Change.org: agent for good or profit?

Some time in early 2015 some members of our local community group, Lockyer Community Action Inc. organised a petition on Change.org for a campaign we were running.

At the time those who set it up, and some of those who signed on to our petition, expressed some concern about the apparently money-oriented nature of the interaction.

At the time I recognised the feeling of unease about the way, some time after I’d signed a petition I’d frequently get an email with a message like:

You signed this petition. Help it reach 25,000 signatures.
Share this petition
or promote it by contributing $5 or more

Over the intervening couple of years that feeling has increased, but it’s only today that I finally decided to do something about it.  I googled “what is change.org?” and got a range of views on the organisation, with probably the majority pointing out that it is a “for-profit” organisation, rather than the “not-for-profit” that many people assume (a misunderstanding which the Change organisation doesn’t seem to do much to counteract).

Ben Rattray founded Change.org in 2007 and in 2010 it adopted its current petition mode.  Since then it has become one of the biggest sites on the Web for anyone seeking to pressure politicians, corporations or others with a public shame campaign.

How does it make its money?  According to Forbes.com in 2012, “Change.org charges groups for the privilege of sponsoring petitions that are matched to users who have similar interests. For example, when a person signs a petition about education and clicks “submit,” a box pops up and shows five sponsored petitions on education to also sign. If a user leaves a box checked that says “Keep me updated on this campaign and others,” the sponsor can then send e-mails directly to that person. It’s not clear from the check box that your e-mail address is being sold to a not-for-profit.”

And, or course, then there are the $5 donations that users are asked to provide to help promote the cause they signed up for.  I’ve always thought that was a bit strange.  You are in the business of helping people to create effective petitions and to spread them to a wide audience, so why do you need a $5 donation from me to make it more effective – and how will you do it?  That’s never explained.

The Forbes.com article in 2012 said that at that time Change.org had 300 paying clients, including Sierra Club, Credo Wireless and Amnesty International.

On their website Change.org explain that the business “is a social enterprise and a certified B Corporation. B Corporations are held to high standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency set by B Lab, an independent certifying group.”

They also publish a list of ways in which they make their money.  But I bet you never saw a link to that information on one of their web pages asking you to donate to promote a petition.

The Widipedia entry on B Corporations and their certification points out that “The B-Lab certification is a third party standard requiring companies to meet social sustainability and environmental performance standards, meet accountability standards, and to be transparent to the public according to the score they receive on the assessment. B-Lab certification applies to the whole company across all product lines and issue areas. For-profits of all legal business structures are eligible for certification.”

Read that last sentence again.

Soooo … have I changed my feeling of unease about Change.org’s business model?  No, but I now have a clearer understanding of what it is.

Will I continue to sign Change.org petitions?  Yes, when it is something that I feel is important and after I have carefully examined the petition and the body behind it and am comfortable that it is not “green-washing” of something unacceptable.

Will I “donate” (=pay) Change.org to promote a petition I have signed.  No.  Never have and never will.  But I won’t judge you if you do, because I think that there are trade-offs involved in so many of the social and commercial transactions we all have to make every day, and we each have the right to make our own judgements.

 

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