How to Tell If an Online Petition Is Worth Your Time

How to Tell If an Online Petition Is Worth Your Time
Photo: Halfpoint, Shutterstock

It’s easy to create a petition to complain about an injustice, and it may feel cathartic to sign one, but not all petitions have an opportunity to create change. Here are the factors that experts say makes the difference between petitions that make a difference and those that don’t.

Does the petition have a clear goal?

A petition is probably best thought of as a letter from a group of people, to a specific entity, asking that entity to do a specific thing. The idea is that the person or company that receives the petition will read it, notice the huge list of names at the bottom, and consider whether they should take a different action than they were planning on.

So for the petition to accomplish something, it has to actually have a goal to accomplish. Make sure the petition is clear about what specific action it is asking for, and make sure that that goal is one that makes sense in the context of the larger issue. For example, after Cecil the lion was killed by a hunter, some petitions asked airlines to stop permitting the transport of endangered animals. That’s a concrete policy change related to hunting tourism, unlike the petitions calling for the hunter to lose his dental licence or other petitions that didn’t have a clear goal at all.

Is the petition for a person who can meet the goal?

Change.org recommends that creators of petitions identify a “decision maker” to be the target of a petition. Naming a person means having an email address and the person’s name on the petition to better to get their attention. And in the process of finding the decision maker, the organiser is forced to figure out who is actually making the relevant decisions. Sometimes the person you need to reach is not a big name politician or CEO, but somebody with a lesser-known job who still has the appropriate power to make a change.

Does the target of the petition have a reason to care?

Since the goal of a petition is to get the decision-maker to change their mind, it helps if they care about who has signed the petition. The mayor of a town in Texas, for example, may not care what people in Ohio have to say about local laws. And a for-profit company will care more about the opinion of their customers and potential customers than people completely outside of their target demographic.

If an issue is large enough, it may help for the decision-maker to know that people from across the country care about it, but for many smaller issues, what matters is not how many people sign a petition, but who they are.

There are many ways to make a difference

Even if a petition doesn’t reach its stated goal — or if it doesn’t have a concrete goal — that doesn’t always mean the petition is a waste of time. Sometimes, in gathering signatures, the petition organiser is helping supporters of a cause to find each other. (This often means collecting signers’ contact information, so make sure you are ok with ending up on a mailing list.)

A petition can also show that there’s enough interest in a topic to make it worthy of media coverage, and that coverage can in turn be part of a campaign to put pressure on an individual or group. In these ways, a vague petition might not immediately result in action, but it could be a sign that a larger movement is brewing.

But there’s more to a petition than what happens after it’s signed. Sometimes a petition exists to be read by those who sign it, more like a shareable article than a letter to an opposing entity; and sometimes, signing and sharing a petition can be a person’s baby steps into taking action on an issue important to them.

Whether you decide to sign a petition without a clear goal is up to you, but if you’re looking to create specific, immediate change, look for petitions that have a clear goal and a feasible way to accomplish it.

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