THE BLOG
10/30/2012 01:47 pm ET | Updated Dec 30, 2012

What Changes at Change.org Say About us, Online Advocacy, and Our Movements

When I first heard the news of Change.org's departure from its progressive moorings, I was angry -- but not entirely surprised. The writing has been on the wall for years now that Change.org wouldn't remain simply a "progressive" organization.

But the fact that I feel duped, and many other friends of mine in the progressive movement more generally feel similarly, highlights significant problems with the Change.org development, and issues within our own movement and our online organizing strategies that should be opened up and talked about.

Of course, Change.org is only following in the footsteps of much of the progressive technology space making similar switches. Look at Nation Builder, which was developed through progressive input and contracts, and now is contracting with the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Or Blue State Digital and Salsa, progressive social change technology companies, that are now owned in part by venture capitalists, who, to their credit, claim that the values at root in the company will not change.

Given that plenty of smart folks have weighed in on Change.org's decision, I'd rather use this space to take a step back, talk through what this says about the state of online advocacy, the progressive movement (or movements), and to think through how we might learn from the changes.

Evolution is Written Into Company's DNA

The overall strategy of Change.org is to monetize list building for causes and funnel that money back into the business and, importantly, the causes themselves. It's not at new strategy; Care2, which pioneered the idea nearly a decade ago, has achieved significant growth and maintains its adherence to progressive values.

But Change.org wanted to go much bigger, and to do it fast. Ben Rattray and Change.org thought they could monetize social change activity online at a huge scale and make everyone win.

For a while, the strategy worked. As soon as their monetization strategy started showing success on the level that venture capital got interested, the pressure to expand audience rapidly became a non-virtuous cycle, the natural ending of which was a leaving of the progressive community that nurtured it in the early days for bigger, greener pastures that would include conservative and corporate dollars.

Notably and to their credit, Care2 never seemed to have an overly aggressive, venture capital growth paradigm built into its everyday operations, and carefully plotted business strategy that helped keep the company aligned with its founding values.

Credit Where it's Due

As a creator of a successful petition and campaign on Change.org targeting Village Voice Media to get out of the adult ad business that was putting children at risk, I remember how effective Change.org's talented campaigners were at helping us get more than a quarter of a million petitions. The campaigners were on the front lines with us -- helping organize the delivery rally, putting out press releases, doing the grunt work on an advertiser effort that followed the original campaign, and more. We simply couldn't have been as successful as we were without their help.

And they're doing this on campaigns all over the site -- and achieving massive growth with the tool and helping empower a lot of folks. A lot of their growth is abroad, which is good for overall world citizen empowerment. These are facts.

But at the end of our campaign, we didn't have access to the list we built except for a small percentage of the names. We couldn't follow up and encourage that 250,000 people to take the next step on our ladder of engagement. All the list growth we generated infused Change.org's core business with more names that they would sell later on to other organizations who could afford the price tag. Of course, I could have bought the names that signed the petition on Change.org for around $500,000 or about $2 per name if I had the foresight before the campaign was launched or had the money.

As online organizers will tell you, petitions that garner huge support are at its best virtuous cycles. Online organizers ask for community support, we get it, we add supporters to our list, and we are able to go out and invite the list members to become supporters, attend meetings, join local groups, and even donate. Online organizing is meant to infuse our organizations and causes with real people power -- not just online but offline, as well -- and to empower on the deep relationship building strategies at root in successful community organizing. That's why you see so many online upstarts -- including MoveOn and my former organization J Street -- moving resources and energy to moving people to offline work.

But with our Change.org experience, the virtuous circle was interrupted when we couldn't follow up with our supporters without the money to pay for it.

Change.org? Or Change.com?

The most disturbing part of the Change.org story for me is that very few people who start or sign Change.org petitions understand that they are engaging with a business with a specific way of selling their information. It was easier to stomach when it was progressive causes that were doing the list buying -- now it's anyone who has the money. It makes me wonder if Change.org really should be Change.com.

This isn't to say that I don't believe in the possibility of business, social change agents, and corporate driven innovation to help our society provide for the dignity of all people. But we should be clear about what master we serve, and above brand conflicts that leave people wondering if you're first a values-driven place or first a profit-driven place.

Progressive Crowd-out?

I have worried that progressives were getting crowded out by Change.org's immense success -- where organizations with fabulous missions and important work couldn't compete with Change.org's speed and skill online -- and about the fact that progressive activists and communities were helping an online platform grow at over a million members a month, and not seeing their fair share of the benefits.

Plenty of progressives bemoan the fact that Change.org could snatch up top campaign talent for better pay than many progressive organizations could offer. Legitimate questions about what sorts of petitions Change.org would accept money to promote have been raised, most notably with the labor community pressuring Change.org to drop a contract with Michelle Rhee's "Student's First" organization.

Now, the very idea that the corporations and special interests that many of us take on in our daily work will have access to the platform we helped build with our petitions and organizing is, to say the least, hard to stomach.

I've heard arguments that the Daily Kos and the Nation magazine have similar advertising policies and won't refuse advertising from anyone. But Change.org is a different beast. Staff campaigners have to write emails and content to urge Change.org list subscribers to sign up for the client's email list, sometimes in the name of the campaigner but always in the name of Change.org.

