Despite its “.org” domain name and social-concern branding, Change.org, Inc. (Change) is a multimillion dollar for-profit private company, not a nonprofit public charity as many falsely assume. The company began as a nonprofit that connected charities to donors, but has transitioned into a for-profit company that makes money by selling advertised petitions on its website, Change.org. Although it has a reputation in the United States for featuring progressive causes including environmental activism, anti-foreclosure petitions, and trade union advocacy, Change.org claims to be non-ideological. Regardless, the company’s business practices and potentially deceptive branding have led to criticism from all sides of the political spectrum.
Change.org was founded by Stanford classmates Ben Rattray, Change’s CEO, and Mark Dimas, the company’s Chief Technology Officer in 2007. The original goal of the website was to connect users with the activist causes they care about the most and encourage them to donate to nonprofit organizations focusing on those issues using a social networking platform. Topics focused on social change, such as ending global warming and whaling. Change.org collected one percent of every dollar given through the site.
Change.org changed its model in late 2008, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy. The Chronicle described the second-generation Change.org as “a network of blogs that discuss social issues.” In a feature on social change activism published shortly after the 2008 presidential election, Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper described the site as “as aggregate site pointing interested parties toward groups involved in issues such as climate change, homelessness, immigration and gay rights.”
The site capitalized on President Barack Obama’s slogan of “Change” to build its name after his election in 2008. Change.org let members vote on their top–10 priorities for the new administration. The resulting list was effectively a left-wing wish list. According to the Myrtle Beach Sun-News, the top priorities ranged from the liberal but possible, like “[Grant] citizenship to young illegal immigrants who graduate from college or serve in the military,” to the outlandish, like “create a federal Department of Peace and Non-Violence.”
In 2010, Change.org adopted its current petition model, and expanded in 2011 by acquiring PetitionOnline.com. A 2011 feature on the company in The Bay Citizen reported that Change.org became profitable in late 2010 to early 2011, transitioning from its original nonprofit model.
While the company was founded to promote social change and had a stated policy that it accepts “sponsored campaigns from organizations fighting for the public good and the common values we hold dear—fairness, equality, and justice,” the organization has long-claimed it has no ideological leaning.
Change claims to be motivated by the “victories” that its petitions create. However, Change is for-profit, therefore the organization benefits when the site profits. As a privately-held firm, Change is not required to disclose its revenues or profits publicly, but in a June 2012 Wall Street Journal profile on the company, officials estimated that the company would make $15 million per year in revenues.
Those revenues come from tracking profile data on petition signers and promoting advertised petitions to targeted Change.org members. The promotion comes from Change’s staff of professional campaigners and organizers. Some estimates of the company’s staff size approach 100. For groups that partner with Change, promotion costs can be a big commitment: The Communication Workers of America labor union’s national headquarters reported in federal filings that they paid Change.org $280,000 for services in the 2012 fiscal year.
The Wall Street Journal reported on how the system works on the individual user’s end:
[You] join Change.org and sign a petition. Your email is registered as having an affinity with that subject. Change.org then matches you with petitions dealing with similar causes that are sponsored by political groups, activists or nonprofits such as Oxfam. You can sign their petitions and opt to learn more about the groups. If you do opt in, the sponsor gets your address.
The Journal writer described the experience of signing into Change: “Signing onto […] Change.org, the online-petition site, is like being a sea turtle wandering into a drift net.”
For-Profit Business Model
Contrary to popular belief, “.org” top-level domains are not restricted to nonprofit entities. According to the Public Interest Registry, the organization responsible for registering and maintaining “.org” domains, “.ORG is an unrestricted top-level domain, and anyone can register.” While there is nothing illegal about Change.org using the “.org” domain as a for-profit company, some have argued that the practice is not transparent, especially since it is difficult to find evidence of Change.org’s for-profit status on the company’s website. Clay Johnson, a one-time staffer to former presidential candidate Howard Dean (D-VT), pointed out that the website’s domain name could create confusion among users.
Johnson noted that Change.org’s website does not explicitly state that the company is for-profit—having only one allusion to its status as a “B Corporation.” According to the organization that certifies B Corporations, companies so certified “voluntarily [meet] higher standards of transparency, accountability, and performance.” The company argues that its B Corporation certification means that it is different from other for-profit entities and thus it is not deceptive to use a “.org” web address. In public statements, CEO Rattray talks about “using the power of business for social good.”
Change.org appears to acknowledge that site users might not be aware that Change.org, Inc. is for-profit. In a response to Johnson’s criticism, the company said, “We agree, though, that we could get a lot better at explaining [our status].” Johnson argued that Change.org should change its domain to a commercial domain or display a for-profit disclaimer on site areas describing the company’s mission, but the company has taken no such action. The words “for profit” do not appear on the company’s “business model” page.
The site’s revenue streams and grassroots petitioners’ ideologies have come into conflict over the company’s partnerships with education reform groups StudentsFirst and Stand for Children. StudentsFirst, which is run by former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, has been criticized by teachers unions for advocating reforms that might weaken their bargaining position. Stand for Children, which is also an education reform group, sponsored a petition requesting that the Chicago Teachers Union not cancel classes by striking. Labor activists, some of Change.org’s biggest supporters, heavily pressured the company to sever ties with both groups.
The company caved to the pressure. According to a StudentsFirst statement after Change.org announced it would not renew the organization’s relationship with the company, Change officials cited “business and operational factors with their high-value partners who were pressuring them to take this step” as the reason for ending ties.
In October 2012, the Huffington Post acquired internal communications from Change.org detailing a planned change in the site’s partnership arrangements. The company intended to permit advertising including that “with which we [Change.org staff] personally (and strongly) disagree,” according to the documents. The changes were postponed after the documents leaked, although Rattray stood by the proposals.
Left-leaning users of the site expressed dismay. A spokesman for MoveOn.org, a liberal group that operates a non-profit petition hosting service, said of the changes at Change.org: “When you see MoveOn.org promote a petition, you never have to wonder if we’re doing it because someone paid us to.”
Another progressive activist accused Change.org of a “bait and switch,” writing in The Huffington Post: “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.”
Change.org sells its promotions to organizations on a cost-per-email-address basis. According to progressive online activist group Netroots Foundation, the cost of a petition promoted on Change.org without regional targeting is $1.75 per e-mail address. The Foundation reported that organizations could acquire the contacts of supporters who opted into giving their information in a free campaign.
Some have questioned Change.org’s policy on accessing the names of petition signers for additional engagement outside the Change platform. Issac Luria, whose petition asking Village Voice Media to cease taking erotic services ads to prevent human trafficking received over 250,000 signatures, noted that his organization could not acquire the vast majority of the names and contact information of petition signers for non-Change platform activity. He wrote that his organization would have been required to enter an agreement to purchase the contacts before the campaign began in order to take advantage of the company’s professional campaign staff. Luria argued that the policy hurt the effectiveness of campaigns, as they could not use the momentum of a successful petition to drive donations and offline organizing grassroots activities.