By Lily Wolfson ’21
Change.org is the world’s most prolific medium for social change. The site has over 265 million users worldwide. Millions of people each day log on to Change.org to support, start, and sign petitions.
Change.org was founded as a non-profit organization by CEO Ben Rattray in 2007 when he was 27-years-old. Rattray attended Stanford University and the London School of Economics with majors in political science and economics. He wanted to be an investment banker, retire at age 35, and go into politics. Shortly after graduating, he shifted his career path and kickstarted Change.org from his house.
Since its launch, the site has undergone several changes. It began as a digital network for activism, then transitioned to a cause-based medium for blogging. In late 2010, Change.org became a for-profit organization. In 2011, the site became a petition platform. Change.org is now a public benefit company with B Corporation status, and it has raised $72 million from backers, including LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman.
The site is now a multimillion-dollar for-profit organization. It is a private company, so it does not have to release tax returns. It makes its money from advertising—and people’s donations.
After someone signs a Change.org petition, the site gives the option to either donate or spread the word. Because this step directly follows signing the petition, many may feel inclined to donate or share and that their signature may not be recorded if they do neither. The site entices petition-signers to donate with the message “Become a hero” and prompts them to choose between $3, $25, $50, or $100 donations. The organization does not funnel donated funds to petition organizers or to parties affected. Instead, Change.org puts the money into their own pockets. Per Business Insider, the company keeps the money to “circulate” petitions more vastly on its site, which is specified on the site in smaller print. However, many petition-signers and petition-creators feel misled.
A spokesperson for Change.org declined to say how much the organization raised from the Justice for George Floyd petition, citing company policy against reporting petition-specific revenue, according to Business Insider. The site has recently stopped asking for donations through the George Floyd petition. The world will likely never know how many donations Change.org elicited from petition-signers who thought they were giving to Floyd’s family.
Per Change.org's site: "every $20 will advertise the petition 250 extra times on Change.org." However, the site does not disclose how that translates into clicks and impressions, which are the metrics that most online ad sales are measured by. For comparison, advertisers spend approximately $2.80 per 1,000 impressions on Google ads, according to ad analytics firm Adstage.
Many have taken to social media to voice concerns about Change.org’s donations model. The organization used to not host crowdfunding campaigns, which permitted people to donate to a petition organizer, with Change.org keeping five percent of every donation. Change.org decommissioned this fundraising tool in 2019, per its FAQ page. In the FAQ section of the site, there is no mention of where donations go.
Despite the message in tiny font, many petition-signers do not know where their donations go.
“Donations go to what the petitions are for,” said an eighth-grader from Los Angeles, CA. “For example, if it’s for a dog shelter, the money goes to the dog shelter.” She added, “I think Change.org is a reliable place.”
Orion Brock, a 22-year-old lab technologist from Columbus, Ohio, said, “I’m assuming the donations go to petition organizers, kind of like GoFundMe. I just assume it goes there.”
The eighth-grader and Brock were two of ten people interviewed.
All ten, ranging in age from 13 to 57, said that they thought all donations on Change.org went to petition organizers or the cause for which the petition was made. Every person thought Change.org was a non-profit organization.
Under the membership tab on the site, Change.org entices people to join their team: “Millions of people come to Change.org to start and sign petitions that boldly call for social change. Become a member today and fuel our mission to empower EVERYONE to create the kind of change they want to see.” Just beneath this message is the option to “contribute monthly” with the option of giving $3, $5, $10, and $20. This means that one must contribute money to become a Change.org member and “create the kind of change they want to see.”
On the same page, the site says what a contribution supports: “influence over decision makers; connecting advocates and decision makers facilitates meaningful changes in policies, laws and business practices; expert campaign advice;” and more. There is no specificity as to how Change.org exactly implements these three goals.
Change.org petitions fill news feeds and spread the word about causes people may not otherwise hear about. The site also elicits donations from petition-signers, and those donations are not going to the cause the petitions are made for, but rather the company itself.
How many donors “just assume” donations go to the cause they are signing for? As Change.org has a policy that prohibits employees from disclosing petition-specific revenue, the world may never know.