Basically, they're leveraging the brand of Change.org as a change-making organization and the credibility of the campaigner (and the message) to encourage list members to sign up. They've got to make an authentic argument on behalf of that cause, or they risk undermining the trust they have with their list members. Or, on the flip side, if the campaigner has to make dishonest or misleading arguments because that's what the client's priorities call for, they'll be leveraging the brand for the wrong reasons. Regardless of which part of the action process -- either directly from an email, on the petition page, or on a follow up page after taking action -- the entire organization is paying salaries, keeping lights on, and doing some laudable work from the checks paid for by questionable clients.

The bait and switch argument, however, remains. 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.

It's like getting invited to an exclusive cocktail party only to drop the person who invited you when you meet someone more attractive or interesting at the party. It's no wonder progressives are offended; Change.org should have found a way to dance with the one who brought you, or, found a way to break up with us in a sensitive, real way. Remember, they planned no announcement or stakeholder strategy in internal memos.

But the real problem here is that Change.org list members may get duped by slick, message-tested corporate campaigns -- and then allow a Change.org petition to become a part of the story-line of an anti-progressive campaign. One-hundred-thousand New Yorkers stand up against Michael Bloomberg's effort to curb soda intake and 250,000 Americans call on the State Department to investigate if we've been infiltrated by American Muslim agents who report directly to al Qaeda. You get the idea.

"Open vs. Closed" vs. "Left vs. Right"

Predictably, the decision has also set off a now classic argument between those who see the political world as a battle between those who favor open systems over closed ones (Democrats vs. bureaucrats), and those who see the world as a battle between the marginalized and those with unchecked power (left vs. right). See Change.org CEO Ben Rattray's defense of the Change.org policy with this "open vs. closed" argument. Of course, we're all probably a mix of the two paradigms. I certainly am myself. The only ideological position I'll admit to is being a pragmatist and suspicious of Bolsheviks of any kind.

That's also part of why I buy the argument that we can't really define what progressive means issue by issue and it would have been impossible for Change.org to make those determinations on each petition, had they decided to remain "progressive." Even among admitted progressives, we don't agree on a lot of things. And then, add that to the fact that our audiences for social change and advocating for the common good are way wider than just the folks who self-identify as progressive, and you get a mushy soup that would make any petition moderator's job a nightmare.

The False Holy Grail of List Growth

Change.org's ability to generate massive numbers at the drop of a hat preyed on mistaken assumptions that short-term petition size equaled long-term impact. I took the bait, too, constantly refreshing petition total numbers when the Change.org team would send email blasts out to millions of people. Looking back, I can see how I talked about numbers first and impact second.

List growth, of course, does matter in the long-term. But only when it is considered as a larger strategic decision to grow a movement and base of people who care about your work, who attend offline actions and events, who donate, who post on social media about your cause. This is online organizing at its best -- when it creates a positive feedback loop that infuses new energy and engagement within your organization from the bottom to the top.

Change is the Goal, Not List Growth

Any campaign should be judged on its ability to create the change it wishes to see, not by the number of people who speak out. Of course, the relationship between list growth and success is more subtle than that -- winning can be easier with more people on your side. But the smartest organizers and campaigners aren't letting exciting metrics blind us to the actual impact of our work, nor can we point to these metrics as evidence of impact, when we know in our hearts that it is only one data point of many in the broader picture. The online work has to be one component of the whole strategy and tactical grab bag.

This is especially important as progressive campaigners and organizers look soberly and rigorously at what strategies can create the progressive reality they want to see. If we're to be honest with ourselves, we've seen small, significant victories -- but unfortunately larger, more important failures on the progressive agenda. And we've built huge lists. The climate hasn't stopped changing and the rich and poor grow farther and farther apart. Neither Presidential candidate mentioned climate change in any debate; rather they tried to "out-coal" each other. Congress is gridlocked. The wisdom of a "drone strikes first" strategy aren't even seriously discussed at the national level. People are getting kicked out of their homes.

So even Change.org's massive 15 million person list isn't necessarily going to matter very much to overall progressive priorities, and wasn't going to matter even before this change.

Broadcast vs. "The Revolution is Online"

The dominant model of online activism, which center around a staff making decisions about what emails to blast or petitions to set up, is essentially a broadcast model with a built in feedback loop. What Change.org, and what Care2 (ThePetitionSite.com) and now SignOn.org, are trying to decentralize some of how decisions are made about what petition goes online and gets the most coverage on the site. They're trying, in effect, to move beyond broadcast to true bottom up citizen engagement that models the most effective components of community organizing and adds in national reach and impact -- but to be clear a lot of their petitions go online because they've recruited the signer they want to see.

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.

What We're Going to Do

Just as other folks in the business of providing online campaign creation tools to regular folks -- like SignOn.org and ThePetitionSite.com -- have recognized the power of the open campaign platform model, we'll be experimenting in the coming weeks with Nathan Woodhull's new tool called "Control Shift" to build a Change.org-style platform for our own movement, the multifaith movement for justice.

This could be the right way to empower our organization's leaders -- faith leaders of all kinds -- to run campaigns on the issues they care about online, and to infuse their local justice work with the energy and passion of new online followers and subscribers. And if this experiment happens to be successful, we'll focus on passing along the benefits to our partners in the broader movement. And if we happen to be wildly successful beyond our imagination, I hope our friends keep us honest if we need the reminder of who brought us to the party to begin with.