How Change.org is monetising your passions, and why you should care

Unlike traditional protesting, clicktivism allows organisations to bring 'Big Data' into the mix. Source: Getty Images

For Change.org, its users are not just champions of change; they’re also a valuable commodity.

Founded nine years ago in America, Change.org allows users to create, sign and promote petitions.

In less than a decade, Change.org has grown to over 100 million users in almost every country, it boasts that around the world its petitions register a ‘win’ every hour.

But several years ago the organisation morphed from its original progressive social change venture into a more politically agnostic privately held company. From Amnesty International to UK Conservative Party, Change.org has more than 500 clients willing to pay to boost and target their campaigns.

Although they were unwilling to confirm specific clients without their consent, the company told The Feed that they spoke to “all main political parties at a federal and state level” about sponsored campaigns on an ongoing basis.

It says it’s not a typical company. That it reinvests 100% of its earnings back into its mission. But the company’s 3.9 million Australian users probably know little of its commercial activities.

For Change.org, its users are not just champions of change; they’re also a valuable commodity.

According to its advertising, the company allows corporate clients to target supporters by geography, age, gender “and more.”

That “and more” isn’t extensively detailed on their website, but it’s likely a nod to their data operation.

After a user signs a petition, they’re often presented with related petitions from corporate clients.

In fact, each petition a user signs is used to build a profile of their interests and passions, which Change.org can then use to target promoted posts. It’s a similar model to Google’s targeted advertising, but instead of monetising search and email, Change.org is monetising clicktivism.

A paragraph from Wired Magazine sums it up nicely:

If you sign one animal rights petition, the company says, you’re 2.29 times more likely to sign a criminal justice petition. And if you sign a criminal justice petition, you’re 6.3 times more likely to sign an economic justice petition. And 4.4 times more likely to sign an immigrant rights petition. And four times more likely to sign an education petition. And so on.

After this article went live, a spokesperson told us that user profiling was currently only occurring in the US, and does not happen on the Australian site. Its privacy policy still reserves the right to collect that information.

At no point during the one click registration process are Change.org’s targeting activities clearly communicated to users. The company did point out that its privacy policy is flagged in the sign up process, but you can judge for yourself how effective that is.

On a page soliciting monthly donations from ‘Change.org sustainers,’ it’s also not entirely clear that Change.org is a privately held company which doesn't disclose its finances.

The company says it believes the best way to achieve its mission of empowerment is by combining the vision of a non-profit with the “flexibility and innovation” of a tech startup.

“We’re a new type of company in Australia - a ‘benefit corporation’ or ‘B Corp’. We sit within a community of other B Corps who reinvest all their profits into their mission,” Gary Nunn, Change.org’s Australian Director of Communications told SBS.

“We’re proud of our business model because it helps organisations - the majority of them charities - to enhance their impact and build financial sustainability. It also keeps our tools free for all of our 3.9 million users who are often marginalised, ostracised or otherwise voiceless,” he said. “Our business model contributes to our mission: a world where nobody is powerless.”Medicines Sans Frontiers has used the platform in Italy to find more donors, Virgin America used a petition to promote a new air-route, and the UK Conservative party used targeting to find and influence voters.

A profile on Change.org says the Conservatives were able to find users who cared about issues such as the UK leaving the EU and tax reform. Change.org uses the political party as a case study to promote their service to potential clients.

While originally a progressive organisation, the company is now explicitly impartial.

“We’re an open platform - much like Twitter or YouTube,” Nunn says, “we exist to empower people everywhere to create the change they want to see.”

In a leaked FAQ document from the company’s 2012 shift to non-partisanship, a memo noted that it would be open to pro-gun and anti-abortion petitions.

“We are open to organisations that represent all points of view, including those with which we personally (and strongly) disagree,” the document said. The same document noted it had no plans to “pro-actively” tell its users or the media of its internal shift, according to a Huffington Post report.

Preethi Herman, head of Change.org in India, told SBS the fact that the platform could host opposing petitions on the same issue was, for her, “an intrinsic part of democracy.”

But Change.com’s political agnosticism also raises the commercial appeal of the platform. It allows the company to attract a broader base of users, whose data they can market to a wider range of clients.

The impartiality of the system does have its limits, however. In early 2014 the company banned a homophobic petition in India which had gathered 2,500 signatures.  

Herman told us they pulled the petition for violating hate speech policies after a prominent Indian LGBTI activist, Harrish Iyer, brought it to their attention.

“If we removed petitions based on our personal beliefs, we would be perceived as an advocacy group rather than an open platform,” Nunn said.

SBS referred the petition below to Change.org, which among other things says there's a higher risk of gay parents molesting their children.

Change.org said they decided to take the petition down immediately, but that a technical bug caused a delay. Shortly after the publication of this article it was deleted. 

"We take hate speech extremely seriously and this petition falls way outside our guidelines. We’ve taken immediate action since it was flagged up by you," Nunn said.

Change.org Australia told The Feed they were still in ‘start-up’ mode, so were investing more than they were earning. They said as a private company, they don’t release revenue figures.

“Since 2014, we’ve seen a tripling of our client base; 500 of the world’s leading NGOs and political organisations in a dozen countries now regularly use Change.org to connect with new supporters,” Nunn said.

“We’ve also seen a tenfold increase in the number of people who use our Promoted Petitions product, which allows individuals who are passionate about a petition to chip in money to promote it to other Change.org users to build support,” he said.

“The only thing we’re not neutral on is people power,” Nunn said. “We champion that - and how technology makes it easier - loudly and proudly.”

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