Petitioning Website Will No Longer Be As Progressive As You Once Thought

Feature  image via Will O’Neil.  

As I read Huffington Post’s coverage of the changes afoot at Change.org, I imagined the interoffice memo must have started with maniacal cackles or at least a puff of smoke. The leak showed that Change.org isn’t the happy, shiny company that so many of us believed. Apparently supporting progressives one petition at a time isn’t enough for the organization — at least not when it comes to power and their pocket books. In private emails between the CEO and his employees, Ben Rattray introduced the new business model. A business model that seems to go against the very values that made the company a success.

What do they stand for you might ask? From the petitions they featured, the stories they wrote and the B-Corp designation they so proudly boasted, I assumed they stood for rights. For progress. For helping the little guy get a fair chance when it came to fighting the big guy. I had naively assumed that they were happily carving their niche, amplifying partisan issues on the global stage reaching like-minded people that might not otherwise hear it.

While that may have been true beforehand, it doesn’t appear to be part of the new Change.org.

According to a Forbes piece from earlier this month, the company has been planning a redesign and the documents were merely the interoffice update. Rattray was planning on increasing transparency surrounding the company’s balance of social work and profit earning. The writer noted that, though the company is often presumed to be a non-profit organization, they made $15 million this year. As a for-profit company, any transparency should be welcomed when it comes to revealing Change.org’s earning structure. In addition to acknowledging the company’s success and growth, the writer also noted that the organization was at the crossroads plenty of tech firms face when politics are involved. “How do you expand your customer base when doing business with one faction makes you an enemy of the other? ”

Simple, you do business with both factions.

In the leaked memos, Rattray gives a vision of Change.org as a global platform to help everyone. He wants to make sure that all groups have equal opportunities to advertise with them and inspire change. Gee, that doesn’t sound too bad! What could be wrong with hearing from more people on all of their issues? According to Rattray’s FAQ, that means listening to a whole lot of opinions!

Republicans? Yes
Astroturfing campaigns? Corporations? Yes
Hate groups? If a large organization like the SPLC says they’re a hate group no, but otherwise yes
Anti-abortion? Pro-gun? Union-busting? Animal cruelty? Yes. “We are open to organizations that represent all points of view, including those with which we personally (and strongly) disagree.”

Ben Rattray Via Gabriela Hasaburn

Before Change.org’s revamp (complete with “amazing new visual design!”), the company’s Advertising Guidelines showed who was allowed to work with them.

We do not accept sponsored campaigns from organizations that consistently violate these values, support discriminatory policies, or seek private corporate benefit that undermines the common good.

Back then, the petitions splashed across the front page and linked to other petitions you did want weren’t merely paid advertisers, but groups that Change.org actively endorsed. Wounded Warrior Project, Oxfam, Women for Women and the Humane Society were all groups that Change.org was proud to work with. But staying true to their values and ignoring the siren call of money proved to be a bit too difficult for this B-Corp. Instead of sticking to their principles, they “created openness,” attempted to become neutral, relaxed their policies and wiped the slate. Oh, and used semantics to distance themselves from their own questionable content.

To make it clear that there will be no assumed endorsement by Change.org of the organizations sponsoring petitions on our platform, going forward we will call them advertisers, not “clients” or “partners.”

With this new Change.org openness, anyone is eligible to advertise with them for profit. So after you sign a petition for gay rights, women’s rights and all of the other pigeonholing partisan issues, you might find a link to a sponsored petition that you weren’t expecting. Get Me Back My Chick-Fil-A! Stop the Criminalization of Traditional Marriage! Get These Abortionists Out of My Wife’s Vagina! Even though we may see someone as a hate group, if they aren’t on the SPLC list then they’re perfectly eligible. And if you happen to sign that petition (I really hope you don’t), that advertiser gets your contact info and Change.org gets paid.

And although the company says they value transparency, they weren’t going to let you know about the change.

[W]e have no plans to proactively tell users about the new design or our new mission, vision, or advertising guidelines.

We are not planning proactive press outreach on the rebrand but are queuing up positive press profiles to launch around Oct. 22.

The company is having an overhaul with a massive policy change and won’t even let people know. In fact, the person that leaked the memo has since been fired for alerting the public although Change.org claims it had to do with business confidentiality instead of whistle-blowing. Consumers should be more proactive in reading Terms and Services, but I can’t fault them for not expecting this massive flip-flop.

I don’t want to completely crucify Change.org as we have seen that their petitions can make a difference, seem like they make a difference or at least raise awareness of an issue. The efficacy of online petitions is still debatable, but sometimes they’re the only resource available. We have linked to their petitions multiple times, but have also noted their system’s failure. The memo stated time and time again that these conservative, radical groups are expected to be a small proportion of their clientele, and I honest-to-goodness hope this is the case.

Given that the entire online petition system can be seen as a racket, we’ll see if messages hold any clout when Change.org is the intended recipient. Rival site Sign On, an actual not-for-profit, has a petition to re-instate the Change.org whistle-blower or get them a decent severance package. A few petitions on Change.org itself have popped up protesting the modification. Only time will tell whether Rattray truly values any of those signatures, but the protests from his own site won’t come unexpectedly.

