The Change.org petitions calling for justice for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are two of the biggest in the company’s history, “magnitudes” larger than anything the site has seen before, says acting CEO Nick Allardice, and not just in terms of signatures. After adding their names and seeing a prompt to “chip in,” many signees also contributed money—though what exactly they were “chipping in” for was left somewhat vague. The company’s revenue model (despite having “.org” in its name, the company is for-profit) involves asking for more money when people sign, but the windfall these petitions generated is an order of magnitude larger than usual: In the end, the company netted $10 million in “donations” (the company insists they are not donations, because as a private company, it cannot accept donations; it considers them contributions to promote a petition through advertising) from the two petitions, and while it dedicated some of that money to promoting the petitions themselves, critics—including former staffers—demanded that the company not profit off the deaths of Floyd and Taylor.
Now the company is responding, announcing that it will put $6 million into a fund dedicated to fighting for and supporting racial justice efforts—though it’s still vague about which organizations will receive that money. It will also set aside $2.5 million toward helping racial justice petitions on the platform get even more attention. And at least $1.5 million will be used to create a new internal team focused on ways to engage people in racial justice organizing after they sign a petition.
While no beneficiaries of the $6 million fund have been picked yet, Allardice says the company is clear on the direction for this fund: toward supporting Black-led organizations on the front lines of racial justice work and grassroots organizers driving change in their own communities—and not just in this moment, but over time.
“There’s been so much energy and attention directed to racial justice work in the recent weeks that many groups are trying to figure out what to do with all the money that they generated, and we want to make sure that our money goes as far as possible,” he says. “That means taking the time to understand, well, what are the gaps right now? What are the places, people, organizations that might have been missed by some of the attention over the last few weeks? How can we make sure that that $6 million is being as useful as possible over the coming years? So we’re taking a moment to do that and talk to movement leaders and bring in some experts who understand where some of those gaps might be.”
Allardice won’t give examples of who the company is speaking with—but said more specifics about their initial commitments will come out within a month, and the company will be transparent with updates about where the money goes as it is doled out. It’s also not clear yet whether the fund will be replenished with additional cash if people continue to contribute money after signing popular racial justice petitions.
“Right now we’ve been pretty focused on this particular moment and how we can maximize the impact of the money that has come in through these campaigns specifically,” Allardice says. “We do think that over time we want to provide more options and ability for our users to use their voice, use their money, use all of the resources and their skills to have an impact on causes and movements. That’s something we want to build deep into the core of the platform, not something that we do in an ad hoc one-off way, so that’s something that we’re actively working on.”
The new internal team will help the nearly 30 million Change.org users who have engaged with racial justice campaigns on the site find other actions they can take, such as rallies, readings, and other suggestions from movement leaders and campaign creators. The site has seen a surge in attention on racial justice campaigns this year compared to last; so far in 2020, more than 15 million Americans have signed at least one racial justice petition, accounting for more than 49 million signatures across this category, as they support multiple campaigns. In all of 2019, about 5.5 million Americans accounted for more than 9 million racial justice signatures. Globally, more than 35 million people have signed a racial justice petition so far this year, compared to just over 8 million in all of 2019.
The $2.5 million for raising petition visibility includes what the company has already spent, such as the purchase of 119 billboards to promote the Floyd petition (Allardice would not say how much was spent on the billboards specifically). This sort of investment helps make a campaign successful, Allardice says, not just in reaching a certain number of signatures but in actually meeting their broader goals of change: The more signatures a petition gets, which could be boosted by this promotional spending, the more attention it may bring to the issue, which could bring about real change. After nonprofit group Healthier Colorado delivered a Change.org petition with more than 150,000 signatures calling for an insulin price cap to Colorado legislators, lawmakers passed a bill implementing such a cap. Healthier Colorado credited their signees specifically for their support and activism. Across all its petitions, 11% of the signatures are driven by the promotional dollars donated by other signers.
The Floyd and Taylor petitions marked the first two times on Change.org that people have donated cash to any petition more than 100,000 times. The outpouring of money for these campaigns was more than the site had ever seen. For context, in 2019, the average petition on Change.org in the U.S. had $45 donated to it, from 3.6 people.
Change.org is making internal commitments as well. Currently, there’s one person of color on its executive and one on the board; the company says people of color will make up 25% within six months. Other commitments include an independent audit on how systemic racism impacts its culture and decision-making, anti-racism training, and a company review of policies that may negatively impact people of color.
In a fitting example of petitions having success at creating change, Allardice says the company was already in discussions about what it should do with the money, but an the open letter signed by more than 50 former Change.org employees—as well as the online outrage from people who felt misled by Change.org’s business status and confused about where their money was headed—helped speed up the process. The site does tell people that monetary contributions will go toward marketing petitions to garner even more support, including email mentions and ad space on the site and social media. The site also tells contributors how many people the advertisements will reach. When they survey people who promote petitions, he adds, they find that their satisfaction rates are very high.
“I think because of the just extraordinary amount of people who were taking action in this moment, we definitely hear that there’s some people who didn’t read the exact detail of the number of people that it would be advertised to,” Allardice says, “and that’s something that we are continuing to improve.”
Update: We’ve updated this article to note that Change.org does not consider the money given by petition-signers to be a donation, and that the company says it was is discussions about donating the money from the Floyd and Taylor before it received the open-letter from former employees.