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The Case for Change

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Earlier this week, Ryan Grim wrote an article on this website about Change.org, our mission, motives, and work. Ryan is a well-respected reporter, but his characterization isn't close to the Change.org I built, nor the one that tens of millions of people use every month to win campaigns around the world. So I want to directly address a number of misconceptions that have arisen.

But first, let me provide some context.

Six years ago, a good friend and I founded Change.org with a simple mission: to empower people to come together to create the change they want to see. We believed that the Internet had dramatically lowered traditional barriers to collective action, and that by giving free tools to people everywhere we could help to distribute power more broadly and empower people to make change in communities around the world.

It took us a number of years, and countless trials and errors along the way, but we're seeing the beginnings of that vision realized.

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. But much more importantly, people are winning campaigns on the site every day: curbing corruption in Indonesia, fighting caste discrimination in India, forcing broadcasters to air the Paralympics on TV in France, shutting down ex-gay torture clinics in Ecuador. In the US, users are getting health care for military families at a poisoned army base, recalled cars off the road, 'pink slime' out of US schools, and photoshopped models out of girls magazines.

These are among the hundreds of campaigns that win each month: some large, some local, some only consequential in that they demonstrate to participants the potential power of collective action.

One of the reasons that so many campaigns are able to win is because we've built an open platform that gives anyone the space to tell their own authentic stories without being viewed through a partisan lens. These personal stories are why so many campaigns are emotionally compelling -- and why they so often cut across traditional partisan lines, change the way people see issues, and put extraordinary public pressure on decision-makers to do the right thing.

If we weren't open to everyone, and if we limited access based on a set of political viewpoints, we would undercut the power of our petition creators and users. We would be perceived as an advocacy group ourselves, and the media and decision makers would often typecast petition creators as players in our supposed issue agenda, rather than the independent agents of change they are. The result would be to strip our petition creators of the power of telling their own story on their own terms, making them less likely to gather broad support and less likely to win.

This is why being a platform open to anyone is so important to our model.

It's also become clear over the past year that to maintain this openness we can't have it only for our free petition tool; it must also extend to our advertising policy.

If we were to have a restrictive advertiser policy that blocked all organizations that didn't fit a particular viewpoint, we'd be regularly forced into unsustainable positions that would compromise our impact everywhere. Such a policy would mean that we'd have to take a public stand against every organization we rejected and implicitly endorse everyone we didn't reject, subjecting ourselves to ongoing attacks from all sides, while frantically working to figure out which of the rapidly increasing number of organizations interested in advertising on the site were "in" or "out" -- in more than a dozen countries with radically diverse political and cultural contexts.

And decisions in one country (we already have staff in 18) could swiftly marginalize our users in another. For example, if we are typecast as a partisan American advocacy platform, then Russian bloggers, Saudi women campaigning for the right to drive, or Venezuelan anti-corruption activists are unlikely to see us as a trustworthy or effective platform for making change in their own societies. And even if they did, they'd be easily criticized for the association with the U.S, and dismissed by opponents.

In short, our advertising policy has far greater ramifications than for any group of advertisers.

While the costs of being closed are clear, the power of being open is far greater than most people realize. It's not just that people are more likely to win their own campaigns on an open platform - it's also that everyday people traditionally alienated by politics are more likely to get involved in the first place. One of the most exciting trends we're seeing is that the overwhelming majority of people who start and win petition campaigns on Change.org have never actively engaged in public advocacy before - petition creators like a 13-year-old fighting for a ban on plastic bags, a firefighter who wins healthcare for his co-workers, and a working mom successfully demanding an apology from the BBC.

And more than 20,000 petitions are started every month on Change.org, precisely because people feel they can make the site their own. We're even hearing that an increasing number of civics classes are using Change.org to learn about advocacy and responsible citizenship. There's no way that could happen at any scale if we had a particular political agenda.

None of this is a critique of other strategies for social change. Many inspiring organizations have a stated set of policy objectives, and pursue those with incredible passion and commitment. Change.org's strategy is simply different: 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.

With all that in mind, I'd like to clarify a number of misconceptions in the original article:

1: Change.org is not "embracing" controversial groups.

Ryan's article initially began with a sensationalized, inaccurate title and lede claiming that we will now be "working with" and "embracing" a long list of controversial groups. The article has since been corrected to change this language to "allows," but that's still misleading.

