In Shift From Sponsored Petitions to Crowdfunding, Change.org Changes Everything

Change.org, an open petition platform, overhauls its previous revenue model to make room for new crowdfunding tools.


Pardon the pun, but the times they are a’changing at Change.org. The world’s largest petition platform is adding some new features—but the bigger news is what it is subtracting.

Buried in last week’s announcement that Change.org will debut a new set of crowdfunding tools is the fact that the organization is completely overhauling their revenue model. Over the next six months, Change.org will phase out their Sponsored Petitions advertising product.

This is a big deal. For the everyday user, Change.org is an open petition platform where anyone can launch a campaign for social change. But those user-generated petitions don’t keep the lights on or pay for salaries or tech upgrades. For years, Sponsored Petitions have been the engine behind Change.org’s business model. User-generated petitions help attract new users, win inspirational victories, and build the company’s brand. The free petition software has helped Change.org build a user base of over 150 million, and is responsible for tens of thousands of victories. And after those 150 million+ users have signed a couple petitions, they are shown a Sponsored Petition, created by an advocacy group or political campaign. When you sign that Sponsored Petition, your email address is added to the sponsoring organization’s member-supporter prospecting list. Organizations pay Change.org for every email address they acquire in this manner. (I call this setup a “reverse speakeasy” or “reverse mullet”: there’s a user-generated party in the front with a lead-generation business in the back.)

The Sponsored Petitions program has fueled Change.org’s explosive growth, taking it from a handful of staff in the United States to 150 staff around the world. And it is now going to be replaced by a 5 percent service fee on crowdfunding efforts through the site. That is a radical change in its business model. And we should expect three additional changes to quickly follow.

First, we should expect the new reliance on crowdfunding to drive a new focus on supporting sustained citizen campaign efforts throughout the site. Relying on Sponsored Petitions for the organization’s bottom line fostered an incentive to promote lightweight, “growthy” petitions. Indeed, some of the most popular petitions on the site have been fan petitions, like the 2013 petition to Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane asking him to bring back the cartoon dog that had recently died in his show. Other popular petitions have channeled mass joy or outrage at the outcome of major sporting events. Those petitions are great for getting new people to sign up on the site. But they aren’t particularly well-suited to ongoing campaign efforts. And they can often crowd out more expressly political petition-based campaigns on the site.

Only the smallest victories tend to be achieved on the basis of a single petition. Most of Change.org’s larger victories have required a series of sustained, creative tactics over a period of months or years. Those larger victories tend to stretch far beyond simple petitions, and Change.org staff take great pride in the larger campaigns they’ve helped support.

Replacing Sponsored Petitions with crowdfunding completely alters the incentives for what types of petition Change.org will encourage and promote. Single-shot petitions work well with the Sponsored Petitions revenue model. (Petition volume → Larger User Base → More lead generation prospects for partner organizations.) But you’re only going to see significant crowdfunding from those users that are thinking like long-term campaigners. Change.org is now going to start nudging users towards bigger petitions (and issues) that require ongoing collaboration and effort. Change.org’s new bottom line is premised on it becoming indispensable to burgeoning social movements. If all goes well, this is going to be a transformative moment for the company.

Second, this is going to change the company’s relationship with the rest of the nonprofit advocacy landscape. I asked Shayna Englin, Change.org’s managing director in North America, whether nonprofits would still be able to use Change.org for list-building. She acknowledged that this represents a move “away from lead generation as the mechanism for engaging with our organizational partners because we don’t think it currently serves our clients or our users as well as it used to.” She also noted that “Organizations can [still] create petitions on Change.org, and collect email addresses from signers who opt-in to learn more from them (for free). […] Organizations can [also] promote campaigns via the Promoted Petitions tool, which allows anyone to increase exposure of an advocacy campaign.”

So there will still be some options out there for nonprofits that want to use Change.org for building a supporter base. But those options just became much less central to the Change.org experience. I imagine there are plenty of membership recruitment departments at large NGOs who are now hastily arranging an emergency planning session to figure out how to fill the void that will be left by this shift. Make no mistake: lead generation isn’t glamorous work, and it never appears in the public narrative of successful movements for social change. But large-scale, long-term power-building requires resources. Those resources either come from a few mega-donors/foundations or they come from a massive small donor base. If you’d like the priorities of movement organizations not to be dictated by the mega-rich, then lead generation is an important function. The Sponsored Petitions program has quietly helped hundreds of nonprofits to build their small donor base. What will fill that gap?

Third and finally, a radical change like this is also a very big risk. Will crowdfunding service fees really be able to replace all the revenue that Sponsored Petitions were reliably generating? Will Change.org be able to displace existing Crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe.com?

I asked Englin why the organization decided to sunset the sponsored petitions program, instead of adding crowdfunding into the revenue mix. Her reply: “In a word: focus. We are making a strategic decision to focus directly on the impact of our users, both organizations and individuals. […] Once we add in what this focus will give us room to build, the platform will be an exceptionally powerful place for the ecosystem of change-makers to work together to build a better world.”

The new focus certainly represents a commitment to supporting long-term, powerful movements. But I have to wonder if the company would have made such a major shift if the paid list-building approach were still reliably churning out a healthy revenue stream. Change.org is diving into uncharted waters here. Going forward, the company will have 150 million+ users, but no proven method for converting that user-base into quarterly earnings reports.

Big risks can result in big rewards, and Change.org’s new bet on crowdfunding and movement support is going to set the company on an exciting path. But this is uncharted terrain. It will take some time to see where they end up.

  • tonynovak

    The world of crowdfunding is changing so rapidly that I presume most people aren’t keeping up. On thing that hasn’t changed is the need for fundraisers to be well managed and well advised in order to be successful in this arena. One major challenge is the ability of well run non-profits to distinguish themselves from the mass of scammers now operating in this space. http://tonynovak.com/cpa/fraud-in-crowdfunding/