Who are your stakeholders?

One of the tools in my toolbox that I enjoy most is stakeholder engagement design and implementation.  My colleagues and I have actively incorporated engagement strategies in every project over the last 10+ years.  I hope to provide some insight into stakeholder engagement through a series of blog posts on the subject.  In this first one, I talk about identifying stakeholders.

In one of the earliest conversations of my doctoral studies, I asked a friend who ran an early childhood development agency: “Who are your stakeholders?” His response was something I will never forget and goes a little like this: “Oh, of course! I never thought of all these people in my agency and our clients as ‘stakeholders’. That gives me a whole new perspective on all the work we do.”  To this day he cites that conversation as a turning point in his thinking about how to run his business. How many people, in so many different fields, think about those they work with, or for, as stakeholders?

From an academic perspective, the term stakeholder brings with it a basic definition: a stakeholder is any person, entity, or group that has a stake or vested interest in whatever the endeavor (Greene, 2005). While this is a good place to start, when you add the idea of engagement, this broad definition is not prescriptive enough to guide purposeful identification and engagement. Different fields talk about stakeholders in different ways, and provide different frameworks for identifying them.

For instance, in the organizational change management arena, Axelrod & McDonald (The Method and the Magic, 2015, pp. 60-62) specify four key stakeholder groups critical to implementing change: advisors (leaders who shape the program), champions (leaders of impacted groups), implementers (i.e., the project team), and representatives of the impacted groups.

The community change toolbox characterizes stakeholders by their relationship to the effort in question.  Primary stakeholders are people or groups that stand to be directly affected, either positively or negatively, by an effort.  Secondary stakeholders are people or groups that are indirectly affected.  Key stakeholders might belong to either or neither of the first two groups and are those who can have a positive or negative effect on an effort (similar to Axelrod & McDonald’s advisors and champions). 

The evaluation literature, exemplified by Rossi, Lipsey, & Freeman’s classic academic text (Evaluation, 7th Ed., 2004) provides a long list of potential stakeholder groups (pp. 48-49) that range from policy-makers, decision-makers, and sponsors, to program implementers, target populations, contextual (other interested) groups, and the broader evaluation and research communities.

What each of these categorization schemata have in common is the idea that there are those who will implement whatever change endeavor you are building, those who will be affected by the change, those who have influence over the process by their position or interest, and those onlookers who have a more peripheral interest in what you are doing.  Each of these are worth considering as you begin the process.

A few questions you might ask when considering stakeholder engagement:

  • What change are you expecting to see? (e.g., can you nail down any expected “causation” and the key instruments of change?)
  • Who will be most impacted by this change?
  • Who will implement the intervention to cause this change?
  • Who can you get to champion the cause?
  • Who are key gatekeepers that should be involved (or kept informed) for you to obtain the resources you need?  Conversely, what “dragons” are out there that could “slay” your cause? (e.g., who do you need to worry about winning over in order to be able to move forward?)
  • Who cares about this change? (i.e., who are the key interested people and what are the stakes?)
  • Who funds the project and is the most vested in its success?

These are just a few questions to get you started with identifying your stakeholders.  In my next post I will say more about some of the reasons why you should spend considerable time learning about, and potentially engaging each of these groups. In later posts I will provide some useful tools and mechanisms for engaging stakeholders, some examples from the field, and some of the difficulties of stakeholder engagement.

Almost every field involved in change initiatives has some perspective or framework regarding stakeholders. I have provided a few here, but I am sure you have some more.  Please feel free to send me your references and I will add them to future posts (and, of course credit you!).

Further reading:

Community Toolbox, Identifying and Analyzing Stakeholders and Their Interests, Ch. 7, Sec. 8, http://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents

Cousins, J. B., & Whitmore, E. (1998). Framing participatory evaluation. New Directions for Evaluation, Winter (80), 5-23. doi:10.1002/ev.1114

Daigneault, P. M., & Jacob, S. (2009). Toward Accurate Measurement of Participation: Rethinking the Conceptualization and Operationalization of Participatory Evaluation. American Journal of Evaluation, 30 (3), 330-348. doi:10.1177/1098214009340580

Durlak, J. A. & DuPre, E. P. (2008). Implementation matters: A review of research on the influence of implementation on program outcomes and the factors affecting implementation. American Journal of Community Psychology, 41, 327-350.

Greene, J. (2005). Stakeholders. In S. Matheson (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Evaluation (pp. 397-398). Sage: Thousand Oaks, CA.

Madsbjerg, C & Rasmussen, M. B. (2014). The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems. Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, Massachusetts.

Rodriguez-Campos, L. (2012). Stakeholder involvement in evaluation: three decades of the American Journal of Evaluation. Journal of MultiDisciplinary Evaluation, 8 (17).

Karim, S. B. A., Rahman, H. A., Berawi, M. A., and Jaapar, A. (2007). A review on the issues and strategies of stakeholder management in the construction industry (2007). Management in Construction and Researchers Association Meetings and Conference, 28-29 Aug 2007, Shah Alam, Selangor, Malaysia.