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Change.org sells out progressive movement

Yesterday Jeff Bryant, Aaron Krager and Ryan Grim (of HuffPo) broke a big story about a complete "rebranding" of Change.org complete with leaked internal documents. Matt Browner Hamlin also has a good piece on ideology. If you haven't heard about this yet I'd encourage you to read their stories first as I wanted to dive into a key point here: money.

Many of you helped build their business, so there are three important takeaways from this story:
1. They built this off your backs and it wasn't enough for them. This couldn't originate on the conservative side and it wouldn't have succeeded in the way that it has if it was non-partisan from the beginning.

2. The only way this works for them financially is if they start hiring campaigners to run conservative campaigns working counter to everything we believe.

3. Take action (below)

But let's start at the beginning below the fold.

I've been around long enough to have witnessed the early days of Change.org. In fact I can recall having coffee at a cafe in SF's Castro neighborhood with Ben Rattray early on. And it's been about money since day 1. Ben was really excited by what he saw with models like Living Social's ability to turn email addresses into cash and he wanted to do the same for social change.

How they built their brand on progressive values
There have been several iterations of the change.org offering. But the one that ultimately succeeded, what you see today, is based on the effort of a great group of progressive organizers that Ben has hired. The staff ranks have swelled to well over 100 people and the majority of that staff are organizers. Ben invested a lot of resources in hiring these organizers by paying them very handsomely and poaching many of them from other organizations within the progressive movement.

As everyone who works in online organizing knows, a petition without a campaign behind it is worthless. Any site that merely offers its users the ability to "take action" isn't going to hang around long when those users realize they aren't actually accomplishing anything.

So these organizers work in issue areas and started working on getting wins for each issue. Most of them were really small at first, but they grew to be larger and more substantial wins over time. That's a testament to the people who work there, most of whom are very talented.

But what that did for the company is it made it an attractive place for activists to take action. They knew that if they came up with an idea that started taking off then the staff would get involved and help them win. So success and media coverage brought more and more progressive users to the platform.

And Change.org was widely accepted as a progressive organization, walked the walk and presented itself as such.

How the money is made
Outlets like online magazines, Daily Kos, Google and Facebook make money by monetizing eyeballs, and it's what we traditionally think of as advertising. An advertiser thinks they have an attractive demographic and they pay some amount of money to reach them with advertising messages. If the message is poorly targeted or contrary to the beliefs of the readers they simply ignore it. The advertiser wastes the money and the media company prospers.

Change.org would very much like for you to think of them in this way. Internal documents show they changed their agreements very deliberately from "clients" and "partners" to "advertisers."

But they're not selling eyeballs. They're monetizing political action. When they brought on a "client" or "partner" previously they would sell them email addresses starting at about $1.75 an email address or more if you wanted geotargeted addresses. This was a pretty good deal for large progressive organizations that could afford email acquisition because the names were pretty good, the people that signed petitions at change.org were very engaged in the issues.

Greed sets in
At some point Change.org started working with Michelle Rhee's group Students First as early as March 2011. And that was very profitable for them. I don't have exact figures but I have heard they were one of the biggest if not the biggest client they had. This landed them in hot water with many labor activists and there was an extended public battle and a private battle on listservs about this.

Eventually change.org claimed they were dropping Rhee's groups and Ryan Grim reported on that in March 2012. But they didn't cancel the contracts, they said at the time that the contracts had to expire and no one was given any details or assurances as to when that was going to happen.

I'm quite sure this would have been a big blow to them financially. Today's Change.org employs well over 100 people many of them paid six figure salaries and has fancy offices in at least 3 cities (to say nothing of their international operation) and flies the entire staff to retreats in Virginia. They are a for-profit company and they've reportedly been seeking VC money which comes with strings and the need to make even more money.

Fast forward to July 2012 and this excerpt from a leaked Ben Rattray email.

During this time, we 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 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.

As we discussed this over the weekend, the path that has the chance of maximizing our positive impact, and therefore our goal, became clear. Our goal isn’t to become the world’s largest progressive advocacy organization. Instead, it’s to become a ubiquitous global platform that becomes a fundamental part of the infrastructure of civil society around the world, radically democratizing access to power for hundreds of millions of people. And if that’s our aspiration, we have to start backing up that language with our actions.

Then in a September 2012 email Rattray finally outlines a mission and vision statement that would neatly fit with this agenda.

So after this heated exchange with some activists and a public blow up they decided that it was time to leave progressives behind because it was threatening their business model. They needed to continue to grow and selling you out was the only way they could do it.

Campaigns, back to the money
If you've read any of the spin coming from the Change.org camp you'll notice that they exclaim that nothing will change with campaigns. They also claim that this isn't about money and they just want to bring change everywhere.

The only reason to radically alter your sponsorship policies in a way that risk alienating a large percentage of your user base is if you feel there's money in it. And how does Change make money? Selling email addresses.

Well currently I don't think they have too many conservative email addresses for say people advocating for anti-abortion issues. Anyone can in theory start a petition there but the platform has been branded as progressive since its existence.

The way that you build a conservative audience that conservative groups are then interested in buying at $1.75 an email is to run campaigns.

Our friends that work there probably wouldn't be on board for these campaigns, but they will hire new people the same as any bipartisan firm would do. Those people will run campaigns.

And at least initially they'll be seeding that business, running campaigns that are counter to everything you believe, by hiring and paying those people with money they received by selling your emails.

This comes from their leaked "rebranding FAQ":

We'll probably end up working with advertisers who have opposing views. Will we set up firewalls between client strategists working with opposing clients?
We'll be adult about this and figure it out together. No one will be forced to work with an advertiser with which they don't feel comfortable, and we'll continue to embrace a culture of diversity and openness to different points of view.

Will we be hiring people with different political views to serve new advertisers?
We will continue to hire the best people in the world regardless of their political orientation. We will strive to ensure current and new staff identify with our mission of empowering people everywhere to create the change they want to see and contribute to a strong, positive company culture. This includes a commitment to Change.org's values, a desire to empower incredibly diverse people (most of all the disempowered), and a global perspective.

It's important to note that this is about Change.org the business not the people that work there, many of whom I have great respect for. I feel really bad for them to get caught up in something like this and can only hope they can either isolate themselves from this or find employment at an organization more deserving of their talents.

Take action
1. If you're a member at Change.org take action by unsubscribing from their list. At the very least they can't profit further off your email.

2. If you see petitions passed around by friends on Change.org don't sign them and inform them what's going on.

3. Explore alternatives that include MoveOn's SignOn.org tool and Care2.