a derogatory term for the idea that people click a lot of buttons to sign petitions or express support but very little impact happens. I don't mean to bash something that was really new and innovative at the time. But we're just scratching the surface.


Advertisement

Now we're building a network dedicated to helping people express what they care about, connect with like-minded people and take meaningful action. (For example,) we're taking the standard online petition and turning it into a smart petition that automatically targets elected officials, brings in voting information and bridges to offline activity such as an events tool or one-click phone calls to elected officials.

Q Why did you decide to operate separately from Facebook?

A Facebook is a great platform to find people and help them communicate. We'll continue to be integrated with Facebook. But it's more of a space to share key moments in your life with people you're close with. A lot of people want to declare their values and get involved in creating change, but they don't want to be the crazy uncle who's always going on about politics at the dinner table. We're offering a separate place where people want to talk about issues.

Q How many people use Causes now?

A We see around 5 million monthly active users. Since September, we've had more than 50 million supporter connections formed. These are between people and other like-minded people or organizations, saying, "I support what you do and you can call on me." That's a bond we believe is stronger than a like on Facebook or a follow on Twitter.

Q But if you're focusing on the people who want to be more active, rather than just click to sign a petition, doesn't that limit you to a smaller audience?

A Great question. The thing we've done best is helping people pull in other friends, and understand that their ability to have an impact doesn't stop with what they do; it's their ability to pull in others they know. Users are seeing there's more to do (on the site), more content. The next step is helping people activate their personal networks, people who may take action because their friend or colleague asks them to.

Q How do you make money, and are you profitable?

A We're not yet at the break-even point, but we make money primarily by helping companies market their corporate social responsibility programs. We work with foundations and companies like AT&T and Toyota to highlight their programs and partners. We allow them to run ads and reach an audience in a transparent way. We don't take a cut of donations and we don't sell people's email addresses.

Q Won't some activists be wary or even turned off by corporate messages?

A We haven't seen a backlash. We're a neutral platform. We'll charge companies (fees for their programs), but we won't stop anybody from launching a campaign that targets a corporation. We've served from left to right; we've had companies simultaneously targeted by activists and also supported by others who like what they're doing.

Q You lived in Mark Zuckerberg's dorm when Facebook launched 10 years ago. Did you have any idea of what it would become?

A I ran the first political campaign that leveraged Facebook. When I decided to run for student body president, I asked Mark if I could get my Facebook friends' list in the form of a spreadsheet, which I used to target dorms that had people who had connections to friends of mine. I ended up beating someone who was taller, better-looking and more popular than I was. So I was impressed with the potential of social media to influence democracy. But I don't think any of us fully realized how transformative social media would be -- except maybe Mark.

Follow this reporter at Twitter.com/BrandonBailey or google.com/+BrandonBaileyOnline or on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/ULIOfb

Matt Mahan
Title: CEO of Causes
Age: 31
Education: Bachelor's degree in social studies from Harvard, where he graduated magna cum laude
Career: After college, Mahan spent a one-year fellowship working on rural development projects in Bolivia and then two years with Teach For America as a teacher and soccer coach at Joseph George Middle School in Alum Rock. He was hired as vice president for nonprofit partnerships at Causes in 2008, rose to chief operating officer and became CEO in 2012.
Personal: Married, lives in San Francisco

five things about matt mahan:
1. He grew up in Watsonville, where his mother was a teacher and his father was a mail carrier, and later attended Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose.
2. Though he planned to attend law school, Mahan said he joined Causes after having dinner with Mark Zuckerberg and Causes co-founder Joe Green, who advised he could have more impact on the world by joining a tech company.
3. Mahan says his teaching stint made him a better CEO: "Managing a classroom of 35 middle-school students is really not all that different from managing a startup."
4. His wife, Silvia Mahan, is an attorney and co-founder of the online art and fashion site, Vividly.
5. In his spare time, Mahan enjoys hiking, cooking and gardening with his wife.