Perhaps not the Change.org we need

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.”

Comments

  1. an interesting viewpoint and expose, marc. No company has had more impact on bottom of the pyramid Kenyans that MPesa-Safari cellphones, and they have no particular mission that i know of. they just provide cellphone calls and money transfers really cheap. The good thing about social entrepreneurship is that it forces socially-minded companies to design products that people actually want, at a price they can afford. But what happens if they succeed, that is a whole new chapter.

  2. Marc Gunther says:

    Several people have commented (privately) that my critique of social enterprises oversimplifies a rich, complex field. Perhaps so. I will take a closer look at B Corps before long–at least that concept benefits from having clear criteria and rules (and yes, change.org was certified as a B Corps). I think what I am really resisting is the notion that “business” is by definition in some way a lower form of species than a “social enteprise” or a nonprofit. I think they are all driven by incentives, and should be judged on what they do, not what they call themselves or their legal structure.

    • I agree with your business v. nonprofit/social enterprise concern, Marc. At one level, both are fundamentally organizations whose purpose is to create value, with the former serving goods and services to those who can pay for them* and the latter serving those who cannot (and therefore require third-party payers).

      I do, however, think there is a reasonable argument to be made that public and nonprofit sector organizations have some virtue advantage, as 1) their work tends to serve those who are most needy and least able to help themselves, and 2) they tend to do this work under harder (more resource-constrained, less financially remunerative) circumstances than in the private sector.

      But that said, I don’t believe this advantage is uniformly true (contrary examples abound), nor should it devalue private business as (if run properly and ethically) a force for good.

      * I think it worth remembering that the purpose of business is to create value, with profits being the reward for doing so. (Consider how many businesses ultimately get punished when, in the pursuit of profits, they forget the value-creation part.) There is no end of private businesses that create massive, life-enhancing value for broad populations.

  3. Lewis E. Ward says:

    Thanks Marc. I had an uncomfortable when I signed on with Change.org similar to the feeling I get when dealing with MoveOn.org’s having an opt out rather than opt in function. I suppose I try to avoid being considered a “mark” by anyone. Reality is too complex to be a simple data set.

  4. This article is oversimplification and worse yet, it ignores some important truths.

    First it is really quite true that the concept of Change.org means they must avoid advocacy (aka taking positions) if they they really feel that their mission is to provide a PLATFORM. And btw even the critic writing this article does not dispute that the platform is a social good.

    Second, how they structure themselves is not a conflict. You cannot in the one breath tell businesses that they should do social good directly within their business – and the the next breath tell a social organiation that they should avoid a for-profit business model.

    Besides which, et’s be honest Marc, I have read your pages for a while and personally I’d estimate that a good number pretty cynical greenwashing buisnesses get a free pass in these pages. It’s hard to understand why it is necessary to hassle a social change organization that regardless of its corporate structure is putting modern media platforms to good social use.

    It’s not where there heart is that I’d question. Its where yours is….

  5. Warren Goldstein says:

    Marc–

    I’m not sure you saw this piece on the Huffington Post by your godson (and my son) Isaac Luria, analyzing Change.org from the perspective of an activist who’s worked closely with them.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/isaac-luria/changes-at-changeorg_b_2030631.html

  6. Marc Gunther says:

    @Warren, thanks, I just read Isaac’s essay, very good, and he smartly analyzes the potential and limits on the online organizing model:

    “At its worst, this model provides a feel-good way to say you’re doing something about a serious injustice and then avoid some of the sacrifice, time, and energy it takes to make real social change. It might feel good to see yourself as a part of the millions outraged by the Trayvon Martin shooting, but without systemic action to overturn state-based “Stand Your Ground” laws or to try to implement real gun control, there will be more Trayvons.

    At its best, the model can finally do what online organizing has not yet been able to do effectively and at scale, which is empower a broad spectrum of people with the online tools to run campaigns they care about in their communities and to infuse local community organizing efforts with the energy of those actions.”

    @Sam, I’m not hassling change.org which by the way is a business as well as what you called a “social change organization.” I think what they are doing is OK although, as Isaac points out in his essay, they are guilty of a “bait and switch: “Change.org billed their company as progressive, built a massive list and important partnership with many progressive organizations with that as their pitch, and now they want to change the policy.” Mostly, though, I’m being critical of their holier-than-thou rhetoric.

    @Farron, good points, the question of what the purpose of a business is, versus the purpose of a nonprofit, is an interesting one. If I have a bias, it is that I don’t privilege one over the other. Those who do should keep in mind that without the wealth generated by businesses, there would be no non-profit sector. So if you love nonprofitss (or work for one), you can’t really be anti-business.

    • Fallacy Alert:
      “..Those who do should keep in mind that without the wealth generated by businesses, there would be no non-profit sector.. – Marc Gunther.”

      Actually Marc, non-profits organizations do not instrinsically have to reply on for profit businesss. Non-profits can generate money or donations in kind from individuals, the can also conduct their own commercial activity. And not least there are these things called worker-owned cooperatives eg this one ( http://www.johnlewispartnership.co.uk/ ) which is one of the largest retailers in the UK. Or customer-owned cooperatives, eg this one ( http://www.co-operative.coop/corporate/aboutus/ourbusinesses/) which is one of the UK largest retailers as well.

      We do not all need to pray at the altar of unbridled greed for profits at all cost. Please dont falsel present this as a “must” – it is not true at all. And it is the root of the problem in the US.

      • Marc Gunther says:

        With all due respect, Sam, where do you think the “money or donations in kind from individuals” come from? And yes, nonprofits can “conduct their own commercial activity,” i.e., operate a business. Even customer-owned retailers like REI need to generate profits, or if you prefer, surpluses so that they can grow and open new stores, hire new people, etc.

        I share your disdain for “unbridled greed” although I suspect neither of us could define what that means, but bridled greed — that is, regulated capitalism — has proven to be the greatest anti poverty program the world has ever known, as well as the foundation upon which the government and nonprofit sector rest.

        • “Bridled greed” and “regulated capitalism” are not one and the same.

          Regulation gives you a starting point for defining what is socially beneficial framework, but it is not the be-all and end-all. You only have to look at what is going on with corporate tax protests eg Uk Uncut, to realize that companies cannot merely hide behind compliance with legal frameworks (which by the way they hijack and rig via bribery – sorry “lobbying”) to be able to meet the goal of sustainability.

          I dont have any problem with commercial business. What I object to is the idea that we must define “business” as only the type of organizations that subscribe to greed as a defining purpose. This is a fallacy that we must get beyond. Business can be operated with BOTH profit and social good as dual objectives- which is what Change.org is doing. Why are you slamming them for it?

          Last but not, least donations of money from people dont come from profits – they also come from personal income and wages ie…pre-profit. So you can run a non profit organization or a commercial business with zero profit and cash can still come out of that activity that is donated to other charity or non-profit. You want to talk about finances, you gotta be accurate.

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