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Change.org Changing: Site To Drop Progressive Litmus Test For Campaigns, Say Internal Documents (UPDATE)

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Ben Rattray, Change.org's founder and CEO | Getty Images

Read Change.org founder Ben Rattray's response to this story here.

WASHINGTON -- 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 allows users to launch and sign petitions, and the company has had some high-profile successes. 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. The document was leaked to Jeff Bryant, an associate fellow at the Campaign for America's Future, a liberal organization, who subsequently provided it and others to The Huffington Post.

The company will implement the shift on Oct. 24, according to the memo.

"Change.org built its reputation on arming Davids to take on the Goliaths of the world," Bryant told HuffPost. "Now it seems that the company thinks David and Goliath should be on the same team."

Change.org did not plan to reach out to its base of progressive users about the change. "[W]e have no plans to proactively tell users about the new design or our new mission, vision, or advertising guidelines," reads one document.

The press was to be kept similarly in the dark. "We are not planning proactive press outreach on the rebrand but are queuing up positive press profiles to launch around Oct. 22," reads the FAQ in the document, urging staff to keep things confidential and referring to the initial launch date, which has since been postponed.

The current Change.org policy limits sponsored campaigns to progressive organizations. "We accept sponsored campaigns from organizations fighting for the public good and the common values we hold dear -- fairness, equality, and justice," reads the site's soon-to-be replaced policy. "We do not accept sponsored campaigns from organizations that consistently violate these values, support discriminatory policies, or seek private corporate benefit that undermines the common good."

After the shift, Change.org's new policy will specifically allow campaigns that its liberally minded site users might find objectionable. "What about anti-abortion, pro-gun and union-busting advertising?" reads the FAQ in the leaked document.

"We are open to organizations that represent all points of view, including those with which we personally (and strongly) disagree," reads the answer.

Benjamin Joffe-Walt, director of communications for Change.org, acknowledged that the changes as outlined in the internal documents will be implemented. Joffe-Walt said the company never intended to pitch itself as strictly progressive.

"It's not what we ever claimed to be," he said.

Joffe-Walt said a new, general guide for the new company policy would be: "If Google will allow it, we would allow it."

Change.org leadership met in San Francisco this summer to hash out its new advertising policy following a public uproar in July over the site's partnership with Michelle Rhee, whose organization works in opposition to labor unions. "[W]e looked long and hard at our client policy in the context of our vision. This was the most difficult part of the weekend, but after many hours of discussion and edge cases we ultimately agreed that the current closed approach is simply not feasible," Change.org's founder and CEO Ben Rattray wrote in an email to staff, which was also leaked to HuffPost by Bryant.

"[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," he wrote. "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."

Labor and progressive organizations, which make up a sizable base of Change.org's client list, threatened to pull out over the Rhee situation. After reports that Change.org was dropping Rhee and another controversial anti-union group as clients, the site continues to run her petitions.

It remains to be seen how current site users and clients will react to a new ad policy that opens the platform to opponents. Three of Change.org's most prominent clients are the Sierra Club, Amnesty International and Credo Mobile, which runs the second-biggest progressive online activist group, after MoveOn.org.

According to the internal memo, the new policy will still allow the company to reject an ad if accepting it would threaten Change.org's "brand." Such rejections, according to the FAQ, will only be made by Rattray, who has been named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people.

Joffe-Walt said the "vast majority of Change.org" users were not strictly liberal or progressive. "We're in 196 countries," he said, adding that it sounds like those who might criticize the policy shift "don't want us to be on an open platform."

Change.org's advertising policy shift demonstrates the potential perils of for-profit companies founded on progressive values, and shows the power of money even outside the sphere of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. Change.org's strategic break with the progressive movement comes just days after the board of another for-profit progressive company, Salsa Labs, ousted its CEO. Salsa is a prominent campaign organizing platform that took $5 million in venture capital funding last year -- a move the two cofounders say they "deeply regret." Fitzgibbon Media, which only works with progressive organizations, has decided to drop the company as a client because it no longer considers Salsa in that category, according to founder Trevor Fitzgibbon.

"We remain committed to serving only progressive clients, reaffirmed that publicly on Friday, and have given no indication otherwise. Salsa's change in CEO was solely a management change and is not indicative of any shift in our corporate vision or mission," said Dave Leichtman, a Salsa vice president. Salsa's main rival, Blue State Digital, sold itself to the corporate firm WPP in 2010.

Rattray has also recently been meeting with a number of well-known venture capital firms, according to his internal calendar, which was shared with Bryant. The venture giants include Google Ventures, Bridges Ventures and Acumen Fund, among others. Joffe-Walt stressed that the meetings "have absolutely nothing" to do with the change in advertising policy. The company is continuing to speak with venture capitalists, Joffe-Walt said, but will only work with a "mission-aligned investor."

