organizing petitions



After the San Bernardino shooting earlier this month, California-based neurologist and social activist Faisal Qazi started a fundraiser for the victims’ families on LaunchGood, a crowdfunding site run by and for the Muslim community. Qazi launched the campaign before it was even known that the perpetrators of the shooting were also Muslim, but when the fact emerged, the fundraiser gave the Muslim-American community an outlet to demonstrate solidarity with the victims and their families, and to distance themselves from the violence perpetrated—an outlet increasingly necessary if American Muslims are to counter the Islamophobia proliferating in public and private discourse right now. More than 2,000 supporters raised a total of $215,515.

“This united American Muslim campaign aims to reclaim our faith from extremists by responding to evil with good,” said co-organizer Tarek El-Messidi in a campaign press release.

LaunchGood, which celebrated its two-year anniversary in October, and MPower Change, a digital organizing platform that quietly launched this fall, together are carving out space for American Muslims to communicate, collaborate, and agitate online. While other ethnic and religious groups have long had dedicated online platforms for political organizing—African Americans have Color of Change; Latinos have Presente; Asian Americans have 18 Million Rising; Christians have Faithful America—MPower Change and LaunchGood are among the first digital organizing platforms for American Muslims.

In a recent interview with Colorlines, MPower Change co-founder Linda Sarsour bemoaned the lack of platforms for civically-minded American Muslims:

We’ll have a social media campaign that will get buzz for a day or two but we lose people immediately after the frenzy. The Muslim community has been able to have a few campaigns that have trended and shift the conversation, but once they’re over we have to start from scratch…We want to create our own online base that we can consistently engage on multiple issues.

The appeal of a crowdfunding site by and for Muslims was two-fold, LaunchGood co-founder and COO Amany Killawi tells Civicist. During the five years she worked as a community organizer, primarily with inner-city youth, Killawi had crowdfunded several programs and had become aware of the “transformative” power of crowdfunding. She liked that it was decentralized and transparent, that it activated the community, and that it generated publicity for community projects and activism.

As for her co-founder Chris Blauvelt, Killawi said that he was one of the first Muslims to enter the crowdfunding space. In 2010, just over a year after Kickstarter launched, Blauvelt started a crowdfunding campaign there for Bilal’s Stand, a film about a Muslim teen he helped produce, and which was eventually screened at the Sundance Film Festival. Killawi said Blauvelt saw how crowdfunding campaigns were impacting the mainstream, pointing out that a not-insignificant number of Sundance films start out as Kickstarter projects—10 percent in 2012, the year before they started LaunchGood—and he wanted to see the global Muslim community benefit from the same groundswell of support.

“The mission of LaunchGood is to inspire everyday Muslims to just do amazing work,” Killawi explains, adding that the work does not have to be restricted to the Muslim community. She cites a LaunchGood campaign to help rebuild the primarily-black churches in Tennessee, Georgia, and the Carolinas that were targeted by arsonists earlier this year.

According to LaunchGood’s online statistics, 491 projects have been funded, with 30,745 users raising over 5 million dollars. They also boast higher success rates than other top platforms like Kickstarter and GoFundMe.

Even so, the fundraiser for San Bernardino families broke site records, Blauvelt told the Los Angeles Times, with pledges at one point topping out at $1,000 an hour. Qazi and co. raised more than $215,000 in total for the victims and their families. Qazi told the Los Angeles Times that the money would be distributed through San Bernardino County and the United Way.

“These campaigns start to counter the narrative of who Muslims really are,” Killawi said. “You’ll see on Yahoo news Trump saying ‘Ban All Muslims!’ and right next to it ‘Muslims Raise $100,000 For San Bernardino.’ There’s nothing like putting money where your mouth is.”

Killawi reports that growth is strong, especially after the slow start for the first six months after launching, and that they are looking to expand to Canada and the U.K. in the near future.

If LaunchGood has become a place for the Muslim community to respond to collective tragedy (among other causes), MPower Change is the place for harnessing collective outrage. Although co-founder Mark Crain tells Civicist that a platform like this has been a subject of conversations between Muslim activists since 2011, it wasn’t until late this September that, in partnership with MoveOn, they put out their first online campaign—a petition to ban Ben Carson from GOP debates unless he recanted several outrageous statements about Islam.

Other MPower Change petitions released since September include one asking that the AP use Daesh instead of “Islamic State”, and one asking that the New York Post stop inflammatory reporting on terrorist attacks like the one in San Bernardino. This rapid-response, roll-with-the-media-cycle activism follows in the tradition of MoveOn, where Crain works as a campaign director, and the suite of progressive online organizing platforms that MoveOn inspired and supported in the years after launching.

“This sort of model works best in moments of collective outrage,” Crain said. And, he suggests, that’s good enough for MPower, especially in these early days.

He elaborated:

Once we’ve established ourselves, and our membership has really grown, and we’ve spent some time cultivating relationships with those members, and we’ve identified the emergent leaders out of the bunch, there’s going to be an opportunity for us to invest in some long-term campaigns. But this model is probably best suited to work in rapid response moments, moments where egregious statements are made or egregious actions are taken by someone and it’s sort of in the zeitgeist, it’s being popularly covered by the media or it’s taken over social media…and people are looking for an opportunity to respond. We’re here to give them that vehicle to respond.

In order to do so, Crain said that as an organization they need to demonstrate a theory of change for why the requested action—signing a petition or similar—is actually going to make a difference.

Take the petition responding to the New York Post’s flawed reporting on San Bernardino. “Maybe they’re not going to issue a retraction,” Crain said, “but over time, our presence as an organization that’s mobilizing people to push back and say ‘this is unacceptable,’ is going to change the way in which [journalists]…cover this issue.”

