Putting on an awards gala, orchestrating a day-long river cleanup or coordinating a shelter adoption event are just a few examples of critical nonprofit work that relies on a lot of volunteers to be a success. Yet these marquee events, while high-profile and mission-critical, can be few and far between. This begs the question: What do you do with your army of volunteers in the meantime? Perhaps most importantly, how do you ensure that they’ll be ready and willing the next time you need their help?
The good news is that there is an easy tool that both keeps your volunteers active with your mission and that helps you recruit new supporters: online petitions.
Staying mission focused
While people volunteer for a host of reasons, from meeting new people to padding their resumes, I’d bet all your volunteers chose to work with your organization over others because they believe in what you do and want to be a part of it. You’re likely already harnessing that passion at your in-person events. Online petitions are a another way for your supporters to continue to move your mission forward and engage with your organization, all from the comfort of their home, office or wherever they have an Internet connection.
Most organizations stay in touch with their supporters through email newsletters, blogs and social media posts that update readers on the organization's work and educate them about the cause. These are great ways to keep your supporters and volunteers informed. What makes petitions different and even better is that they turn your supporters into advocates. Volunteers want to learn, but they also want to act. Petitions give them a concrete thing to do with an immediate outcome (letters, emails or comments being delivered to the powers that be) as well as the potential for for making tangible impact or real on-the-ground change. This results in good feelings similar to those derived from in-person volunteer work.
Integrating your support and recruiting new volunteers
It’s important to not overlook the “online” part of online petitions. Most nonprofits have an email list they use to communicate important news and updates to supporters. That’s great — email is an easy point of entry for people who care about your cause. These are also prime people from whom to recruit new volunteers; they’ve already shown interest in your organization and passion for your issue. Online petitions are an effective way for people to move from observers to participants in moving your mission forward. Building this connection with your mission and a history of action can make an in-person volunteering ask that much easier.>/p>
How do I get started?
Many online petition platforms exist. The best are simple to use with few inputs and offer tips and tricks for making your petition the most persuasive and eye-catching it can be. But before you start thinking through things like search engine optimization or photo composition, focus on the basics:
1. Be clear about what you want to happen. The best petitions are simple. Yes, most issues are complicated and complex. How do you best resettle Syrian refugees and in which provinces and communities? Where is it appropriate to build a wildlife bridge over a highway and how do you pay for it? You don’t have to dumb down these nuances and complexities, but you do want to make it clear what your solution is and why it’s worth supporting. Your solution doesn’t have to solve the whole problem, but it should show how it’s a concrete step forward.
2. Define the right target. Different levels of government serve different functions. It’s all well and good to ask Prime Minister Trudeau to spend carbon tax funds on green energy—except that the carbon tax is only policy in British Columbia. Targeting your petition to the premier, or, better yet, the legislative assembly who passed the law in the first place, would give it more impact.
3. Make it short and make it active! This is just a quick pitch for great writing. No matter how much your supporters care about your cause, they are busy people and you’ve got to grab them quickly. Ever open an email just to see a wall of text and immediately hit delete? We’ve all done it. Short paragraphs, action verbs and a clearly highlighted ask right at the top of your petition will get people engaged. As a rule of thumb, keep it to fewer than 200 words.
4. Decide how you’ll deliver it. Many government agencies have email addresses for individuals or departments that handle constituent comments and letters. But your petition can also be an opportunity to make a splash with a hand-delivery to the agency. The nature of the campaign and how it fits into your overall work and strategy may dictate how you deliver the letters — the more central the petition is to your action plan for change, the more benefit you can reap from a big delivery event. These events can entail printing your signatures and packaging them in a visually appealing way to present to your target in-person, asking volunteers and supporters to come out to an accompanying rally for the media, and/or staging an event with speakers in support of your issue. The size and effort required here varies drastically, but even the smallest petition delivery event is a great opportunity for engaging your volunteers in that area.
5. Remember to follow up! Petitions don’t just offer your supporters and volunteers a chance to act once, they give you an excuse to stay in touch. As your petition grows and starts to make actual change, keep your volunteers informed—even those who didn’t sign. Each step you take also opens up the opportunity for future petitions that may pique your supporters’ interest. Maybe asking for more education funding didn’t sound too exciting. But now that you’ve got extra appropriations, your volunteers may want to voice how their tutoring experiences have shown the value of after school programs or teachers’ aides.
Creating a healthy volunteer program means keeping your supporters engaged, excited and active with your organization. The next time you have a few months between in-person events, try getting people involved online and show them that they can make a difference.
Aaron Viles is a Senior Grassroots Organizer for Care2. He works with citizen authors on Care2 Petitions to create petitions that will win concrete victories for animals, the environment and other progressive causes. Prior to Care2 he spent decades working within the non-profit environmental advocacy field. Aaron honed his craft while working for Gulf Restoration Network, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, and Faithful America. He began his career with Green Corps, the field school for environmental organizing. When not in front of a screen or on a conference call, Aaron can be found doting on his daughters, pedaling furiously to keep up with the peloton, and serving as a volunteer leader for the Sierra Club, Dogwood Alliance and his church.