Online Petitions – The New Activism Tool for Success?
The campaigning tactic of petitioning is as old as time, but with the increase of digital technologies, the last five years have seen the introduction of a number of major web initiatives for online petitioning in Australia.
And Australian campaigning organisations say they have seen a significant growth in people engaging with online petitions.
While both organisations’ end goal is to create change by pressuring decision-makers, the way in which they operate is completely different.
Below is the complete text of my interview, which I hope is of interest to my readers.
Digital petitioning is on the rise in Australia with more and more petitioning orgs/ platforms available than ever before – is this a good thing?
I see online petitions as useful tools for non-profits and advocacy organisations, especially small and medium sized non-profits. A chief limitation for small and medium non-profits is reaching supporters and capturing their contact information. Online petitions provide a cost-effective, efficient way to gain new supporters. The many free petition platforms and services are ‘good’ in that they allow a non-profit to quickly and cheaply put a petition online.
For example, as Inclusion Melbourne as marketing and development manager, I organised an online petition using Change.org calling for the Victorian government to fund a test site for the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
Inclusion Melbourne was able to benefit from the significant media coverage of the issue to get several thousand people to sign our petition. We contributed to the negotiations taking place between the Commonwealth and State governments, the peak body NDS, and helped the Every Australian Counts campaign. We also benefited by raising the profile of Inclusion Melbourne and our partner, the Gawith Foundation. We were able to continue to communicate with the petition signers, keep them updated and provide additional information about the NDIS. We did this at minimal cost to our organisation, and we didn’t need to re-invent the wheel by creating our own online petition tool. The Change.org platform is also geared to be highly “shareable” which is not something we could have done ourselves. And the good news is that the Victorian government agreed to fund the launch site, so Inclusion Melbourne and the petition signers were successful.
However, the growth of petition websites is not necessarily tied to assisting those non-profits from fulfilling their aims. Simply put, online petitions are getting to be big business. Most of the organisations providing these services are either for-profit (e.g. Change.org) or advocacy organisations with their own agendas (e.g. Get Up’s CommunityRun). This means that the petition tools are not necessarily flexible or designed with the non-profit’s needs in mind.
For example, using Change.org locked us into using their email messaging system which was cumbersome and not very user friendly from our perspective. Similarly, some non-profits will need to examine whether their chosen petition platform aligns with their organisation’s values. For example, Change.org has recently announced that it will open itself up to advertisers of any political persuasion, reversing their previous position of only providing services for progressive causes.
What are the benefits of digital petitioning?
There are many benefits, and it really ties into the type of non-profit you are, but the primary benefit is that when someone signs an online petition, the person’s contact details are passed onto the non-profit. The non-profit can then use those details for fundraising, advocacy, new client or member recruitment, or anything else they can think of.
A key thing to highlight however is that digital campaigning and digital petitions shouldn’t happen in isolation. There should be something that happens in the real world. I’m currently in the USA working on the Obama campaign in Massachusetts and New Hampshire; the Obama campaign used online petitions of various sorts in the early part of the campaign — for example, a petition that asked potential supporters “do you have the President’s back” and another that asked supporters to sign Obama’s digital birthday cards. The information gathered were then used by volunteers to call those petition-signers and ask them to also volunteer or donate to the campaign.
The point is that the online information was used for a real-world purpose and real-world action. Additionally, that digital interaction was followed up by subsequent contact. Once you sign an Obama petition, you continue to get emails, letters, phone calls, and (if you’re an undecided voter) a knock on your door.
What are the main problems you see around digital campaigning?
There are always risks for any type of campaign, whether traditional or online. For online petitions, there are risks that the non-profit puts out a poorly written petition that fails to do justice to their issue or cause — and thus squanders the opportunities that digital campaigning can bring. Similarly, the petition may ask for the wrong information (either too much or too little). Petitions can also be controversial and if they’re targeted at a politician, can alienate the non-profit and anger donors or members.
The main challenge for non-profits that I’ve seen on digital campaigns is sending out material that is not suited to online. For example, long-form emails in an era of 140 characters, or websites with no calls to action. A lot of non-profits do digital campaigns without really knowing why — for example, they have a Facebook page “just because” and then never update it.
Do online petition organisations (GetUp, Avaaz, Change.org etc) just contribute to slacktivism or clicktivism instead of encouraging young people to be actively involved in causes in which they believe?
I think this is the wrong question to ask. Today’s young people, if they are engaged in some kind of public service (e.g. volunteering) engage with those issues online and in the real world. People who really care about an issue don’t just care about it online, they are also more likely to do something in the flesh.
There’s a concept called the commitment and consistency principle, which basically means that people who say they’re going to do something are more likely to do it. Signing those online petitions, liking causes on Facebook and forwarding emails makes it more likely for those people to actually take the next step.
But it’s up to the causes, non-profits and advocacy organisations themselves to follow those “clicktivists” up. The real slacktivists are the non-profits that only do online action, or who ask supporters to sign an online petition and then give the supporter no opportunity to take action in the real world.
So, no, I don’t believe that online petitions cause or contribute to slacktivism.
That said, organisations like Change.org are for-profit organisations that use the information captured through online petitions to sell to “advertisers”. For example, a large non-profit can go to Change.org and ask to buy leads through promoted petitions. The tens of thousands of people signing petitions on Change.org or Causes.com (the Facebook version) are really contributing to the lead-generation business of these organisations. Similarly, organisations like Avaaz and Get Up (which are non-profit) still use the contact details of people who sign those petitions to fundraise.
I definitely do not want to say that organisations like Change, Avaaz and Get Up haven’t done good, helped raise awareness for important issues or influenced public policy for the better. But non-profits should be aware that the provider of the digital petition tool has their own objectives.
Can digital petitions really create tangible change?
“Tangible change” is a movable target. I think online petitions have helped change or influence public policy on a range of issues. Digital petitions have also really helped non-profits substantially increase their supporter and donor base — which can help support important programs.
Online petitions are also quite useful for advocacy organisations that are more “edgy” and may target companies or corporations who feel their brands may be vulnerable.
The real benefit for digital petitions is to assist non-profits take real world action. The tangible change comes when non-profits harness the enthusiasm from the online world into the real world.
Any further comments on digital petitioning?
Online petitions aren’t a silver bullet — any more than a Facebook page or Twitter account are. Within the context of your non-profit’s advocacy, fundraising or marketing plan, digital campaigning should be integrated into your organisation’s goals. How can digital communications help build your organisation? Digital petitions are a subset of digital marketing/communications, just like your website, social media, email, SEO, pay-per-click advertising. If we were talking about for-profit organisations, online petitions would be considered lead-generation platforms.
The image I’ve used is from the suffragette movement, which used old fashioned petitions to win the vote for women in Victoria following a massive 30,000 signature petition. The image is from 1917, but the Victorian petition was tabled in 1891!