Write it right

A petition should be a simple document. Under a title on top, you have a header that explains the issue and why it’s important. End with a call for an action that “the undersigned” desire to rectify the situation. Then below, taking up most of the page, are rows of blanks to collect printed names and signatures. Number each line so it’s easy to tally the total.

To get the most out of your petition, pay attention to the details. Keep the explanation simple and short—two to four sentences—so people can read it quickly. Make it compelling and the call to action clear, so people will agree to sign. Have the explanation on top of each page, so it’s unambiguous what they’re being asked to support.

Leave room after or below each signature for the date, an address, phone number, and email. That way, you can get in touch with supporters later if you need to pack a public meeting or recruit volunteers. The address is particularly important, says Dan Pontious, executive director of the Baltimore Planning and Housing Association, because it demonstrates to elected officials that their constituents want this change enacted.

Getting signatures

After hitting up friends, you might go door-to-door in your community, especially for a very local issue like a change in zoning to allow homes on your block to put in privacy fences. Showing that a third or half of the affected residents support the measure is a powerful statement, says Pontious. Since many people may not be home, you can probably knock on 30 doors in an hour.

For a broader issue, think of places where many local residents congregate: a nearby park, the grocery store, the train station. For a petition to develop a dog park in Palm Beach, Fla., for example, Sandi Smolker got 144 signatures, most of them from customers exiting pet stores.

For a very big issue, look for reliable groups that might be aligned with your interests—the local YMCA, a gardening club—and see if members will gather signatures as well. Remember that soliciting signatures is also a chance to educate people about the issue and build support, so be conversant on the main points. Figure it’ll take anywhere from 10-40 hours to draft a petition and gather signatures.

Taking the petition online

Pretty much anything on paper can be replicated online these days, and petitions are no exception. There are several websites like Go Petition and Petition Site that allow you to create an online petition, including an electronic-signature function that ensures support is legitimate.

Taking the Internet route can work. Bill Corbett Jr. of Corbett Public Relations in New York says an online petition against a racetrack on Long Island generated 15,000 signatures. It doesn’t hurt to ask local officials whether a specific format is preferred.

Fundamentals remain the same online: Be clear, get contact information, and target local support. If you don’t have a community website to turn to or a strong email list, then it may be easier to stick with a paper petition.

Submitting the results

Once you have a good number of signatures, perhaps 100 for a hyper-local issue or several thousand for a broader concern, you’re ready to show the results. (Don’t forget to make a copy of every page to keep for your records.) Try to hold a meeting with key decision-makers to submit the petition so you can reiterate why the issue is so important.

If you’re in a situation where you’re not just demonstrating support but making a demand in the face of repeated opposition, you may want to consider letting the media know about your petition, or even call a press conference for the day you arrive to submit it. Just be aware that you risk antagonizing the very person with the authority to make the change you seek.

Sometimes a petition is enough to get things moving; often it’s a part of a larger campaign for results. But a clear, concise petition with many supporters can certainly make a difference. “There’s nothing like the impression of putting that stack of papers on someone’s desk,” Corbett says. “The ‘thud’ on the table makes a point.”