We’re a petition website, after all. ;)

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Hailing from Vancouver, Kristen's still trying to figure out how to survive Montreal's Real Legitimate Canadian Winter. So far she's discovered that warm socks, giant toques and Tabby kittens all play a role in her survival. Her ultimate goal is to rank higher than KStew in the "Kristen + Autostraddle" Google Search competition.

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17 Comments

  1. Thumb up 4

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    This is upsetting. In that issues I oppose will get greater visibility, in that I’m going to have to be a more educated signer rather than assuming a change.org petition probably aligns with my values, and in that visibility is becoming ever more something that you pay for. I’ve felt guilty unsubscribing from their emails, but I think I’m going to go ahead and do that now.

    Also, does anyone else feel like there’s a parallel between this and the pay-for-promotion thing on facebook feeds?

  2. Thumb up 3

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    A while ago, I saw Ben on The Daily Show and he was touting Change.org because of some petition that had gone viral or done something really positive. My memory isn’t the greatest. However, I was pretty excited that people would be able to collectively make a difference because it was the first petition site I’d been aware of. This is just disheartening. Money over morals always is.

  3. Thumb up 0

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    This is why we can’t have nice things. :/
    Seriously, just once I would love for the good guys to be motivated completely by doing good, and not have a profit in mind.

    • Thumb up 3

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      I would be delighted if autostraddle made a profit! And if it turns out that change.org is going to use the additional funds to increase their effectiveness, I’ll mind a lot less, but I’m doubtful that they will.

  4. Thumb up 1

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    It’s interesting how their name uses the word “change” yet they are happy to work with organizations that are so horribly against improvement, progress, and change.

  5. Thumb up 0

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    SOoo… not do be a debbie downer but in my opinion these changes are okay. Isn’t being openminded about accepting everyone, and everyones beliefs even if they contradict your own? Change.org is a tool, shouldn’t it be used by anyone who wants change? People have different ideas of what change is necessary to our country, and that’s okay. Yes, even if there are people who are going to try and create change different then from what you want.

    Keep in mind that there are people from the other side of the politcal spectrum who feel just as strongly about change.org being too liberal.
    Also, it is a buisness, People work for it and improving it’s profits may lead to more jobs. I don’t think that making a point that people of all ideologies can use it is unethical. If change.org started going out of its way to support hate grous that would be different. It’s just treating all of it’s consumers equally.
    Overall, I feel like the idea of hearing other ideas is frightening for people and that is the real issue with change.orgs changes(hey, a pun!.) I have a feeling I’m going to recieve a lot of hate for this… I hope we can post our opinions and keep arguments professional instead of dissolving into a flamewar.

    • Thumb up 11

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      I strongly disagree. As Rose argued so eloquently in her recent article on the anti-gay appointee to the Annoka-Hennepin anti-bullying committee, not all opinions are created equal, and being fair and ok openminded does not require that certain extreme beliefs be treated as valid. Also, change.org is not a public broadcaster, they have no obligation to represent both sides. They were created to facilitate progressive change, and I wish they’d stick to that.

    • Thumb up 3

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      Don’t worry, I know the ingredients to a flame war and you haven’t used any of those keywords.

      I realize they are a company that has to make money, but I feel weird that they want to remain neutral on all issues. When it comes to something as personal and political as a petition over injustices, I don’t quite understand how a company can take a “neutral” stance. Both parties definitely have a right to be heard, but I find it weird that they’re trying to stay out of the debate.

      Steven Biel from another epetition site wrote a fantastic piece once the news broke http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steven-biel/you-cant-be-neutral-on-a-_b_2007264.html

  6. Thumb up 2

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    Wow this is all so interesting! I had heard of change.org before but never knew very much about them. I’m really looking forward to checking out all of the links in this article and seeing how these new policies affect the site!
    It’s always so disheartening when people compromise values fo money :( it seems really sketchy that thy didn’t intend to inform people about these changes.

  7. Thumb up 7

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    The liberal in me wants to say, “sure let all views be heard, whats the worst that can happen,” but the totalitarian in me wants to say “LET THERE BE NO DISSENT,” and then the liberal in me says, “oh right that’s the worst that could happen”

    Mostly I just wish money wasn’t involved. If they were a non-profit they could credibly claim that being a platform for ALL views was one of their values.

    • Thumb up 4

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      The liberal in me definitely says all voices should be heard. And that’s the problem with allowing all voices to be heard on something like this – the corporate voices are already heard, they don’t need another outlet for, say, fake petitions and obfuscation. Ditto for the right-wingers – you can see them in the mainstream newspapers, or on the news, or hear them on the radio, and they’re all over the internet…

      Hearing all the voices doesn’t mean that every outlet needs to include every voice, because that’s clearly not the case anyway.

  8. Thumb up 0

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    Reading this article is very dishearrtening, especially as a person who has an active petition on that Change.org website, since early May of this year. THis article (and another like it also reporting thse things about Change.org) have planted doubts in my mind not only about Change.org, but about any petition site. But I know that my petition is needed and that I have no good options, it looks like, for what platform I will use for it. I think that many people will not sign petitions because they are aware that thse things go on and not just with CHange.org. Sad.

  9. Thumb up 1

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    Pro-gun here. Feeling kinda down about being tossed in with the “these are generally the bad guys” examples… :(

    I haven’t been subscribed to Change.org in forever, they were sending me too many emails.

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