The Big Decision: Petition versus a Call Tool

Petitions have exploded in use since the advent of mega digital petition sites such as Change.org and SumOfUs. Many governments, including the Federal Government of Canada, offer an online petition creation and delivery. Since petitions, and particularly online petitions, hold such a prominent place in people’s minds when it comes to politics, it’s a popular campaigning delivery method. 

When in need of taking action, organizations tend to jump instantly to doing a petition or letter-writing campaign without much thought, but there are many pros and cons to online petitions, versus other campaigning tactics. In this article, we will be comparing online petitions to another popular campaigning tactic, mass calling. We’ll be using real-life case studies from our clients at the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Association and Migrants Rights Network.

Raising Tenants Voices with a Massive Petition

After Ontario announced a state of emergency on March 17th, the province starting shutting down businesses and workplaces. At the time of writing, nearly all businesses are closed, which has resulted in thousands of people without a job and near-term financial difficulties.

In response, the Federal and Provincial governments enacted pieces of legislation to help individuals and businesses stay afloat during the crisis, including a mortgage deferral and a freeze on evictions. While these measures address some of the short term issues, it doesn’t solve the issue of how people will pay their bills over the longer term. In Toronto, almost half of the population rents and they have some of the highest rents in the country.

The Federation of Metro Tenants Associations (FMTA) quickly stepped up to address the gap. They created a petition calling on the Provincial government to freeze rent for April 1st. In just under a week, the FTMA was able to gather 20,000 signatures. Another few thousand have come in since then.

This is an extraordinary achievement for a group that had a very small email list (less than one thousand) and a smaller membership.

How did the FMTA do so well? There are a few factors to consider.

  1. The FMTA had the technology to create a petition ready. We built their website last year using NationBuilder, which comes with a robust petition functionality built-in. They were able to roll out the signature petition in very short order.
  2. The FMTA has direct access to a base who would be very interested in signing this petition. They were focused on the immediate needs of their own base support group.
  3. The Theory of Change was excellent. Renters are suffering, and many have publicly announced that they would be going on a rent strike.  It was very clear which decision-makers had the power to make the changes needed and why they would listen to this call for action.

Petitions have the advantage of being easier to coordinate once deployed. After the initial setup and getting that first bit of traction, maintenance is pretty easy. The FMTA saw that the petition was moving well and decided to follow up with the signatories to ask them to share with their friends.  Another five-hundred supporters shared the petition resulting in several thousand more signatures. 

While the government did not take the action demanded by the petition, this groundswell is great for showing politicians that the FMTA has found the message that residents in Toronto care about. It will help the FMTA in their future discussions with decision-makers.  It will also help the FMTA because they will be able to grow the size and power of the organization from this list. And there is always next month!

Sometimes though, organizations want to be disruptive of business as usual for the decision-makers.  They can often want to flood offices with so many contacts that the decision-makers are forced to pay attention.  This was successfully done by the Migrants Rights Network. 

Defending Migrant Rights with a Call Tool

There is another gaping hole in the COVID-19 relief policies: protections for migrant workers. Migrant Rights Network decided to do something about it. In the end, they were able to organize over 600 of their followers to call their MPs to demand that migrant workers be included in the COVID-19 response.  

At first, they started smaller. They sent an email out to their list asking people to look up their MP’s phone numbers and make some calls using their own phones. 

Our partners at New/Mode saw the good work they were doing and offered Migrant Rights Network the use of their calling tool and some assistance from Campaign Gears to help set it up. After just day one, 150 calls were made using the call tool.

This call tool was right for the Migrant Rights Network for a few reasons:

  1. The audience of the Migrant Rights Network is more niche than renting concerns (it affects fewer people directly). As such, getting a massive number of signatures may not have been as quick as it was for the FMTA.  
  2. On the other hand, the audience for the Migrant Rights Networks is very passionate about this important issue. Calling is more work for the supporter than signing a petition and thus requires supporters who are very passionate about the issue and confident.
  3. Even though fewer phone calls can be made than signatures signed, the impact of having 600 people call politicians’ offices is higher than having a petition delivered via email even if that petition is many times larger.

After this noisy outreach to government, along with other efforts by the MRN and others, the government changed the requirements from just citizens to all residents. 

Conclusion

Campaign tactics often come with tradeoffs, especially when it comes to impact vs. feasibility. While it can be hard to plan for the future which kind of action to engage in, the key is being prepared. Having the right technology ready to go will remove barriers to entry and make actions possible that otherwise, you may have discarded. Spend time building your email list in quieter times so that you have a big list of people to boost your campaign when the time comes. When it comes to campaigning, the best offence is good preparation. 

It can also help to have experienced campaigners available to help make the right strategic decisions.  Get in touch if you would like to get ready for your next campaign.

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