All change at Change.org?

I like Change.org. Everyone likes Change.org. It’s about harnessing the power of the internet to empower citizens and help them push for stuff they mind about – everything, as they say, from “supporting curbside recycling programs to fighting wrongful deportation to protecting against anti-gay bullying”. So why is my Facebook feed suddenly full of people accusing them of (for example) “leaving behind values to chase the dollar bills”? Over to the Huffington Post:

Change.org, the online social movement company founded on progressive values, has decided to change its advertising policy to allow for corporate advertising, Republican Party solicitations, astroturf campaigns, anti-abortion or anti-union ads and other controversial sponsorships, according to internal company documents.

Change.org currently operates under a values-based client policy, only accepting advertisements from progressive organizations that share its values. The new policy will be closer to “a Google-like open advertising policy in which determinations about which advertisements we’ll accept are based on the content of the ad, not the group doing the advertising,” according to a company FAQ sent to staff.

So what gives? Has Change.org really just tipped overnight to inviting ads from corporate polluters, the National Rifle Association, puppy torturers and other undesirables?

Here’s how Change.org currently works. Most of its petitions are posted by individuals, using free tools. No money changes hands. Companies can use these tools to post petitions too, again for free – like this. But companies, NGOs and other organisations can also decide to pay for a petition. For this, they get profile on the site, through their petition popping up in front of users who’ve just signed a petition about something else. Today, the only organisations allowed to do that are ones that Change.org deems progressive. And that’s what’s about to change.

Here’s their CEO explaining the rationale for change in an email to staff (likewise leaked to Huffington Post – see also the full FAQ that Change.org produced for its staff):

“[W]e as an organization have transitioned from an American cause-based organizing network with a largely progressive agenda into a global platform open to a wider diversity of participants and perspectives. Yet the honest reality is that we haven’t fully made this transition. At least in the US, we still often see things through a traditional partisan progressive lens, and over the past couple months it’s become clear that we have a choice: we can continue to try to have it both ways and risk getting pigeonholed into being a partisan organization with a particular agenda and limited audience, or we can break out of this mold and aspire to something much bigger –- to true empowerment everywhere.”

OK. I can see why you’d want to empower all citizens, everywhere, without attempting to impose agendas on them from above. But the bit I struggle with is why it logically follows that Change.org should also want to empower any company or lobby group that wants to advertise on the site. These are, after all, two very different theories of change. Using the web to help citizens aggregate their voices is about people power; adverts are about dollar power. Free petitions are open to anyone who can energise and inspire; adverts are open to those that can afford them. You can want to empower the little guy, or you can want to empower everyone – but if you’re genuinely not fussed about who you empower or what they’re trying to achieve, then what is it that you actually stand for?

Change.org’s answer to this is that big companies or lobby groups are “powerful with or without us” – but that by taking their money, Change.org can spend it on things like its campaign support team, which is all about “helping the users of our free platform win, and highlighting examples of the most inspiring campaigns”. I think this is a cop-out. Change.org may not be able to change whether particular companies or lobby groups are powerful or not, but it can clearly make a decision about whether or not to sell them access to its users.

In the absence of a clearer explanation of the new policy (or what was wrong with the old one), many have concluded that it’s just about the money. Here for instance is US political blogger Aaron Krager:

You cannot offer people an effective tool for social change when opposing forces use it again you. Offering organizations this tool to fight against women’s rights and simultaneously keep a pro-choice group is beyond crazy. This is like giving a person a hammer to drive in a nail while giving another person that is trying to take the nail out a hammer as well. There is no theory of change with this newly proposed open platform. It is a money grab. Pure and simple. Progressive organizations should abandon Change.org just as the company abandoned them by selling out.

But actually, having spent several hours today and yesterday debating back and forth over Twitter, Facebook and email with Change.org staff, I’m inclined to give them more of the benefit of the doubt than that. I think they genuinely believe they’re doing the right thing. And they are adamant that it’s not about the money. Here’s an excerpt from an email they sent me yesterday:

We didn’t even consider the prospect of additional revenue when taking this decision … Money categorically didn’t drive this decision.

Of course, that assurance still leaves the question: in that case, why not simply drop paid-for adverts altogether, and only have free petitions on the site? Better still, why not say that only individuals (and not organisations) are allowed to post them? That would be a theory of change focused on the little guy.

Answer: because then Change.org would cease to exist. Here’s another excerpt from the same email:

We’re proud of our status as a mission-driven social enterprise, and our revenue model allows us to be financially self-sustaining and independent of foundations or corporations, while growing rapidly to serve tens of millions of users. It’s all explained in detail here. Obviously, we can’t just ditch our revenue model. Advertising in the form of sponsored petitions is how we generate our revenue. It’s what makes our core, free service possible, and it’s crucial to our sustainability and growth.

So while money may not have been the main driver of their decision, the paragraph above makes it clear that it must have been a factor in their thinking. Only a bunch of idiots would fail to think through what any new policy, especially one as far-reaching as this, would mean for their core business model.

With the benefit of hindsight, I think Change.org would have been much better off admitting to users that financial considerations were at least part of the calculus, though maybe not in the way cynics thought – and then having a frank conversation with them about the pros and cons of the proposed change, including whether the upside of having a campaigns support team is worth the downside of accepting paid-for content from anyone who can afford it.

Still, it’s not too late to start having that conversation – which is of course what they’ve ended up doing over the last 24 hours. And although I suspect that some of their staff probably feel a bit bruised by some of the invective hurled their way, they should take the heatedness of the debate as a big compliment too. It shows they’ve built something that people love.