October 23rd, 2012
Big news broke in the advocacy space last night: Change.org will now begin accepting paid petitions from conservative groups, including Republican political campaigns and anti-abortion groups. In response, progressive activists, who’ve collectively spent millions of dollars cultivating a following, immediately began discussions about moving away from Change. And, it’s competitors were prepared to pounce: MoveOn.org’s SignOn petition site, for example, accelerated the launch of its progressive partners program, which makes it easier for organizations to sync their mass-email/CRM systems with databases of new supporters generated via SignOn petition. As shown in the HuffPo piece that broke the story, Care2 also clearly sees opportunity in Change.org’s decision. And coming on the heels of startling changes at Salsa, this move has roiled the advocacy community in a big way.
Will the new business bring in enough revenue to make up for the liberal activists who are now feeling outright betrayed by Change? And, will this decision functionally destroy Change.org’s entire brand? The company had hired many people from within the progressive movement, who spent months or years of their lives building an online community that will now be open to what they’ll see as greenwashing — corporate propaganda masquerading as activism. Likewise, customers flocked to change because they could use the site to pick up supporters for their causes (since it was identified as a Left-leaning site, you knew the audience you were reaching). Now, all of that liberal time and liberal money is found to have gone to build a tool open to corporate messaging and conservative activism. YEARS of brand goodwill in the progressive community — Change.org’s existing customer base — destroyed. Is that smart? Watch this space.
Looks like the whistle-blower got fired! A petition’s sprung up (naturally) to get him/her reinstated. Plus, irony alert! Follow that link to see what shows up if you Google recent news for “Change.org fires whistle-blower.”
A good discussion about Change.org broke out on Facebook when I posted this piece. For instance, in response to Mike Panetta saying that tools are tools, Jon Wheeler replied:
I’m more likely to agree with your assertion above re: the impact of Salsa potentially being available for conservative groups rather than Change.org (although I’m definitely disturbed by the possibility of the former, having worked there and continuing to work extensively helping prog. groups use the platform.)
Salsa IS a platform and while Salsa does a great deal to help progressive groups further their mission through technical and strategic support and training, in the end their organizations are siloed and the impact of a conservative group using the tool is less likely to negatively affect the efforts of their progressive opponents (aside from the impact of said opponents being able to use similar tools to get their message out and organize activists, but then again there are other tools available, although arguably not as good as Salsa). But as you mention above. those conservative groups still have to have a winning message, strategy and tactics, and recruit the people to support their cause, which is indeed where the rubber meets the road.
But Change.org is another animal. They have a centralized database and can easily sell names of people who they acquired through progressive-oriented campaigns and provide them to conservative/astroturf campaigns who will then try to co-opt those activists with actions that sound progressive but clearly aren’t – “hey climate change activist, support our ‘Beyond Petroleum’ movement” (totally not brought to you by BP – really). That’s a lot different than just selling organizing tools.
Good point about the fact that Change’s list was built by progressive groups, but conservatives will now have access to the pool that they PAID to fill. Over on the ProgressiveExchange list, Ivan Booth wrapped up a bunch of the issues involved:
What struck me about the Change.org explanation in the leaked documents was their assessment that continuing to only host petitions that aligned with their values was not “feasible.” What they meant was that people aligned with their values were a limited market, and if they wanted to increase their revenues each year, they needed to remove that limitation.
Change.org is and has always been a for-profit company.
What initially attracted me to DemocracyInAction, which I began using in 2005, was that it was a nonprofit built to serve nonprofits (and campaigns, but that wasn’t my background). When DiA and Salsa decided to decouple themselves, that nonprofit orientation went away. In that sense, the train has left the station long ago — and to extend the analogy, the issue isn’t that the conductors have changed, but that they got taken over by railroad barons some time ago. This is the track that was chosen.
So to me both of those, and NationBuilder, are fundamentally different from things like SignOn, which exist for a partisan purpose; things like the original DiA, which was itself a nonprofit; and things like CiviCRM, which are open source and not owned by anyone.
Personally, I’m always going to look first to open-source tools, next to nonprofit-built tools, next to explicitly progressive tools and finally to corporate tools. But corporate tools with progressive mission statements don’t make themselves less corporate. They’re in it for the money, and if there are ways to get more money by walking right up to the progressive line they’ve established (or erasing it, à la Change.org ), that’s always where they’re going to end up.
I don’t expect nonprofits, community groups, advocacy organizations and political campaigns to force themselves into an ideal world where everyone uses open-source tools because it’s the Right Thing To Do. Sometimes you just have to go with the better tools. But let’s not kid ourselves about the system we’re paying into when we use them.
Ultimately the capitalism that inexorably pushes those tools toward “feasibility” that excludes making the world a better place is going to leave us all worse off. And with great regret, I admit that in some situations there’s no workable alternative to selling out to that. I hope the time I devote to open source projects (mostly Drupal) and the times I’m able to choose the open source projects help prefigure a time when there are more alternatives, more often.
P.S. If it’s any consolation, we are in such a much better place with open-source and explicitly progressive tools now than we were in the 1990s or even the early 2000s, it’s amazing. We can keep pushing this forward; this doesn’t have to be the way things are forever.
As I said above, Change.org is going to have to bring in *a lot* of conservative/corporate business to make up for what they’re losing…. We’ll see if it works, or if this is going to go down as one of the dumbest branding decisions on record.