Donovan Group Insights

The Basics of a Referendum Campaign

So, your district has a referendum in the works. After polishing it up, you’ll be ready to unveil it to the school community. Of course, you want the referendum to be well received. Instead of simply announcing the referendum, your district needs to plan a comprehensive, well-thought-out campaign that can rally the whole community’s support.

Before you even launch the campaign, you have to gauge how stakeholders might feel about the proposed referendum. Taking their thoughts into consideration will allow you to amend the referendum as necessary and communicate how it can work to their benefit, whether they’re directly involved with the district or not.

Here’s how to create a referendum campaign that can garner support on election day.

Gauge support with stakeholder surveys

Before announcing a referendum, you need to assess whether the community will support it. You can gauge community support by inviting stakeholders to complete a survey. The purpose of this survey isn’t to ask stakeholders whether they would support your proposed referendum. Rather, it should provide a comprehensive overview of stakeholder needs and interests. A survey can give you a good idea of what stakeholders believe is going well and what needs to change in your district.

You want the referendum to pass with flying colors. To achieve this, you have to make sure the priorities of stakeholders and the district align with each other. A stakeholder survey can help you assess whether the proposed referendum is the solution that stakeholders have been looking for. That way, you can make any necessary changes to the referendum before formally proposing it to the community. The feedback from this survey will allow you to create a referendum that elicits the highest amount of community support.

To gain good quality feedback, create survey questions that are relevant to the proposed referendum. The referendum seeks to address an issue in your district, so you need to gauge how important that issue is to your stakeholders. For example, one purpose of your referendum might be to equip science labs with updated technology. In the survey, you could ask a question like, “How important is it to invest in the district’s science curriculum?” Be sure to phrase questions in an impartial way so you can get the stakeholders’ honest, uninfluenced opinions.

Dig deeper into stakeholder feedback

Once you have the feedback, you’ll want to make good use of it. Analyze the survey results to see whether stakeholders’ priorities align with those of the district. See if you can identify trends in the data that reveal the main wants and needs in your school community. Identifying stakeholders’ main interests can help you create a more effective referendum campaign. You’ll be able to show stakeholders how the referendum can address their concerns and create the future they want for the district.

As you review the survey results, you may notice trends that need further explanation. Quantitative data is only the beginning—you need to dig into the “why” behind their responses. Let’s say the survey asked stakeholders to rate an issue’s importance on a scale of one to 10. The survey results show that stakeholders gave it an average rating of four. Why did participants rate it so low? Which issue do they believe is more important?

You can get answers to these questions by conducting stakeholder focus groups. These focus groups give you a chance to meet with stakeholders and lead in-depth discussions about the survey results. Use this time to better understand the change stakeholders want to see in your district. It’s also important to remember that various groups of stakeholders make up your school community. Different people might have different interests, so create focus groups designed specifically for teachers, staff, parents, community members and so on.

Announce the campaign with support

After making good use of stakeholder feedback, you’ll be ready to announce the referendum to the public. The announcement should go beyond simply making stakeholders aware of the referendum. Stakeholders should know that you’ve done the research, and the vast majority of community members are on board with it. Many stakeholders trust the opinions of their peers over those of the district. People feel better about supporting a referendum if they know others in their community support it, too.

Of course, stakeholders will want proof that the referendum has earned community support. One way to do this is by releasing a thorough analysis of the survey results. You can also create a report that summarizes the findings from your stakeholder focus groups. Providing concrete evidence can increase the chances of community members voting in favor of a referendum.

In addition to community support, it’s often helpful to cite sources that prove the effectiveness of a referendum. Provide links to articles, studies and reports that show how similar referenda have benefited other school districts. Stakeholders want to feel confident that the referendum will have its intended effect on the district. They’re not just voting for more capital—they’re voting for a solution that has worked for others, and it can work for their district as well.

Market its benefits to the community

The main objective of a referendum is to improve the quality of education in your district. However, this is far from your only objective. A referendum can benefit others in the community, even those who aren’t directly connected to the schools. Unfortunately, many stakeholders vote “no” on a referendum because they don’t see how it’s relevant to their wants and needs. You can gain community support showing how the referendum benefits people other than teachers, students, staff and parents.

Throughout the campaign, look for opportunities to engage all stakeholder groups, especially the ones who are less likely to vote in favor of the referendum. Again, different groups have different interests. Create marketing messages that speak to those interests, and explain how the referendum can serve their wants and needs. Some stakeholders need more incentive to vote “yes” other than improving public education. You need to reassure them that the referendum is a net positive for the community at large.

For example, there’s a good chance that local business owners are going to vote on the referendum. Some of them might not have children in your schools. You can gain their vote by explaining how the referendum would benefit small businesses. The referendum is an investment in the future workforce, and a good public education can instill the qualities they’re looking for in an employee.

You can also market the referendum to alumni of your district. While many alumni are no longer directly involved, the campaign can remind them that they’ll always be part of the school community. Voting “yes” on the referendum empowers alumni to create a better education for the students that come after them. Alumni remember their time in your schools, and the referendum gives them a chance to make the community better than how they left it.

You have all the tools you need to launch a successful referendum campaign. Above all else, the community should serve as your number one resource. Stakeholder insight can help you align the district’s interests with theirs. Community members are the people you need to engage the most, both before and during the campaign. Keeping stakeholders’ interests front of mind can lead to a referendum that most everyone is happy with.

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