The Changes at Change.Org: Is This Change We Can Believe In?


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by Gwen Emmons

October 29, 2012 -, rhrealitycheck.org

Last week, the Huffington Post reported that Change.org, long regarded as a progressive organization, would begin accepting sponsored petitions from conservative organizations and businesses. The new policy marks a dramatic shift for the company, whichpreviously claimed in its advertising guidelines that the organization only “accept[s] sponsored campaigns from organizations fighting for the public good and the common values we hold dear—fairness, equality, and justice.”

Now the company that once stated that it did not run sponsored petitions from parties that violate their values will welcome petitions from the very organizations that do, giving anti-choice organizations, astroturf groups, corporations, pro-gun groups, and political parties access to an international activist community of millions.

Change.org is an online petition site founded in 2007 by Ben Rattray. Individuals around the world can use Change.org tools to create free petitions advocating for causes. Sponsors can also pay to host a petition on the site, in exchange for the email addresses of those who sign their petition. The company is home to some of the best online organizers in the world, and they’ve racked up serious victories in five short years—including a petition that successfully pressured Bank of America to drop their five dollar debit card fee, and a 13-year-old’s petition aimed at Seventeen magazine which forced editors to re-evaluate their Photoshop policies.

For the most part, Change.org’s victories have been progressive ones. Protecting women who call out their rapists, demanding justice for Trayvon Martin, looking out for Apple workers in China—these have been noble victories that challenged our ideas of what online petitions can do. However, the company now plans to extend that transformative power to organizations fighting for people and companies previously on the receiving end of Change.org petitions, while claiming that they have never said they were a progressive company.

Internal documents leaked by a Change.org staffer who has since been fired from the company explain that Change.org’s new “openness policy” is a result of a rapidly expanding company trying to keep up with demand. Previously, Change.org vetted petitions to ensure each petition and organization aligned with their values. A “Frequently Asked Questions” document notes that Change.org “will soon have thousands of advertisers, and is [sic] would be impossible to scaleably investigate the organizations behind all of these petitions.” The FAQ document adds, “By rejecting some advertisers because we disagree with them, we’d be implicitly endorsing those we accept and exposing ourselves to daily attacks from people who don’t think certain advertisers fit within a set of values.”

The shift comes as Change.org continues to expand internationally, where, the group claims, progressive values don’t always translate. It also appears to be a response to controversy that erupted this summer, when Change.org received significant blowback for running petitions for anti-labor organizations Students First and Stand for Children.

Raven Brooks, Executive Director of Netroots Nation, believes the policy reversal will happen in two phases. In an interview, he told RH Reality Check, “Corporate front groups will be the first things we’ll see [on the site], since they already have an existing model with Michelle Rhee’s group, Students First. The next phase will be going after conservative issue areas – but first, Change.org has to get those people into their system so they can advertise to them.”

Despite requests from RH Reality Check, Change.org declined to comment for this article, stating that their communications staffers were instead focusing on promoting high-profile petition campaigns on the site. Change.org’s Director of Strategic Partnerships, Matt Slutsky, pointed me to a message he posted to the listserv Progressive Exchange in response to an email thread about the policy change. In it, Slutsky writes:

We believe our impact on the world will be greater if we’re an open platform than if we’re an agenda-driven organization. This is pretty unique and in some cases different from the organizations represented on [Progressive Exchange], and it can also be difficult as openness means that some people many of us personally disagree with are able to launch campaigns on our site. That said, our petition platform is, and always has been, open to anyone to start a petition on whatever they care about. That’s what defines our organization and it’s the core component of our work.

He also noted the company is working on personalization technology to target petitions to certain people (and hide them from others)so if you sign a petition in support of Trayvon Martin, you likely won’t be asked to also sign a petition for the NRA.

The misgivings Slutsky acknowledges in his email to Progressive Exchange are echoed in internal emails to Change.org staff, some of who undoubtedly are also uncomfortable with the change. “For some of you, this vision won’t feel like a shift at all. For others, it might seem like a big re-framing of who we are,” Change.org CEO Ben Rattray wrote in an email to staff in July of this year. Possibly anticipating as much external turmoil as internal turmoil, the company planned to quietly roll out these changes without notice to the advocacy community.

Progressive advocates aren’t buying the new policies.

“I would argue that the founder of Change.org is clearly not attempting to further progress, but is attempting to further his income,” says Shelley Abrams, a Virginia activist who founded Cooch Watch 2012, in an interview with RH Reality Check.

He started the site with one agenda, and is now changing that agenda. But don’t try to tell me you are still trying to be an agent for progressive change. That is clearly bullshit.

Rattray’s own words in an internal email to staff posted by Aaron Krager and shared publiclyare telling. “While our mission to maximize our positive impact in the world is our guiding light, it’s not why we’re having such influence,” he writes. “The reason for our impact, and what makes us unique and potentially transformative, is our strategy: empowerment.” Brooks believes that’s exactly the problem.

“I believe in movement infrastructure and competitive advantage. Where [conservatives] excel is money, and they’ve got a media infrastructure that’s second to none,” he admits. “But on our side, our strength has been people and creativity. Technology supports, extends, and expands those things… and it’s not in anyone’s interest to give them a hand in that.”

Abrams has seen this firsthand, as right-wing groups in Virginia are frequently co-opting her group’s ideas in support of their own missions. But she notes that they’re rarely able to use them as effectively as her group has.

“That’s because there is an agile mindset to progressivism that obviously un-progressive groups do not have. Progressivists are about changing (for the better) and non-progressive groups are about stagnation,” she wrote in an email. But as we’ve seen with astroturf groups and SuperPACs, it’s all too easy to bend a conservative message to fit a progressive-sounding mold. Change.org’s new policy of openness doesn’t provide a safeguard for that.

But will Change.org’s move affect progressive advocacy? Abrams, who prefers on-the-ground activism to online petitions, says the move “reeks of selling out… [But] is it the end of the movement if they sell out? No.” After consideration, Brooks believes the loss of Change.org as a progressive advocacy platform is a small one. He pointed to SignOn.org, a similar site created by MoveOn.org, and Care2, as alternatives to Change.org, and believes this policy change will open up more competition for online advocacy platforms. Still, he says, “we’re losing a great team of campaigners.”

That loss has hit the progressive community hard.  Brooks says Netroots Nation activists and other progressives on listservs he follows are “pretty universally upset and betrayed.” Brooks has already heard of listserv managers expunging Change.org subscribers from their lists, and nonprofits dropping their contracts with the company.

Others believe that empowering former enemies stands in the way of progressive causes’ progress. Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food and Water Watch, which previously hosted paid petitions on Change.org, wrote in a blog post Wednesday, “We don’t want to see climate change deniers empowered. We have worked with Change.org to empower people with a vision of a better world that is economically and socially equitable and where the environment is protected.”

Hauter continued, “Even after talking with Ben [Rattray], I get the impression that their decision comes down to increasing their size and reach…. We’re disappointed that Change.org has apparently decided that profit trumps progressive values. I think Change.org has become confused about what kind of change we want and what democracy really looks like.”

Follow Gwen Emmons on Twitter, @gwenemmons

 

Change.org Changing: Site To Allow Corporate, Anti-Abortion, GOP Campaigns #takecaction


Ryan Grim

ryan@huffingtonpost.com

 (UPDATE)

Posted: 10/22/2012 5:58 pm EDT Updated: 10/23/2012 9:44 pm EDT

Change

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 somehigh-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.”

PLEASE ASK CHANGE.ORG TO COME OUT CLEAN NOW !!.

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