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October 24th, 2012

Change.org: We’ve Seen This Before

By Wenonah Hauter

Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director, Food & Water Watch

Recently, the Huffington Post reported that Change.org has abandoned its progressive roots and planned on doing it without telling anyone, according to documents leaked from a Change.org employee to Jeff Bryant with Campaign for America’s Future. (According to this petition on rival petition site Signon.org, that employee has now been fired.)

So why is Change.org changing?

“[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,” wrote Change.org founder and CEO Ben Rattray to his staff, in an email also leaked to the Huffington Post.

For the past three years, Food & Water Watch has run campaigns with Change.org, so we were outraged when we heard that they would now potentially be working with the likes of Monsanto, the American Petroleum Institute, and anyone else that wants to run a campaign with them.

We spoke with several leaders inside Change.org yesterday, including Ben Rattray himself. He tried to reassure us that their change in policy did not mean a change in values, and they would not start working with Monsanto tomorrow.

Our conversations did not reassure us.

Rattray characterizes this new “open” policy as a way to indicate that they are non-partisan and focused on empowerment as a tool of change. I pointed out to him that in many cases the issues we work on from fracking and genetically modified organisms to privatization of our common resources and the destruction or weakening of unions has been embraced by both major parties.

In fact, wouldn’t we hope that a platform like Change.org would hold Democratic Party officials accountable to their base, rather than the corporations that are buying votes and ultimately creating a situation where public policy is for sale?

And let’s talk about empowerment. 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.

We’ve experienced time and time again being outspent on campaigns by industry front groups that have slick messaging and PR campaigns that are meant to confuse and paralyze voters and the democratic process. We’re seeing this right now in California where we’re trying to pass Prop 37 to give citizens the right to know if their food contains genetically modified ingredients. The biotech and processed food industries are pouring more than $35 million dollars into campaigns designed to mislead voters, while the side fighting for Prop 37 has pennies to their dollars to educate voters about the truth.  

Even after talking with Ben, I get the impression that their decision comes down to increasing their size and reach. This will mean more advertisers and higher revenues. 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.

This is just one more example of why it is so important to have a strong and vibrant public interest community that does not accept money from corporations and that keeps an appropriate distance because in a for-profit company, the pressure is always to increase earnings for shareholders and investors. As long as this is all above board and everyone understands the relationship, so be it. But it’s unseemly when an organization that claims to be progressive, and has built its organization on working with the progressive community, sells out like this.

Thankfully, there are other progressive groups that aren’t embarrassed about being progressive. Organizations like Care2, Credo Mobile, and Moveon.org who are working in this sphere are committed to the kind of change we want, and won’t compromise in the interest of increasing profits.

Recently there has been a lot of chatter about how our political system is so broken that we should just let business take the lead in creating social change. This is a dangerous sentiment. No matter how well meaning companies may be, the pressure will always be on increasing market share and making a profit. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be some good companies that maintain their principles and make a fair profit. But, there will always be people who are willing to put aside their principles and original vision to attract investors and to increase profits. We will be watching to see what happens at Change.org and keeping our fingers crossed that they don’t weaken the very movement that they were formed to strengthen.

15 Comments on Change.org: We’ve Seen This Before

  1. Kyla Mullens says:

    If Change.org starts working with Monsanto not only will it be a sad day, but they will lose a lot of people that support people that come to Change.org. This will hurt Change.org, but most of all i think it will hurt the people that utilize Change.org to make real social change.
    To Change.org; please do not partner with socially unethical entities. Care about people and not about money.

  2. Liz P. says:

    This is one of the best articles I’ve seen written about this disturbing news. Well said, Ms. Hauter! Thank you for articulating the feelings many of us have had since Change.org’s new policy became public.

  3. Peter g. says:

    Add Salsa Labs to the list of former progressives who have sold out their values in the interest of profits. Too bad.

  4. Amdrew Heugel says:

    Change.org has had numerous errors of all kinds since it opened shop. In the beginning, these errors appeared to be of a technical nature, and though inconvenienced, the vast majority of members attributed such errors to change.org’s growing process. Now it’s gruesome!

    However, during the past year, change.org has increasingly limited the ability of its rank and file members to communicate with each other and this past January eliminated the ability of change.org members to share petitions, except through Facebook, Twitter, or one of their favored e-mail programs while giving change.org your password to these sites. Meanwhile, change.org has increasingly “featured” and promoted petitions of their management’s choosing in so doing has shown that it’s more interested in profits and satisfying such one per center platforms as Facebook than in promoting true grass roots advocacy. It’s long past time for this to change, and for change.org to put the power back in the hands of the people, and be more transparent regarding admitting their recent dubious dealings.

    Below are seven petitions and a Huffington Post article and Care2 blog regarding the unfortunate changes at change and each advocating for change.org to become more transparent and treat its members with respect. There were more such petitions, but those writers gave up hope, as it takes polite patience and persistence to beat “City Hall.”

