Winning change isn't easy. Ask any activist or advocacy organization, and they'll have battle stories of campaigns fought and battles lost on the road to victory. Often, winning requires chipping away at the edges and relentless persistence.
In today's busy world, it's hard to keep anyone's attention for long (too often, this includes the people with the power to make a difference on the causes you care about).
On one hand, the media doesn't like small, incremental change, and on the other, demonstrating concrete results to your supporters when so much of your work is behind-the-scenes or policy-based can be tricky. Embracing petitions can energize a nonprofit's supporters and be a signal-boost to the causes you are advocating.
Online petitions can:
1. Define Your Message and Presence
A petition is a simple and powerful way for your current or potential supporters to better understand your goals and message. Ideally, it's a way to get people taking action on issues that you are working on, and moving them one step closer to engaging with your organization in other ways. But as ASPCA demonstrated with this pledge, an online petition can be as simple as asking people to sign up in support of your work.
Whether your signers are adding their name to an official comment period, or pledging to support the tenets of your organization (or anything in between), it's a valuable first step toward cultivating a committed supporter.
2. Help Identify You as a Voice of Authority on Your Cause
Petitions are a great outlet for establishing your authority and thought leadership on a particular issue.
For example, the International Planned Parenthood Foundation was able to put themselves at the forefront of groups holding the UN accountable for action on providing reproductive health care for women in developing countries when they launched the "I Decide my Future" campaign, which included a powerful petition to the UN.
The format of online petitions allows you to direct supporters to a page where you can summarize your stance on an issue, with the added benefit of being able to get buy-in from your supporters on those very concepts.
3. Engage and Focus Your Supporters
You know your supporters best. And you know what they care about. Petitions are a great way to show your supporters that you have listened to their concerns and that you are responding to the issues that really need attention.
Recently, as news about the burden of student loans got buried in media outlets, Consumers Union stepped up to increase the visibility of this critical issue for younger Americans. They launched a petition asking the Education Secretary to fix the broken student loan system, telling a key demographic that Consumers Union cares about them and their future.
4. Give Your Supporters a Way to React to the Latest News About Your Cause
When news breaks that affects your work, you need to respond to it and share your plans with your supporters.
Petitions are the perfect way to rapidly respond to the news and show your supporters why the work you are doing is so important.
We know that when it comes to getting media attention and attracting new supporters, the organization that moves first often gets the brunt of the exposure. So when news breaks that affects your organization, creating an online petition in response (with a smart call to action!) is a great way to get ahead of the news and show your supporters that you are sharp, committed, and ready to do the work to fight the injustices that they are so frustrated by.
5. Keep Your Cause and Name in the Media Spotlight
While you are doing all of the above with online petitions, you will also have the added benefit of coming out in front of the discussion on these issues in the media. Take the fight for LGBT rights in the military. Even after the 2010 repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that required gay and lesbian soldiers to hide their identity or risk being dishonorably discharged from service, same sex couples still faced discrimination.
While heterosexual spouses got military IDs that granted them unescorted status on military bases, access to the commissary and the right to visit their spouse in military hospitals, same sex partners were not.
But as former Secretary Leon Panetta neared the end of his tenure at the Defense Department, Human Rights Campaign (HRC) flooded his inbox with letters from online petition signers asking him to right this wrong before he left.
Thanks to the impeccable timing of their letters to his departure and the volume of letters that were sent, it worked. Just in time for Valentine's Day 2013, Panetta ordered that any couple that signed a "Declaration of Domestic Partnership" could get a military ID. This success was touted in media outlets all across the country, and HRC got much of the credit.
Activists know that winning and keeping change requires constant struggle.
With online petitions, organizations can tap into their networks, inspire members' passion and quickly and easily get constituent concerns in front of legislators and government officials.
Online petitions are an important tactic for many campaigns and if used effectively, can be the best way, today, to quickly mobilize people to take their cause to the powers that be and demand change.