A .org Does not a Non-Profit Make

April 10th, 2012

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Change.org, among other sites, has turned me into what some might call a charity slacktivist.  Over the past year or so, from the comfort of my own couch, I’ve signed dozens of petitions simply by clicking a button.  But for all the feel-good moments brought on by my supporting someone else’s cause, there is a darker side to Change.org.  Because it isn’t actually what it appears to be (“.org” usually implies a nonprofit organization), we felt it important to add the following entry to our glossary:

Change.org:  The online petition site, Change.org, is a for-profit, B Corporation that makes money by running campaigns for organizations that are willing to pay for access to Change.org’s users’ personal information, which includes their name, e-mail address, and mailing address. According to its privacy policy, “[i]f you sign a petition … even if you uncheck the box ‘Display my signature publicly’, your Personal Information may be delivered to the intended recipient of such campaign and/or the creator of such campaign either electronically or in writing …”  It is estimated that Change.org will have revenues of $15 million in 2012.

In order to draft this glossary entry, I actually had to read Change.org’s privacy policy, which, by the way, took four pieces of chocolate to get through. The initial thing that struck me about the policy was its first privacy representation:  “The Company does not run any commercial ads …”  Hmmm. Let’s review what we know:

  • Partner organizations post “campaigns” on Change.org.
  • Change.org then sends these “campaigns” to registered users that it thinks will be interested in the cause, or as Change.org puts it, “[w]e use cutting-edge technology to feature your organization in front of individuals most passionate about your cause ….”
  • The partner organizations then pay Change.org for the personal information of people that sign onto the “campaigns.”  As Change.org explains it, “[w]e guarantee 100% unique names and no overlap with your current list of supporters.  …  Our team of experts will partner with you to make sure we are recruiting the best supporters for your organizational goals – all fully included in the low per-supporter rate.”
  • Finally, in order to “recruit” even more “supporters,” Change.org gives you the option of sharing the “campaign” with your friends on Facebook, or you can share it with all your email contacts.

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So, with the assistance of Change.org, an organization sends you a “campaign,” which you may sign onto. If you do, the organization then gets your personal information from Change.org so that the organization can send you more “campaigns,” and potentially get a donation from you. If the organization is lucky, it will also get the personal information of the people that you sent its “campaign” to.  While Change.org may call it a “campaign,” to me it appears to be a sophisticated pay-per-click advertisement.  Which brings us back to that initial privacy representation that Change.org doesn’t run commercial ads – I’m thinking that’s not really an accurate statement.

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B Corporation: known as a benefit corporation, B Corps are for-profit corporations that must consider their impact not only on shareholders, but also on employees, the community, and the environment, and they must publicly document their performance in these areas using established standards.

Data that can be used to identify you, like your name, address, birth date, or Social Security number

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About the Author

Bonnie Patten

Bonnie, executive director of TINA.org, is an attorney and mother of three. Her commitment to educating the public about deceptive marketing stems from her belief that education is the only viable way to effectively eradicate the market for false ads.



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