While it had no plans to proactively let users or the media know of its plans for a new direction, Change.org did tell staff it would launch new, "awesome language" on its site on Monday to better describe the company, the memo said. In a separate email to employees, Rattray laid out the new language to describe the company's mission: "To empower people everywhere to create the change they want to see."

In its internal memo to employees, Change.org justified its decision to change its advertising policy by referencing the dispute over Rhee. The situation was excessively time-consuming, the memo states, and the research efforts involved in such disputes "simply don't scale" as the firm continues to grow globally.

"[W]e believe open advertising guidelines will help us maximize our mission," offers the memo. What's good for the business is good for the world, it argues, and an open platform that empowers more people will lead to positive change. Furthermore, the memo says, the rejection of some advertisers for moral or political reasons is an implicit endorsement of other advertisers -- something the company wants to avoid.

Change's softening of its liberal stance leaves the space open for competitors like Care2.com, which is also for-profit, and MoveOn.org, which offers petition software called SignOn and is a nonprofit organization. Care2 has been around longer than Change.org, and has significantly more clients, but the company lags behind Change.org in terms of public relations. Asked if Care2 would accept clients whose values the company doesn't share, Clinton O'Brien, a Care2.com vice president, said no.

"Care2 will never run a campaign for the NRA, or from advocacy groups that don’t support a woman’s right to control her own body," O'Brien told HuffPost. "Just like we will never sell an ad campaign to Monsanto or some other for-profit whose behavior we think is widely recognized to be negative for society or the planet ... We consider it our duty to accept or reject clients on a case-by-case basis."

Steven Biel, the director of SignOn, echoed the sentiment.

"When you see MoveOn.org promote a petition, you never have to wonder if we're doing it because someone paid us to," Biel wrote in an email to HuffPost. "For years, progressives have built a huge advantage over the right wing on the Internet, and it would be awful to lose that in service of a short-term payday."

Change.org leadership, in explaining the policy shift to its staff around the world, noted that some of the changes could not be implemented immediately because there would be no support base among current users for the advertising campaigns the company may pursue.

"It's irresponsible for us to sell advertising to a group that we don't have the audience to support, and it's bad user service to show users ads they don't want to see," reads an internal FAQ sent to staffers.

Change.org scooped up many of the most talented and well-known progressive activists when it initially launched, making the company's departure from the movement more jarring.

As it attempts to expand its customer base to include conservatives and Republicans, Change.org is in a precarious position. In order to successfully make the pivot, the company will need to hold on to its base of progressive clients and users long enough for it to build a bridge across the spectrum. That means burying sponsored ads that its base will find objectionable. "We'll also be investing heavily in building strong feedback loops so that sponsored campaigns our users don't like will be hidden or even taken down from the site," reads the memo. "This is going to be essential to our success as we build a much larger and diverse base."

Rattray, in an email to staff that hinted at possible departures as a result of the shift, struck a hopeful tone.

"For some of you, this vision won’t feel like a shift at all. For others, it might seem like a big reframing of who we are. But if this feels a little unsafe, know this: nothing big was ever achieved by taking the safe option. We’re attempting something nobody else has done before – to transcend traditional partisanship and build a global empowerment platform that reaches hundreds of millions of people. It’s not easy to do, and will require difficult choices that will challenge each of us. But in the long run, it’s how we will change the world," he wrote.

Joffe-Walt said Change.org is "not beholden to one community."

"We've created a new platform that has enabled things to happen that weren't possible before. We're helping to drive net positive change in the world -- with the emphasis on net," he said.

UPDATE: Oct. 23, 9:25 p.m. -- Benjamin Joffe-Walt, Change.org's managing director of global communications, said that the source of the leak is no longer with Change.org.

"A Huffington Post article about our new advertising guidelines revealed that a blogger had obtained access to internal Change.org documents. We've identified the person who leaked the documents and they are no longer with the company. We respect their privacy and we are not releasing their name," he said in a statement, adding that "this was a case in which a Change.org staffer shared internal documents and the private schedule of our founder and CEO with a journalist. Content aside, there is simply no situation in any organization or company in which the result would have been different. The suspicion that such a move is an attempt to punish a ‘whistleblower’ couldn’t be further from the truth: the leaked documents and emails in question are available to all our employees and outline plans to be fully transparent about our business model and new advertising guidelines. While we wouldn't normally communicate externally through a painfully long, 12-page document, it outlines a number of important concerns and if anyone is inclined to read it they are more than welcome to do so. There are no nefarious secrets to reveal and no whistle was blown."

There is a SignOn petition circulating that asks Change.org to reinstate the leaker. The leaker, through CAF's Bryant, declined to comment.

CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this article, it was reported that Blue State Digital sold itself to the corporate firm WWP. The name of the firm is WPP.

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