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.