When asked how MPower Change will resolve conflicting views in their membership base, Crain said, “We’re not required by any means to take on every issue that has ever plagued the Muslim community.”

“Our job,” he added, “is to identify those moments in which our membership is united around taking an action and then to give them an opportunity to express themselves.”

MPower Change is preparing to hire its first campaign manager. Although they are a new addition to the online progressive sphere, with support from organizations like MoveOn—not to mention the grassroots organizations many of MPower’s leadership come from—they are surely a player to watch, especially in the current political climate.

Civic Engagement Open Government petitions



In light of today’s announcement, I think it’s fair to say that WeThePeople is no longer a virtual ghost town.

Last year I argued that the White House’s epetition site WeThePeople had become a virtual ghost town, but today the administration’s Chief Digital Officer, Jason Goldman announced some important changes that promise to breathe new life into what had become a stagnant site.

The White House has cleared out the backlog of 20 truant petitions that had exceeded the 100,000 signature threshold but never received an official response, including several originally submitted in 2011 and 2012, along with the two-year-old petition to pardon Edward Snowden. It also has announced a new policy that all petitions that clear the threshold will receive a response within 60 days “wherever possible.” It has created a new team of people responsible for answering citizen petitions. It has posted more open code to and GitHub as an extension of its Write API, inviting third-party websites to integrate their petition-gathering with the White House site. And has announced that it will be the first major site to take advantage of the Write API, and will begin partnering with WeThePeople on petitions aimed at the administration.

The new 60-day policy is a welcome correction. It restores the promise of the site and makes a meaningful commitment that, if citizens collectively come together and petition their government, the government will listen and offer a timely response. The timeliness of response is crucial, specifically because the administration isn’t promising to agree with the petitioners.

A petition is just a single political tactic. If you want to change government policy, a petition alone usually won’t be enough. When the government negatively responds to your petition, that creates a focusing event. It’s an opportunity for additional media scrutiny and political organizing.  

Take a look at how the Huffington Post has covered the “Pardon Edward Snowden” petition. Snowden’s supporters rallied over 100,000 people to sign that WeThePeople petition in June 2013. Then 25 months passed. During that time (as John Oliver pointed out in April), public attention has mostly drifted away from Snowden’s revelations. The White House response will put this issue back on the public agenda, at least for a little while. It’s like oxygen to the activist fire—even when the government disagrees, the act of public disagreement is far preferable to suffocating silence.

That being said, the 60-day response policy is far from the most important part of Goldman’s announcement. The partnership is much more significant in the long term. The partnership is crucial because it lessens the tension between being the venue for and the target of political petitions. It means that WeThePeople is no longer competing with,, Credo Mobilize, Care2, or  These organizations are optimized to promote long-term, large-scale citizen engagement.  The White House petition site isn’t (and probably shouldn’t be). Rather than choosing between creating a WeThePeople petition or creating a petition, motivated citizens can reap advantages from both.

It also means that we can rightly start to measure WeThePeople by different metrics than the other sites. And that’s important, because it’s when you evaluate WeThePeople according to the same metrics as MoveOn petitions or that the “ghost town” imagery emerges.

Consider: 19.5 million individuals have signed a WeThePeople petition. There have been a total of 27.7 million signatures. Depending on how you measure it, that’s either a very large number or a surprisingly small number. If the White House petition site were an advocacy group, it would be almost 2.5 times larger than But the ratio of users to signatures means that, on average, people have signed only 1.42 petitions apiece.  Or, put another way, most people sign one WeThePeople petition and never come back. Only 2 or 3 petitions are started per day on WeThePeople. receives hundreds per day. Those are “ghost town” metrics: People visit once, see little, and never return.

By comparison, has developed a measure called MeRA (members returning for action) to determine its effectiveness. If people take one action with SumOfUs, then never come back again, SumOfUs calls this a weakness, not a strength. Sites like and devote tremendous resources towards optimizing their sites to promote active petition-creation, petition-sharing, and repeat petition-signing. Their MeRA scores are much higher than WeThePeople’s.

If you are a social movement organization that wants to build power for social reforms, repeat member engagement is very important to you. It’s a key building block in developing the type of deep engagement that can eventually drive social change. Up until now, the White House site was effectively competing with these movement organizations for our civic attention. Integrating with means this competitive relationship becomes a collaborative relationship. If groups like MoveOn and Care2 follow suit, it will represent an important evolution within the digital petition world.  

The partnership also improves the likely longevity of the site. When the next President takes office in January 2017, he or she will have to decide whether open petitions and digital government is going to remain a priority. Jimmy Carter installed solar panels during his time in office. Ronald Reagan tore them off. I doubt a President Trump would place as high a priority on digital civic engagement as President Obama has. The more that WeThePeople integration is baked into the functionality of other large petition sites, the harder it will be for the next President to shutter WeThePeople’s doors.

Moving forward, I’ll be watching for two things to determine just how successful this revitalized WeThePeople turns out to be:

  1. Does the White House keep its 60-day commitment when a wave of big, controversial petitions arrives? Jason Goldman has made a promise here. I’m hopeful that he’ll stand behind it. It will be a few months before we know for sure.
  2. Do other third-party platforms like MoveOn Petitions, Care2, and Credo Mobilize follow’s lead and integrate with WeThePeople? It’s no surprise that took the lead here—open government advocate Jake Brewer recently left for a job at the White House, and is the 800 pound gorilla of petition sites. If the other civil society petition sites all follow’s lead, that will clearly establish WeThePeople’s niche.  

In light of today’s announcement, I think it’s fair to say that WeThePeople is no longer a virtual ghost town. It’s becoming more like a virtual resort destination—lots of visitors, who get a lot out of their experience, but very few locals who actually call the place home.

And that’s probably how it should be.