What Will Advocacy Organizations Do After Change.org’s Big Announcement?

by Ann Dermody // Jul 25, 2016 Uncategorized

Announcement of ChangesThings are changing at Change.org. And that means things are changing for advocacy.

In mid-July, the user-generated petition platform announced it was unveiling new crowdfunding tools for the organization.

What that basically means is its moving away from a revenue-gathering model of paid advertising from organizations, to a fundraising one where they will take a percentage. Read on to see why that leaves a void that’s set to be a very big deal for nonprofit and advocacy groups.

First, How Change.org Worked

For the uninitiated, here’s how Change.org works.

An individual or organization starts a petition online that anyone can sign and share, by entering his or her email and address. That attracts more users, and helps gather support for the issue, often resulting in inspirational victories that have built the website’s brand.

Take the example of Molly Katchpole in 2011, the 22-year-old nanny working two jobs that made the financial giant Bank of America ditch its $5 debit card usage fee.

When Katchpole decided to turn her gripe into an online petition, she went to Change.org and got 300,000 others, also fuming at the service charge, to sign her petition. Soon Congress got involved, and Bank of America dropped the surcharge. JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo followed suit and scrapped their proposed charges, too.

It’s a great illustration of the little guy having a tool at his or her fingertips to make democracy work at its best.

That element of the site is not going away. If you’ve got a grievance with your bank, bus company or online bullying, you can still start a petition to gather signatures, effect social change, and possibly the course of legislation. For free.

What’s Happening?

The website is changing its revenue model from “sponsored petitions” – where organizations could pay to target people by age, gender, political ideology and geography – to a crowdfunding model, where organizations can raise donations for their causes directly, for which Change.org will take a fee.

For the last several years, Change.org monetized its business from those sponsored petitions, by connecting nonprofits with people interested in their social causes.

Visitors would sign a few petitions, essentially self-identifying with a cause or interest, which would trigger the presentation of similar, sponsored petitions to sign.

It was effectively an advertising service advocacy groups used as a list-building tool to grow their organizations.

Change.org charged to connect you with qualified supporters they recruited, and your petition potentially reached several million of their subscribers by email.

That email promotion is now going away. And that’s a very real loss in the number of potential supporters advocacy organizations can reach.

But despite the 150 million global users who launch 25,000 petitions a month, Change.org needs to change to become more profitable. And that leaves a large question mark for nonprofits as to where to go to list build.

What Does That Mean for Advocacy Organizations?

Two things. First, the good news: The crowdfunding tool is a way to raise money, potentially a lot, from a socially conscious audience of new donors chipping in small amounts on the site.

Change.org will take a five percent service fee, potentially earning them significantly more revenue than the sponsored petitions.

One reason for the switch might be that a free petition platform invites wildly popular petitions, like this one to release the video game Pokemon GO on Windows 10, but also attracts signees who may not otherwise be civic-minded or cause-oriented.

Now, the bad news: What was essentially the biggest list-building service for nonprofits that uses a cost-per-acquisition model is being retired.

By using sponsored petitions, organizations had a way of growing their email list of applicable advocates fast, and relatively cheaply.

That option is no longer a priority for Change.org, which can pose a problem for advocacy groups.

Generating new email addresses isn’t nearly as exciting as telling your boss you’ve raised donations in the last few weeks, but it’s an essential part of growing a nonprofit or membership organization.

What’s the alternative for advocacy groups that need to build lists, or that do not seek direct donations?

Organizations who still need to build their lists to move the needle on legislation, or who don’t solicit donations directly (which is pretty much every nonprofit), will need to find an alternative.

As they rethink their growth strategies going forward, the model may move toward CPA providers that generate more “quality” advocates, and who are delivery-focused on getting those supporters’ letters or communications to Congress – as well as micro targeting and finding them in the first place.

Change.org had been very good at getting signees for their petitions, but there were question marks as to how successful they were at getting those communications delivered to the lawmakers who could ultimately really change the legislation.

That refocus may actually end up being a good thing for advocacy organizations who could scale up fast with Change.org from less-civic minded email addresses, as their future advocates are more likely to be a genuinely motivated and relevant audience for their issues.

By way of full disclosure, CQ Roll Call offers an advocate acquisition service within a cost-per-acquisition (CPA) model.