Have you noticed an ongoing injustice in your community? Or maybe you’re frustrated with policies that are at work in the public school?
Perhaps you’re just downright annoyed by how much trash people leave laying around at the city park.
Whatever it may be, you see that something is wrong and you want to do your part to make it right…but maybe you don’t know where to start. How about writing a petition?
What is a petition?
Merriam-Webster defines it as “a formal written request made to an authority or organized body (such as a court) [or] a written request or call for change signed by many people in support of a shared cause or concern.”
As the American Bar Association points out, it is your American right to petition; that right is protected by the First Amendment which says that “Congress shall make no law…[abridging] the right of the people…to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Do petitions really make a difference? Using your constitutional right to create a petition campaign is a highly effective way to engage your community’s awareness of an issue, find cause-allies, and send ripples to the places where it matters most.
Are you still unsure if your cause is worthy of a petition? Don’t worry! They’re used for a wide range of things, from petitioning the US Paralympic Committee about the exclusion of an athlete to petitioning the general public to bring a performing bunny back to America’s Got Talent.
With that said, let’s jump into what petitions can and cannot do. We’ll also explore how you can build your own petition and start making the changes that matter most to you.
What Petitions Can and Cannot Do
Obviously, petitions cannot change the law, but they are vehicles of motion that will show whatever entity you are petitioning that you mean business.
To help your petition succeed, it’s important to know whether you need to make a local petition or a federal petition. According to Change.Org:
- “…local petitions address city or state matters. They may call for the election of a city council member, demand more funding for local school teachers, or request that a governor champion tighter laws around cellphone use while driving. Often, it’s these local matters that help inspire national change.”
- If you have a potentially national issue on your hands, it’s wise to petition local businesses if you have the option. “Businesses… are more likely to bow to petitions because they stand to lose a lot from negative publicity. Governments, by contrast, are historically less likely to respond to a petition on its own,” Bustle points out.
Petitioning the Government
There are times, however, that it is necessary to go big and petition the government. Petitions have become a highly popular, nonviolent, way of “encouraging or disapproving government action, whether directed to the judicial, executive or legislative branch,” according to the Freedom Forum Institute.
In addition, Learning to Give points out that:
- “Several voices are always louder than one, [and petitioning] the government is an effective way to join together for a common cause, gaining as many people and as much support as possible.”
- “The nonprofit community plays an active role in petitioning the government by providing an organized medium to join citizens together in support of causes or in petition of practices that violate their cause.”
How to Create Your Own Petition
If you are trying to facilitate a huge change, it is unlikely that it will happen quickly. Usually, it’s best to step back and start small. Take some advice from the Resource Center and move in the right direction by first by asking yourself:
- “Who has the power to make the change(s) [I] want to see?”
- “How will [I] put pressure on these people to make the change(s)?”
- “What change(s) would make [my] campaign a success?”
Once you’ve answered these questions, you can begin writing your petition.
The power of positive wording
How you write it is paramount; using the right words and examples can significantly help your cause.
According to Fast Company, a good way to signal the right message to your audience is to use active and positive words:
- “Many people ask others to help stop or ban things. They’d be more effective if they switched that negative phrasing for something more positive, like calls to grant, save, or protect something.”
The science of numbers
You must also consider the length of the title and body paragraphs of your petition—as well as how many signatures you’re aiming for—in order to get the attention you want.
Change.org shares some data they collected regarding specifics on local and national petitions:
- “Local petition titles outperformed national titles significantly when they ran between nine to 11 words.”
- “A request for change that fell between 501 and 1,000 words garnered the most median supporters, overall, pulling in 85 signers. Anything less than 501 words or more than 3,000 lost a significant number of supporters.”
- “A national petition needed 554 median signatures to be deemed successful, but a local triumph happened with 408 median signatures.”
Useful Community Development offers this sage advice: “You will gather fewer signatures if people feel they are being asked to sign something they don’t want to take time to read.”
Now that you’ve written a petition that packs a punch, you have to start collecting signatures. At the end of the day, having a lot of support is what makes your petition most noticeable.
Getting your cause in front of potential signers can be done in many ways. The AAUW suggests a few effective strategies to collect signatures:
- Organizing issue forums (gathering people together to generate community dialogue about an issue)
- Tabling events (setting up a table at an event and distributing information about your cause)
- Attending rallies, meetings, and conventions
Sharing Your Petition Online
You can also gain popularity for your petition by sharing it online. Change.org says that you can start by emailing it to your friends and family. (Be careful not to send too many emails at once or your message could be marked as spam!) You can also:
- Share your campaign on social media
- Create a simple hashtag for your campaign
- Post updates every time something happens in your campaign
- Always ask for your signers and community members to take action
A good rule of thumb to follow from Community Action Works is to “[Always] keep your audience in mind. If you’re trying to get people in your town to sign your petition, then use the messages that will be most compelling to them. Remember that while your neighbors probably aren’t experts in your issue, they do care about your community’s health.”
Take Action Now
Whether you’re trying to create local, state, or national change, you can use these tools to guide the petition writing and promotion process.
Check out this website for a list of online petition-building platforms so you can choose the best one for your campaign. In addition, Change.org is always a good place to create a petition or look for petition tips and tricks.
Be confident in your desire to create change. Your concerns are valid, and the words that you have to share with the world need to be heard. Chances are, once you speak up, your voice will carry a message that resonates in your community.
You might be surprised by the support that emerges.