    Power to the peons aka the 99%!

    Andy

    http://www.change.org/petitions/change-org-needs-to-listen-to-and-empower-their-members
    http://www.change.org/petitions/change-org-to-change-back-to-the-way-it-was-before
    http://www.change.org/petitions/changeorg-what-happened-to-sharing
    http://www.change.org/petitions/change-org-give-us-back-our-friends
    http://www.change.org/petitions/change-org-don-t-sell-out-people-over-profit
    http://www.change.org/petitions/change-org-don-t-sell-out-to-right-wing-causes-and-corporate-interests
    http://www.change.org/petitions/change-org-do-not-change-petition-tallies-without-providing-evidence-of-errors
    And, here’s a link to a Huffington Post article and a Care2 blog re how change.org has sold what remained of its souls to the forces of the corporate dark side:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/22/changeorg-corporate-gop-campaigns-internal-documents_n_1987985.html?show_comment_id=198883620#comment_198883620
    http://www.care2.com/causes/change-comes-to-change-org.html

    • Nicole Weber says:

      Well said Andrew!
      I am personally highly disappointed in this new venue. I will support other advocacy organizations that do NOT open themselves to the special interest groups that we are morally and ethically opposed.

  5. Nick H says:

    I’ve been a memeber for a long time, and upset that they won’t allow is to contact people on our friends list. That was the first time I noticed a problem. The fact they will support corporations that destroy our planet, is disgusting to me. Big corporate money is buying the US. We should be called THE UNITED CORPORATIONS OF AMERICA now. :(

  6. Barbara K says:

    I hope someone starts up a site to be the way change.org was. I would join it immediately and I think many others will too. There must be someone out there who knows how to do this.

  7. Larry says:

    Wow, I noticed a few things that were disturbing before reading this. I just closed my account.

    Thank you.

  8. Kev C says:

    Sounds like a divide and conquer policy. Stopping people communicating with each other except via the specified channels is another classic way of data mining. By stopping you all talking with each other via the Change site is another back handed way of empowering those who would object to you knowing about GM food stuffs and the dangers of Fracking and so on. More importantly dis-empowering you with regards one of the few avenues of opportunity for concerned people to do something positive about these and the many other issues that beset the planet right now.
    Maybe you should all adopt the 38 Degrees team based in the UK. They have still got independent ideals and believe in taking on the Goliath’s at every turn. An article will appear in one of the Sunday papers talking about what makes 38 Degrees work. Its the people init! :)

  9. *C* says:

    After I’d joined Change.org, I realized that — other than creating and promoting petitions and other actions — there really wasn’t much else to do there.

    Because I’m an active member of Care2, which offers many other avenues of involvement, I could see the advantage to linking with a group of friends at Change.org who had also joined because they were interested in signing and further promoting calls to action.

    (I thought it would be great not to be asked NOT to forward those things, which made the site of special value to me.)

    With the constant, and on-going problems at Change.org . . . when I couldn’t access my friends list there, at first, I assumed it was — yet again — another programming problem. As such, I wrote to their pseudo “help team” to report it.

    Imagine my disappointment when I got a round-about explanation that I’d need to use Facebook (which I don’t trust) . . . or pull up my private email contacts (which I trust giving giving access to anyone else even less)!

    Frankly, I felt like the victim of a “bait and switch” scam; so I deleted my Change.org account, after leaving a message on my profile there as to why.

  10. *C* says:

    One further thought . . .

    Since Change.org presented itself as a limited means of promoting activism, I accepted it as just that. As such, and as I previously mentioned, I had compartmentalized the growing group of “friends” I had there as serious activists, content to be contacted for that purpose.

    While I used their venue for that purpose, and my friends at Care2 for much more varied reasons, my personal email contacts consist of family and friends (many carefully-chosen through involvement at those and other sites) and my communications with my personal contacts rarely involve messages requesting calls to action. It’s a time to relax, get to know each other on another level and exchange personal news, jokes, etc.

    I highly resented being forced to upload a list of those I’d already carefully chosen to be of a more intimate nature to a site that had eliminated their only offered choice of acquiring like-minded activists (without even providing advance notice).

    Totally unprofessional; and decidedly insensitive!

  11. ThomasB says:

    Thank god I’ve never joined Change.org
    And will do it never for any other organization.
    I help this one who need our help really,and not such who do it just for greed.

  12. Yvonne Taylor says:

    I have signed all petitions on this, and will be withdrawing my ChangeOrg membership soon if they do not go back to the way it was.

    • B. Smith says:

      The only reason I haven’t withdrawn my membership so far is because I can still send and receive messages from a few of my friends there. I will soon be signing off of Change.org for the last time. I think the best we can hope for at this point is that a mass exodus of members causes them to just shut it all down.

  13. I’ve just been researching change.org. At this later date, I’m not seeing any indication of significant corporate presence or infiltraion of their site.

    Are you still concerned Monsanto and API will corrupt the values of the cause primarily promoted?

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