Protest sign: Photo: Halfpoint (Shutterstock)

Creating a petition to complain about an injustice is easy and it may be cathartic to sign one, but not all petitions have the ability to make change. Here are the factors that experts say will make 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 receiving the petition reads it, notices the huge list of names below, and considers whether they should take any action other than what they had planned.

In order for the petition to achieve anything, it must actually have a goal. Make sure the petition is clear about what specific action it is, and make sure that goal makes sense in the context of the larger problem. For example, after Cecil the lion was killed by a hunter, Some petitions have asked the airlines to stop transporting endangered animals. This is a concrete change in policy related to hunting tourism, as opposed to the petitions asking the hunter to lose his dental license or other petitions that had no clear aim at all.

Is the petition for a person who can achieve the goal? recommends that the petitioners identify a “decision maker” as the target of a petition. Naming a person means having an email address and the name of the person on the petition to better get their attention. When looking for the decision maker, the organizer has to find out who actually makes the relevant decisions. Sometimes the person you need to reach isn’t a well-known politician or CEO, but someone in a lesser-known job who still has the authority to make changes.

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Does the goal of the petition have any cause for concern?

Since the goal of a petition is to get the decision maker to change their mind, it helps to see who signed the petition. For example, the mayor of a city in Texas might not care what the people of Ohio have to say about local laws. And a for-profit company will care more about the opinions of its customers and prospects than about people who are completely outside of their target audience.

When a problem is big enough, it can be helpful for the decision maker to know that people from all over the country are interested. With many smaller problems, however, it is not important how many people sign a petition, but who they are.

There are many ways to make a difference

Even if a petition doesn’t achieve its stated goal – or if it doesn’t have a specific goal – it doesn’t always mean that the petition is a waste of time. Sometimes while collecting signatures, the petition organizer helps supporters of a cause to find each other. (This often means collecting the signers’ contact information, so make sure you land on a mailing list.)

A petition can also show that there is enough interest in a subject to be worthy of media coverage, and that the coverage can in turn be part of a campaign to put pressure on an individual or group. That way, a vague petition may not lead to immediate action, but it could be a sign that a larger movement is brewing.

However, there is more to a petition than what happens after it is signed. Sometimes there is a petition that can be read by those who sign it. It is more like a sharable article than a letter to an opposing unit. and sometimes signing and sharing a petition can be a person’s small step in taking action on an issue that is important to them.

Whether you choose to sign a petition with no clear purpose is up to you. However, if you have a specific, immediate change you want to make, look for petitions that have a clear goal and a workable way to achieve it.