Change.org did all it could to persuade people that it was no ordinary business.
From its dot.org domain name to its declaration that “our business is social good” to its certification as a B Corporation, Change.org positioned itself as a progressive force. It promised to run campaigns for “organizations fighting for the public good and the common values we hold dear—fairness, equality, and justice.” That’s no longer its mission.
And therein lies a story that has stirred up a brouhaha on the left, exposed the company’s business model — which depends more on selling advertising than promoting change–and cast doubt on the faddish but fuzzy notion of what it means to be a “social enterprise” or a “social entrepreneur.”
You’ve heard of Change.org, right? It’s a popular and fast-growing website for petitions, some of which have packed a wallop. By collecting signatures and media attention, Change.org helped persuade Bank of America to roll back debit card fees, stirred up outrage when a Target worker described how predawn black Friday sales ruined employees’ Thanksgiving and got editors at Seventeen to agree not to use photoshopped models in the magazine.
“In the past two years, Change.org has grown from 1 million to more than 20 million users, and we’re now growing by more than 2 million new users a month,” its founder, Ben Rattray, wrote in the Huffington Post, which broke the story of the changes at change.org. Stanford grad Rattray is a digitial media darling: He was recently named to FORTUNE’s 40 under 40 list of rising business stars, and Time earlier anointed him one of the world’s 100 most influential people, which is ridiculous, of course, but that’s another story.
Change.org began as a liberal blogging site and then pivoted, as they say in Silicon Valley, to become a hub for petitions, mostly with a liberal or populist bent. Troubles arose last summer, though, when Change.org came under pressure from labor unions and their allies to drop two clients, including former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee’s Students First and Stand for Children, an advocacy group led by Jonah Edelman, the son of liberal stalwarts Marion Wright Edelman and Peter Edelman. A petition on a competing, non-profit site called SignOn.org demanded that Change.org Stop Supporting Union Busters. Change.org first said it would end its contract with Rhee’s group but, after a review of its guidelines, chose to continue to work with StudentsFirst.
Deciding who’s fighting for “fairness, equality and justice” turns out to be no simple matter.
“It’s nearly impossible to define in a way that’s consistent and scalable as we grow globally,” said Brianna Cato-Cotter, a Change.org spokesman, when I called.
True enough. Just in my own sphere of expertise–the environment–there’s robust debate about low-carbon but risky nuclear power, GMOs that increase agricultural productivity but lead to superweeds, fracking natural gas which displaces coal but competes with renewable energy. A commitment to “fairness, equality and justice” won’t settle those arguments.
Last month, Change.org deleted the reference to “fairness, equality and justice” from its advertising guidelines, and has become an open platform, like Google or Facebook. In theory at least,organizations opposing abortion, supporting guns or calling climate change a hoax are welcome to come aboard. It’s all about empowerment now, and not progressive causes.
Here’s how Rattray put it: “We aim to empower people everywhere to create the change they want to see. And to do that, we can’t be advocates with a policy agenda ourselves.”
So what’s going on here, and what does it mean?
The cynic would say it’s all about money. “They needed to continue to grow and selling you out was the only way they could do it” is how one critic put it.. This is where Change.org’s business model comes into play. Change.org sells what are called “sponsored petitions” to its advertisers. Most are nonprofits–right now they include Amnesty International USA, Greenpeace and the Human Rights Campaign — but there’s nothing to prevent companies from sponsoring petitions. Tapping into its audience, Change.org collects names on those petitions and then sells those who opt in to the sponsor, for about $2 per name. Some advertisers get discounts, and other pay more, for example, for people in specific states.
Put simply, Change.org is a digital media business. Like MTV or The New Yorker or Facebook, Change.org creates or aggregates content, i.e. petitions, to attract an audience whose attention, in the form of email addresses, it sells to sponsors.
It’s not selling social change. It’s selling you and me.
There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. I’ve made a living for years, and still do, from media.
But Change.org doesn’t want to be seen as a business. Here, again, is Rattray:
“…while we have the structure of a company, we have the mission of a nonprofit. We’ve made it clear that our goal is impact, not profit…”
Change.org calls itself a “social enterprise,” a term that’s gotten a lot of traction among people who start companies and want to make a difference in the world. Not concidentally, Stanford and its environs are probably the global headquarters of the “social enterprise” movement.
But social enterprise as opposed to what? Anti-social enterprise?
Aren’t most entrepreneurs “social entrepreneurs.” Henry Ford wanted to put a car in every garage. Bill Gates wanted a computer on every desk. Sergey Brin and Larry Page want to organize the world’s information. Mark Zuckerberg wants to connect us. Heck, a pal of mine owns dry cleaning stores, and he wants to clean people’s clothes at a fair price. Isn’t he a “social entrepreneur,” too? A company that doesn’t make a difference in the world is a company that won’t be around for long.
Change.org surely want to make a difference in the world. Since we can’t read Ben Rattray’s mind, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say the new open platform is an attempt to scale up the company and give it global impact. That’s fine. Every company wants to get bigger, have a bigger impact and make more money. As Brianna told me, Change.org decided to structure itself as a business rather than a nonprofit because, “by not relying on foundations, governments or individuals for contributions, we can quickly an sustainably scale our services to reach people all over the world.” Change.org won’t disclose the names of its investors but they are, she said, “mission-driven” and not conventional venture capitalists.
In any event, I’ve got no quarrel with Change.org’s open platform. Maybe it will help the company grow. Maybe it will prove a mistake, alienating its core of progressive supporters. Whatever.
But please, on behalf of companies everywhere with a strong sense of purpose as well as my pal who owns the dry cleaners: Spare us the pieties about how “our business is social good.”