On Change.org and progressive petition gathering

Text from Change.org website. "Change.org is a social action platform that empowers anyone, anywhere to start, join, and win campaigns to change the world.  We're proud to be a certified B Corp, using the power of business for social good."I was not at all surprised to learn that Change.org is done pretending to be progressive (I also wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up being bad for business). One thing’s always been clear to me: they’re in it for the money, not the politics. That’s why they got involved in progressive petition gathering in the first place. Because petition gathering in politics is pretty much a racket anyway.

Elected officials don’t care about petitions. They don’t care about mass form emails. They care about hand written letters and phone calls, and they care about office visits more (though I’m overstating the case on those methods, too. They really care about money). Progressive organizations know this.

When I worked in DC I sat in multiple meetings with representatives from multiple lefty orgs where we talked about collecting petitions that would never be delivered. Because we knew they wouldn’t make a difference. Petitions are a list building tool. That’s what everyone calls them in the nonprofits that send you emails asking you to sign petitions to your electeds. Petitions are used to built lists of people to contact to ask for money. The lobbyists do the political work. While there are real ways to get an organization’s base to engage with politicians, they’re much more difficult than petition gathering. Most orgs don’t bother.

There’s this attitude I encountered all the time in DC, that the real political work happens through lobbying, and any work with the base is about list building. This has a lot to do with where the walls are in nonprofit offices, it’s not some malicious project. But it’s a paradigm that seriously needs to change. I’m really hoping the news about Change.org gives us a chance to reflect more broadly on how we engage in politics, and demand better avenues for making the political impact we want, not just building lists so organizations and businesses can make money.

That’s why Change.org got into the progressive petition gathering game. It’s a way to make money. Now, the site obviously isn’t just political petitions. Consumer advocacy via the internet really does work, and Change.org has had some success there. Though the public shaming via social media and the press tends to be the most effective part of those campaigns, too. It’s also more effective when folks contact these decision makers directly, as signing a petition is considered pretty easy. It’s the public shaming that goes along with petitions that matters the most.

There are real, effective ways to make change via the internets. Petition gathering is probably the least effective. But it is the easiest way to make money. It’s all about list building, which is super quantifiable, and names have value (this is the point where I start wondering about all those lists of progressives Change.org has built).

I’m actually a little relieved Change.org has decided to stop pretending they’re progressive, because it’s an opportunity for us to look at the ways we’re trying to make change. I hope as folks stop using Change.org we can have a conversation about what’s actually effective. Because I’m tired of seeing organizations contact their base to do… nothing. Mobilizing a base takes work, but I think it’s pretty clear from the number of folks signing petitions that we want to have an impact, we want to make change.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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Join the Conversation

  • http://feministing.com/members/carrolle/ Emily C.

    Dear Jos and Feministing,

    I am a huge fan of your blog posts, but as someone who works as a grassroots organizer (and someone who also lobbies), I find this post to be problematic and dis-empowering. Largely, this post is written from the national perspective and fails to take into account the vital role that email petitions play in local and state-level politics.

    While I largely agree with your criticisms of Change.org, I do think that this post write off online petitions in a way that is unfair and inaccurate (although I do not believe that Jos’ intentions were to portray this issue unfairly or to present inaccurate information).

    I would really appreciate it if there were another way to reach our to you about this. I’m a longtime reader and supporter of feministing.com, but I think this post is telling people that online petitions are not a powerful way to engage politically–and that’s often untrue. I really hope there is some sort of follow-up to this.

  • http://feministing.com/members/cowman/ Al

    Online petitions haven’t ever done anything. They’re a good sentiment and a good way to spread the word, but it’s way too easy to put down a fake and offensive name. It’s really just a way for people to feel like they’ve contributed to a cause but without actually doing anything.

  • http://feministing.com/members/cnysam/ Sam

    I’m sure both Jos and Emily can speak to this in much greater detail, but I have discovered several things wrong with Change.org’s format.

    1) I agree with Jos about the failure to persuade elected officials, at least at the national level. For example, I saw a petition for a bill get 10,000 signatures, and 1 congressperson joined the co-sponsor list in the 2 months since that petition.

    2) Petitions to elected officials/governments who do not represent you seem somewhat silly. There are reasons to mass communicate with elected officials in neighboring districts, or committee chairs or legislative leaders elsewhere in a jurisdiction, but having say, californians sign a petition asking Maryland to pass a law is absurd. I have many friends who worked in legislative offices, and they DESPISED random communication from non-constituents.

    3) Some of the most popular petitions are emotional releases for the creators/signers: I refer specifically to the “Demand So-and-so APOLOGIZE for such-and-such!”. Of course, people aren’t going to apologize just because they got a bunch of mass emails, and the point isnt to get them to say “I’m sorry” (which won’t help, because the offenders are usually speaking from the heart). The point isn’t really to embarrass them (If an incident warrants an apology petition, it is usually big enough to get some good press on its own). It’s more for people to put their name down as “among the outraged”.

    4) Since Change.org, far more than Care2Action or MoveOn, marketed itself as the go-to site for petitions, opening it to all causes was inevitable, even beyond the money. I saw this coming when the petition for “Caylee’s law” destroyed previous records for signatories, and thus brought a huge group of people on board who aren’t necessarily progressive, but who were enraged at Casey Anthony at the time. Also, a lot of people may care about many progressive issues, but may also have some strong conservative yearnings, and want to petition for them as well. Change.org has long been somewhat better suited to that than some other sites.

    5) The other petition sites have this too, but change.org is a living testament to the biggest problem with grassroots petitioning. A lot of causes have multiple petitions for the exact same thing. It’s badly uncoordinated at times.