Is Change.org about Real Change or Just Pocket Change?

New Orleans    Like many progressives I get frequent solicitations from Change.org about this petition or that petition for this cause or that cause.  I’m not a big petition signing guy, just because it’s time I don’t really have and a tool that is not the first to my hand, but I monitor it all to keep up with what’s happening.  I started looking more closely when I read The Business column in the Wall Street Journal by John Bussey on June 8th that told me to my surprise that Change.org was a for-profit.  I had earlier reservations about Care2.com and Moxy Vote.  Why in the world?

Bussey’s piece drifted around with interesting discussions on something called “B Corporations,” which are now allowed in half-dozen or so states and are worth further discussion but essentially are for profit companies that self-declare as social benefit operations that will use more of their profits for internal investment rather than stockholder benefits.  There were spinning rationalizations from the CEO of Change.org Ben Rattray, who argued that “the reason we’re making money is that it’s the necessary condition to having impact.”  None of these obfuscations seemed willing to address the real points.

A nonprofit can make money.  You don’t have to create a for profit structure to make money.  All of that is hooey.  A tax exempt nonprofit just doesn’t pay taxes to the government on income related to its mission.  A plain vanilla nonprofit, which is what ACORN was, can invest all of its excess revenues in building its organization (similar to the B Corporation claim), but if it ever had made big bucks (certainly wasn’t going to happen during the 38 years when I was Chief Organizer) it would have had to pay taxes.

Rattray and the others are trying to hide some simple facts behind the very important altar of self-sufficiency.  Inherent in their arguments are, yes, Virginia, it is critical to pay your bills for you to have a business plan and/or organizational model that arcs towards self-sufficiency.  I totally endorse that, and it has become an obsession for me after watching ACORN’s attack and demise less than 2 years ago.

But all of this is obfuscation.  The only thing you can’t do as a nonprofit is provide distributions to shareholders.  The only real reason that Rattray and others would chose any of for profit corporate structural formations is the hope and intention of personally cashing in or selling the business out at some point and making more for themselves (and any other possible stockholders) than were available from salaries and benefits paid or loans and investments returned.  Bussey makes the mistake abetted by Rattray and others who know better of assuming wrongly that nonprofits cannot make money, which of course they can, and confusing sustainability, taxes, and other issues, with the simplest truth that this is all about self-interest and stockholders.

It turns out that the Change.org business model is selling the aggregated email lists.  I didn’t know that either, which makes two strikes against transparency.  Sure a for-profit corporation can buy a .org website, since they are for sale, but to be so committed to not being transparent is a problem for me despite all of the good they are claiming to do.

All of this makes a mockery of progressive movements, progressive causes, and the base of regular people of good faith who are joining these efforts without realization and therefore knowingly being fleeced like so many sheep to the slaughter.  There is role for Change.org in this movement without a doubt, but we’re I’m at two strikes (for profit, list selling) and the third for me is wanting a true explanation from Rattray about his real intentions for Change.org which means a real story about why it is not constituted as a nonprofit?

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Raising and Indexing the Federal Minimum Wage

New Orleans   There was a picture in the New York Times claiming to be Dan Cantor (sure didn’t look like him?) of the New York State Working Families Party who was advocating an increase in the state minimum wage.  Jen Kern, a career minimum wage expert as former coordinator of ACORN’s Minimum Wage Resource Center and now with the National Employment Law Project in DC, was also quoted at length on the benefits of raising the minimum.  It felt like old home week and the calendar turning back a decade.  One of those, the more things change the more they stay the same stories.

There is too much déjà vu in this campaign.

Once again, just like in the Clinton first term, we have a Democratic President that has not raised the federal minimum wage. Despite Jen’s skills and other voices rising, there won’t be an increase in the federal minimum wage this year on the eve of an election.  There may be 1.8 million workers as Steven Greenhouse points out who are stuck at the minimum wage with another 2.5 million trapped beneath $7.25, but if this part of the vote is registered and not too suppressed, these are people voting more with their feet than with ballots and if they make it there, most will vote for Obama anyway, so little sweat will be expended in this direction.  Once again our only real hope will be that if Obama is re-elected, then perhaps there will be a bump before the end of the 2nd term following the Clinton pattern.

Looking at the 18 states with minimums over the federal level, it is surprising to me how narrow the compression is between what states have done and what Congress has allowed.  I need to do more research on this in coming days.  In some cases I fear that I have not kept up and the erosion of power at the state level by organizations and the surge by the right and groups like ALEC, may have erased some of the victories around citizen wealth won in recent years.  Florida in 2004 for example voted for an increase $1 over the federal minimum with an index.  Now, the index to inflation seems to have survived, but the dollar seems to have disappeared with Florida at $7.67 only a bit more than $0.40 over the federal level.  It also appears that we may have erred in withdrawing ballot initiatives in states like Arkansas and Michigan and accepting legislative increases, which now have allowed those states to simply pay the same rate as the federal level.

The Working Families Party is right.  The changes have to come at the state level if there is going to be real progress, but we finally have to make permanent indexing to inflation part of the package, or we need to step aside and let others carry the weight.

We won a statewide initiative in Missouri to increase the minimum wage after losing an earlier effort.  Now reportedly yet another coalition is amassing signatures to once again try to raise the wage now stuck at the federal $7.25 level.  We can’t keep doing this over and over again and now managing to make change permanent.

We need to look to make these changes at the state level, but we need to add indexing and we need to embed language that would require any rollback in the minimum wage to go to the voters, rather than allowing counter revolutions to wipe away these gains for working families.

Time to learn some lessons!

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