This article – an update from a 2006 version – is courtesy of Idealware, which provides candid information to help nonprofits choose effective software. For more articles and reviews, go to www.idealware.org.
Petitions and pledges provide ways to effect change by letting people add their names to a particular cause to show the amount of support for it. They can also help your organization build a list of people interested in its causes. So how do you implement these measures?
Looking to win friends and influence people? When used as part of a larger strategy, online petitions or pledges can be useful for both. They allow people to virtually sign their names to a statement, usually a web-based form, to show their support. As the creator of the petition, you can see who has signed — and in many cases, you can also view their contact information.
The electronic delivery of petitions — for instance, ways for people to email their congressperson — is a form of advocacy, and delivery methods are another topic entirely. This article looks only at the online petitions and pledges themselves. The two are similar, and often use the same tools, but they're used for different purposes. People sign petitions under the agreement that their names will be submitted to a legislator or other elected official. Pledges are less direct, and usually function as statements of affinity. For example, people might sign a pledge to stop drinking bottled water, but sign a petition to ask their state senator to support a law banning bottled water.
If they have strong support, both pledges and petitions can circulate beyond your own circle of influence as supporters forward them to their own friends. This can make them a useful way to build a list of people interested in your cause. Send a comprehensive follow-up to inform signers about the progress you've made, and to ask them to take further steps, and you may even convert some of those signers into activists or donors. But it's worth noting that pledges or petitions should be designed to effect change in the world, not just to build your lists; otherwise, you're essentially tricking people with false pretenses. It's best to follow a petition by giving signers an opportunity to subscribe to your email list. This provides a way for them to receive updates about the cause and for you to be sure they're interested in other things you might be doing.
For petitions to be effective, they must have a substantial number of signers whose opinions matter to those you are trying to influence. Presenting public officials with a large list of their constituents who agree with your cause can be a powerful statement — especially if you do it in person, which can provide tangible results for your constituents, and possibly media coverage, as well.
Let's take a look at the different types of tools available for petitions and pledges.
Using What You Already Have
Petitions and pledges don't require complicated functionality. All you need to create them is a way to allow users to enter their names and contact information — and, maybe, to opt-in to hear more about your progress — and then store and report on this data. It can also be useful to publicly display the list of people who have signed.
If you're willing to get a little creative technically, you may be able to adapt one of the following tools, which your organization may already have, to work:
Content Management Systems
Your existing website CMS, like Drupal, Joomla, WordPress, or Plone, will likely provide you with the ability to create website forms which can be distributed as links. This option has the advantage of being easily branded for your organization, and is fairly easy to implement. Depending on what database your organization uses, importing the collected names may require some additional manual effort or technical skill.
Constituent Relationship Management Systems or Other Databases
Many CRMs and donor management systems, like CiviCRM, Salesforce, DonorPerfect, eTapestry, or Z2 NEON, let you create a web form that feeds automatically into your database. These forms may be less flexible graphically, and it's likely to take more effort to publicly show a list of signers, but it's a notable advantage to integrate them with your database.
A number of online tools allow you to create petitions and collect signatures at no cost, but then charge for certain services, such as promoting the petition on the vendor's homepage, or granting access to the full list of signatures. For organizations creating one-off or infrequent petitions, these tools provide a simple and easy-to-setup solution, but only basic petition functionality. Use such sites with care. Make you're able to export data about your supporters from the website, check that the costs are explained up front, and ensure that the site does not retain the right to email the people who sign your petition, as this is seen as spam.
Recently developed by MoveOn.org, SignOn is still in beta testing stage, but provides a simple, free petition tool that lets you download the list of names as a .pdf, which is useful for delivering the petition but not useful for a pledge.
This popular, simple petition tool allows you to create a petition for free, but charges a fee for exporting or downloading the final list. It does have a sizeable, active community, which makes it an attractive option for greater reach.
One of the oldest online petition tools, this site run by Care2 offers free basic features, similar to Change.org, but charges fees to promote the petition or download the names.
Mostly known as a fundraising tool, this site provides some basic petition and pledging abilities that let people stand up and be counted. Because it integrates with Facebook, Causes is easy for Facebook users to pass on — a useful feature for those with active audiences on the social networking site.
Online Form Builders
These tools, like Wufoo or FormSite, let you create online forms and collect data, and could support a simple petition. While it won't be easy to display the list of people who have signed with these tools, they offer inexpensive ways to create forms, integrate them into your own website, and download signers without additional charges.
Integrated Advocacy Options
For organizations frequently running petition campaigns, some lower-cost options can provide advanced features not always found in the free solutions, like auto-responses, thank-you pages, or spaces for signers to leave personal notes or comments for the target of the petition to read. Some also let you brand petitions to your organization, or embed images.
These options include:
Salsa offers list management, petitions, website content management features, and survey capabilities. Email blasting and online donations are also available, for additional fees. The package is quite flexible, and can be seamlessly integrated into a website, but you’ll need substantial HTML expertise to set it up.
Essentially a social CRM for activist groups, NationBuilder can be a low-cost solution for online advocacy applications like petitions and pledges. This tool also has the ability to pull in signatures from social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, which can provide more signatures and additional exposure.
If you're considering one of these tools, remember that many content management systems (CMS) or constituent databases can also provide integrated petition and pledge functionality, as mentioned earlier. If your organization doesn't have a particularly strong advocacy bent, it could make more sense to invest in a new CRM, donor management system, or CMS that can support your petition needs rather than a tool geared specifically for petitions.
For those with expansive needs, and more substantial budgets, a number of high-end tools provide strong, advanced features for a cost — around $1,000 per month to start. Blackbaud Sphere (formerly Kintera) and Convio are fairly widely used among large advocacy organizations, and combine advanced petitioning capability with robust online features and constituent tracking.
Several newer options come from major advocacy consulting firms including ActionKit, put out by We Also Walk Dogs — which is closely associated with MoveOn.org — and Blue State Digital.
How to Choose
When you decide to create an online petition, first consider whether it's possible with the tools already at your disposal, such as your CMS or constituent database. If it's a one-off petition, or you create them only infrequently, a free, feature-light tool can be easy to set up with minimal technical skill. These tools can also help you reach out to a newer audience than your existing circles.
If you're planning on running more campaigns in the future, the more advanced toolkits provide better sets of features that will make your work easier and more effective. But when choosing, remember that the message of the petition or pledge is more powerful, and more important, than the tool.
No matter what software you use, it's your story that will move the most people to sign. A good tool should be seamless and easy so you can focus on the petition itself, and on effecting positive change.
Editor's Note: Some products mentioned in this article are available to eligible organizations through TechSoup's donation programs:
Thanks to the nonprofit technology professionals who provided recommendations, advice and other help for the original article and the update.
- Brett Bonfield (2007)
- Jenny Council, NetCorps (2007)
- John Emerson, Backspace (2007)
- Michael Greenle, NPower Pennsylvania (2007)
- Eric Leland, FivePaths (2007)
- Charles Lenchner, online organizing consultant for social change (2011)
- Greg Nelson, independent consultant (2007)
- Steve Perez, Working Families Party (2007)
- Jon Stahl, Groundwire (2007 and 2011)
- Matt Stempeck, New Organizing Institute (2011)
- Michael Stein, Donor Digital (2007)
Image: Sign here, Shutterstock