Our advertising policy makes clear that it is designed to be a service to users, and our commitment to users is that we will endeavor to show them only sponsored petitions that they care about. To improve this experience, we are currently developing better feedback loops to ensure users are seeing and joining sponsored campaigns they care about. This means that if a group is controversial and we don't have the users or the effective targeting needed to find users who would be interested in their work, we wouldn't accept their ads, as it wouldn't be a service to our users. In almost all of the worst-case scenarios that have been dreamt up, the user experience would be so bad that we wouldn't be accepting the suggested ads.

As explained above, we cannot maintain an open platform and simultaneously block all ads that don't fit a particular political view. But we can and will look out for our users and do our best to ensure that they are alerted to the campaigns they are most likely to care about. And we're certainly not going to be actively seeking to "work with" controversial advertisers that are likely to offend users.

2: Change.org's campaign support is not for sale.

Another misleading insinuation is that the support of Change.org's campaigns team can be bought. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We are proud to have a large, world-class campaigns support and communications team, completely focused on highlighting inspiring stories of remarkable people creating change. None of the work that this team does can be bought; they spend all of their time working with free campaigns that are broadly inspiring and of interest to users. Similarly, all of the campaigns we highlight to users via email are part of our free service -- we don't send emails on behalf of paid petitions.

There is a solid firewall between the work of our campaigns support team and our advertisers, similar to the firewall between editorial and advertising at a newspaper. This is why you'll sometimes see our campaigns support team highlighting user campaigns directly criticizing organizations that also happen to be advertisers.

3: Change.org lives for our social mission, not for profit.

When I started Change.org, I initially founded it as a nonprofit, and I didn't think twice about it. I figured that because we were interested in changing the world, we would necessarily be a nonprofit. But when I started talking with friends about the scale we aspired to achieve, it became clear that if we wanted to build a tech platform empowering hundreds of millions of users around the world, our mission would be best accomplished by having the structure and flexibility of a company.

That was in 2006. Since then there has been an enormous explosion of social enterprises around the world, many inspired by Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus' work, and it's now clear that the use of businesses for social good is one of the most promising movements for positive change in the world. We're proud to be at the forefront of that movement.

But while we have the structure of a company, we have the mission of a nonprofit. This is why we've never taken funding from traditional venture capitalists. We've made it clear that our goal is impact, not profit, and that we will remain an independent, private company indefinitely. This has meant that we've had to decline a lot of offers of investment - more than most companies ever receive. But this has been the right thing to do for our mission and the users we serve.

The unfortunate reality is that the concept of a mission-driven business still isn't fully embraced, meaning that every time a social enterprise takes an action that might impact revenue, it gets accused of being in it 'for the money.'

There are many ways to make money in the world; starting a social enterprise that explicitly says it will never sell, that turns down millions of dollars of venture capital, and that invests all revenue in support of people-powered campaigns around the world, isn't top among them.

4: The secret that never was

Ryan's article suggests that we were planning to hide our open advertising policy. Quite the reverse: the leaked document, which I'd invite anyone who is curious to read, was a detailed guide sent to all our staff to help them explain things transparently. That guide explicitly references how our new site will have much more information about our business model, our belief in the power of business for social good, and the openness of our platform.

The suggestion that we were planning to keep users in the dark is simply wrong. We have more than 20 million users from a wide diversity of backgrounds and cultures. The overwhelming majority of our them already believe that we're an open platform. Emailing 20 million people about the details of a policy that a large percentage of them will not be surprised by, instead of a campaign they can help win, wouldn't be doing them any service. But our policy is already posted for all to read, and we'll be letting users know about our site updates in email postscripts.

The sum total of these issues reveals a starkly different picture than what Ryan's article portrayed. So, with the benefit of full information, people concerned about this matter have a clear choice between two possible versions of reality:

The first version is that despite a long history of commitment to social change, Change.org has sold out, aspires to work with only the most polarizing organizations, does so in a secretive manner, and has managed along the way to convince more than 100 of the most accomplished social change movement builders in the world to fight against the things they've dedicated their lives to.

The second is this: that Change.org is forging new ground that presents both incredible opportunities and difficult choices, that strategy is different than motive, that some articles are hogwash, and that an organization with more than 100 staff who have dedicated their lives to social change might have a more informed understanding of building social power than can be fit into a headline on the Huffington Post.

If it's still not clear to you which version is accurate, I'd ask you consider suspending final judgment until you see the impact of our actions once the heat of the rhetoric subsides. Because while the impact that Change.org users have had around the world has been growing rapidly, we're just getting started. And we'd love to work together to change the world.