How to organise petitions

Petitions are an easy tactic to highlight a cause and mobilise action.  This guideline will help you do it effectively.

Petitions have these benefits:

  • Everyone can be involved and speak up for a cause.
  • It you credibility from a constituency.
  • It forces people to commit for or against an issue, which is important if they may have to one day make moral choices on the issue.
  • It can give you a mailing list of potential supporters.
  • It creates awareness and stimulates discussion and public debate.

Choose the wording carefully

  • The wording should use plain simple language and be as short as possible;
  • Highlight the main issue in one or two words in bold or in a heading, so people can easily see what it is about.
  • The wording should state what you want the authority to do.
  • It should avoid unnecessary controversy that may discourage some people from signing.
  • Test the language on a set of people including leaders; some from the group you will ask to sign; and those with a poor grasp of your language and the issue.   Check if anyone interprets the language differently to your intention.

What to put on the form

  • Each field on the form should have enough space to fill in the requested information.  Fill it in yourself to test it.
  • A date, because authorities want to know that this is still a current issue.
  • Your organisation contact details.
  • Write clearly in bold what the collector must do with the form after collecting signatures (for example send it to an address or fax number).
  • Have a space for the collectors name and organisation.  They are good potential activists to recruit for future work.

Prepare a campaign

  • Before you launch the petition, get endorsements of key leaders who sign it beforehand and promise to ask their followers to sign.  Most people will side with the first person that explains their side of the debate.  Thus, you must convince them first.  Get a broad selection of leaders on your side.  Then, before you ask collectors, tell them that their leader has endorsed it.
  • Form a campaign team to encourage others to sign and recruit more collectors.  See they are convinced of the worthiness of the cause.
  • Find organisations to whom you can refer different queries on the issue.
  • Raise money to print the forms and literature if you can’t afford to yourself.
  • Write supporting literature.
  • Ask organisations if you can distribute in their meetings and mailing lists.

Resources to back up the petition

  • Write a letter to the petition collector explaining what to do; how to do it and thank them for their effort.
  • Write a pamphlet explaining the issue; what you want done in response and answering possible objections.

How many forms to distribute

  • If you put twenty names on a form, then distribute the same number of petition forms as you want signatures.  Only about one in ten will be returned and on average only half complete.
  • Don’t print them all at once, as you may need to make modifications.
  • Find enough distribution outlets (eg. churches or mailing lists) and money to cover the total you need.

How to collect signatures

Leaving a form on a table near the entrance to a church will not collect many signatures.  Even sitting quietly with the petition at the table will not help much.  You need to promote it.

  • A clip board with a pen tied to it is a helpful tool.
  • Go to people and ask them to sign or get eye contact and call them to come to your table.  Don’t wait for them.
  • Ask with a smile on your face and a lively voice;
  • Ask leaders in your church to publicly ask others to sign it.
  • Try to get it handed around during a meeting.
  • Get as many people as possible to help you collect signatures.  Keep a record of who is collecting.  Follow them up to encourage them.  Thank those who collect a lot and invite them to join your team.

Don’t get distracted

  • Somebody will get upset about your petition and try to argue with you or they may want to ask some complex question on the broader issue.
  • You must have a one-minute explanation of why you are petitioning – and very short answers to any follow up questions.  Be polite but don’t spend more than a few minutes talking.  Recommend they buy a book or phone some organisation.  Don’t let them distract you from collecting.
  • After someone has signed, thank them and stop talking.  Move on to the next person.

Deal with serious opposition

  • Someone may attack you personally. This is part of the cost of being a leader.  Pay the price and don’t waste  energy worrying about it.  Worry can do you more harm than slander.
  • If those whom the petition is attacking ask for a meeting, they deserve time.  Don’t just argue.  Tell them how to rectify the problem; explain why; and ask them repeatedly to do it.  Offer to help them in some way if necessary.

Give it to the decision-maker

  • Find who the decision maker is and give them the petition.  Lobby the decision-maker and their advisors.
  • Find the process and time over which the decision is made.
  • If the petition will be presented to an organisation, committee or council where you have no right to speak, then find someone inside who will vocally support it.  Give them all the information and arguments they need.
  • If you present at a meeting, take along other leaders who support you.
  • Follow up to find out what decision they make.

Don’t use a petition if:

  • No one has yet confronted the opposition privately (Matthew 18:15).
  • An authority is open to your request and may be offended by confrontation.
  • You can solve it an easier way.
  • With people unfamiliar with petitions or afraid to give their names.  Some cultures may prefer a march or rally.