Donovan Group Insights

Referendums Require Emotional Buy-In

Emotion is the one thing that connects us all. It can inspire people to get on their feet and take action. If a referendum is on the ballot, emotion is exactly what it needs to pass with flying colors. Not everyone is as invested in your district as students, staff, teachers and parents. And yet, everyone’s support is equally critical to a referendum’s success. To win the community’s support, you have to tap into their emotions.

Let’s explore the role emotions play in a successful referendum.

Winning support takes more than logic

There are plenty of logical reasons to pass a referendum. Renovating science labs would give students access to nicer facilities and the latest technology. Increasing the budget would allow schools to hire more teachers and raise their salaries. Expanding a sports complex would create room for more fields, courts and training equipment. While these are all perfectly valid reasons, they only matter to the stakeholders inside your schools.

Community members need more than logic to vote “yes” on a referendum. They need a reason to become personally invested in it. Teachers, staff, administrators and parents are likely to vote in favor of a referendum because they’re already invested in the district’s success. They either work in the district or have children enrolled in the district. On the other hand, community members have a less direct relationship with the district. To get community members personally invested, you’ll need to tap into their emotions.

Emotions can help community members feel connected to your schools. They can generate interest where previously there was none. They can make people feel hopeful, inspired or happy when they think about their local schools. Not all stakeholders have an obvious reason to invest in your district’s success. But they all have emotions, and that’s something you can use to your district’s advantage.

Harness the power of stakeholders’ emotions

Emotions are the key to connecting with stakeholders. When a person feels strong emotions, they can’t help but get invested. And when they feel positive emotions, that good feeling can translate into support for your school district. Emotions have the power to encourage stakeholders to vote “yes” on a referendum, even the ones who thought they would never get invested in their local district. It all comes down to invoking the right emotions in the right people.

Think about which emotions you want to channel through your district’s referendum campaign. Do you want stakeholders to feel excited? Motivated? Nostalgic, even? Some districts will use negative emotions in their campaigns, such as fear, anger or concern. And while negative emotions can certainly engage stakeholders, you also have to consider the lasting impression they will leave on your community. At the end of the day, you want to be the district that inspires positivity, not negativity.

The proposed action in your district’s referendum can help you decide which emotions to channel through the campaign. If the proposed action is to increase STEM funding, you can get stakeholders excited about the bright future of this field and how students are contributing to it. If the board is trying to expand the high school’s sports complex, you can tap into people’s love for sports and the happiness they feel while cheering on their favorite team.

Tell the community their support is critical

Leveraging emotions can get stakeholders’ attention. Asking for support can get them to take action. Once stakeholders are emotionally invested, you can encourage them to support the referendum by saying how much the district values their support. Community members need to know that the district can’t do this without them. In order for the referendum to be a success, the district needs everyone in the community to vote “yes.” And to do that, stakeholders need to feel like valuable members of the school community.

At the same time, though, stakeholders need more than a sense of being valued. They need reassurance that in exchange for their support, they will get something in return. To rally stakeholder support, the referendum campaign needs to highlight how important the proposed action is—not just for the schools, but for the broader community. Stakeholders will be more likely to vote in favor of a referendum when it’s clear how they would personally benefit from it. The campaign copy has to emphasize that a vote for the referendum is a vote for the community.

Channel emotions through words and images

Once you’ve determined how you want stakeholders to feel, you can focus on channeling those emotions through words and images in the district’s referendum campaign materials. The emotions you want to invoke will guide the process of communicating with stakeholders. They will inform the language you use, and they will help you choose the right photos, graphics or video clips to get your message across.

For example, let’s say you want the campaign copy to make stakeholders feel excited about what’s to come in the future. Which words will convey that feeling of excitement? How can you make stakeholders feel that same level of excitement you feel about the district’s future? However you want stakeholders to feel, keep that emotion front of mind as you create copy for the referendum campaign.

Images are a critical part of the campaign, too. Photos, graphics, illustrations and video clips have the power to stir up strong emotions in your stakeholders. Choose images that match the emotion you’re trying to convey. How do the images make you feel when you look at them? If you feel hopeful, excited or inspired while looking at an image, then chances are, your stakeholders will feel that way, too.

Examples of how to harness emotions

By now, you should have a good idea of why emotions are so critical to a referendum’s success. Before you start crafting your own campaign materials, let’s look at a few examples that illustrate how to use emotions in a referendum campaign.

Imagine your district is proposing to improve the middle school campus. The improvements would include landscaping, new infrastructure and exterior building renovations. You can get stakeholders excited about this proposed action by showing them renderings of the new and improved campus. Emphasize that the project would beautify the campus and boost the overall appearance of the town.

Here’s another example: let’s say your district wants to expand the high school’s fine arts center. You can get stakeholders invested in the project by making them feel nostalgic about their own past experiences with music, theater and visual art. You could also highlight the benefits for community members, such as nicer facilities when they attend a performance or art exhibit.

Lastly, suppose your district is trying to increase the budget for teacher salaries. You can invoke empathy by telling stakeholders that the increased budget would provide a livable wage for teachers. Plus, it’s a way to thank teachers for the life-changing work they do in your schools. Your district can gain further support by emphasizing how important teachers are to society.

If you’re struggling to reach stakeholders, remember this: emotion is the common denominator that connects all human beings. To get people invested in a referendum, you have to dig below the surface and make them feel something. When you harness people’s emotions, anyone can find a reason to support your district and its proposals for change.

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