Change Dot Biz
Feb 28, 2012 Clay Johnson

update: Change.org responded. See below.

I've written a whole lot about how petitions aren't very effective much, I think, to the offense of some of my colleagues in Washington. My post last year, originally titled "online petitions are a sham" drew quite the conversation -- though it was lost in the transition of this blog from infovegan.com to informationdiet.com. One thing I didn't point out though was why the tactic keeps getting used, and why people are so attached to a practice that, more often than not, gets beaten by a few good lobbyists.[1]

The answer?

Money. Petitions are a big business. Multi-million dollar businesses are set up to create petitions, collect lists and raise funds. While the petition might not be the best way to actually make Congress move, they are the best way to lure an internet user into handing over their personal information, so that you can receive additional messages asking you for funds. It's lead-gen for social change.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, for instance, is running a laughable petition to stop citizens united. But if you think about this critically for a second, you'd understand that the DSCC is the official party committee, run by Democratic Senators, to re-elect democratic senators. If those Democratic Senators were truly against citizens united, what do they need petition signatures for in the first place? What's the DSCC's function? Fundraising. Petitions are big money.

And nobody's making more money from online petitions than Change.org. I wonder how many people visiting a change.org petition know that despite its dot-org name, the organization is a for-profit lead generation business. Just take a look at their partners page, and you'll see what they do:

Budget Friendly Cost Per Acquisition

Here's the thing: I don't have a problem with this practice as long as its transparent to the user. But in this case, I think Change.org is being deliberately deceitful through the use of the change.org name. I'd suspect that the average change.org user does not know that Change.org is a for-profit corporation, and that the corporation plans on using the contact information being provided to them to earn revenue.

Just how big is Change.org? They've got a staff of nearly 100, and they're hiring like crazy.

Look, I respect aligning a businesses interests with social change. I think that's important, and awesome and more businesses should develop great models like the one Change.org has. Care2.com, for instance, does the same thing, and I have no problem with it. They're not pretending to be a non-profit. Change.org, Inc. is marketing itself as Change.org, with barely an allusion to being a for-profit corporation anywhere when it calls itself a "certified B corporation" on its About page. This isn't right.

Industrialized media is a big problem I talk about in The Information Diet. But industrialized activism might be even bigger. As change.org grows up and gets big, what happens when fiduciary responsibility comes into play? What happens when Change.org needs to continue its growth -- will they run A/B tests on the headlines of petitions to sensationalize them and increase the click-through rates? What happens when they get bought? What happens when the focus is on revenue rather than on change?

That's easy. It says right here in the privacy policy:

In the event that the Company is involved in a bankruptcy, merger, acquisition, reorganization or sale of assets, your information may be sold or transferred as part of that transaction. The promises in this Privacy Policy will apply to your information as transferred to the new entity.

All of this isn't clear to the user, and by using the .org domain and by not branding yourself at all as a for-profit corporation, the user's expectation is different than giving their email address and contact information over to a start-up. Change.org needs to change.

Change.org: Please change your name. Change your marketing practices. Stop deceiving people into thinking you're something that you're not. Own up to being a for-profit. Put it on every page on the new Change.biz. Make sure every page on change.biz has a "How we make money" link on it. Use that page to be clear with people about how you make money.

By not being fully transparent about your business practices, and by using the .org domain you're being deliberately deceitful. You're tricking people. You and all the people that work for you know better, and can do better.

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Change.org's Response

I’m Director of Communications at Change.org. Mostly, I work with people who created petitions on our website to help them tell their stories to the press and win their campaigns. But there’s a lot to unpack here, so I wanted to take a moment to respond. Rather than respond point by point, allow me to outline as clearly and succinctly as possible what Change.org is actually about: our mission, our business model, and our brand.

First, Change.org’s mission is to empower anyone, anywhere to start, join and win campaigns around the issues that matter to them. Our revenue serves this mission, not the other way around. We try to generate enough revenue to maximize our impact, not our profits. That’s why we reinvest our profits back into the organization to hire organizers, technologists, and media people like me, all of whom focus on advancing the mission. If our goal was to maximize profits, we wouldn’t spend so much money on helping people win campaigns against, for example, deportation and foreclosure. Our mission focus is why we’re certified as a B Corporation, which is a new kind of company specifically envisioned to let businesses pursue social goals, rather than profit. (More on that here

Second, our business model. We’re lucky to have found one that is genuinely mission-aligned: working with social change organizations to make them stronger. As noted here, partner organizations can sponsor campaigns on the site. When a Change.org user sees a sponsored petition, s/he can choose whether to receive emails from the sponsoring organization. We have teams of campaign strategists and engineers that put a lot of work into effective matchmaking, so that people find organizations they’ll be excited about, and organizations find members who believe in their work. It’s positive for everyone involved, and for the world-changing work that our partners do.

Third: our brand. Change.org was actually conceived as a non-profit, but incorporated as a B Corp in order to scale and maximize impact. The .org domain speaks to our mission, rather than our tax status--similar to Craigslist.org, which also focuses on providing a public service. We don’t try to hide our what we do (on our site or in the press). We agree, though, that we could get a lot better at explaining it--and, in fact, we’ve been working on that recently, in ways that should bear fruit in the near future. We’ve experienced an amazing surge recently--we’re growing by more than a million users and 10,000 user-generated petitions a month, and often winning multiple victories a day--and we’ve been scrambling just to keep the site up. Happily, we’re now reaching a scale where enough people have noticed our existence that we should invest some time and energy on telling our story.


My comment: I look forward to seeing how Change.org is working on being "better at explaining" their business model to users. Hopefully they will do so soon. It seems simple enough to me -- if they're not willing to change their name to the more appropriate change.biz, they should:

  1. add the words "for-profit" between the word "a" and "social action platform" at the bottom of their pages where it describes what Change.org is.
  2. Add a "what we do with your information" link to everywhere petition form appears on the site, and that link should go to a page that's written in plain english that describes how Change.org is making money when people sign petitions. This should be in addition to the "terms of service" on the petition pages now that are neither in plain english nor describe what is happening to the user.
  3. Hire a "user ombudsman" who has a seat at the table with organizing staff that makes sure that the people signing petitions are represented inside of Change.org when organizing campaigns are happening.
  4. Continually find new ways to make it clear that Change.org is a for-profit entity that has an economic incentive to get people to sign petitions.

1: Yes, I know SOPA beat back the lobbyists. But SOPA also had some good lobbyists at the table, and it had an enormous, anomalous level of public support. No cause has ever gotten the benefit of a blacked out wikipedia and a message on the front page of Google before.

Information Diet © 2011 Clay Johnson