How and Why You Should Engage Your Stakeholders
WHY ENGAGE STAKEHOLDERS?
Wouldn’t it be easier just to do the work and not have to worry about engaging people? Sure, it would be easier - and a whole lot less effective. Nonprofits are, and always have been OF and FOR the community. How each nonprofit defines its community may vary, but the idea that the organization exists to serve a particular community is at the center of the nonprofit form. That is why nonprofit organizations are tax exempt - they work to serve and help their communities. Getting stakeholder alignment and buy-in has always been paramount to the nonprofit business model - it is our dual bottom line - profit and social impact.
WHO ARE THESE STAKEHOLDERS?
Let’s start with a definition. A “stakeholder” is anyone who has an interest in your outcomes. So let’s review who might have an interest in the outcomes of your work:
Those you serve: The most obvious category of stakeholders is the people you exist to serve. Whether you define those as audiences, patrons, clients, customers or organizations, they are at the heart of why you exist and what you do. It is or paramount importance to be in active conversation with them in multi-faceted ways (see below) so you can be sure you are properly addressing their needs or interests.
Those who can support or hinder your work: This category includes your funders, local political regulatory agencies or people that can support or hinder your work, partners, allies or colleagues.
Those who can inform your work: This category includes people who live in your community, researchers, thought-leaders, academic institutions or experts in your field.
4 WAYS TO ENGAGE YOUR STAKEHOLDERS
You understand the importance of stakeholder engagement, but it can be hard to determine the best way to do it. Here are some different ways to engage people and the pluses and minuses of each:
One on one Conversations: You can request some one-on-one meetings with key people who are important to your success - such as funders, board members, community leaders, political leaders, colleagues. Inviting someone to a one-on-one conversation shows them they are important enough to you that will invest this time in understanding their point of view on your work.
Surveys: You can do a survey to give many people the chance to register their point of view in an anonymous format. Surveys are particularly good when you want to ensure that everyone in the community has a chance to weigh in on something. They are best structured with closed-ended questions (such as multiple choice) so you don’t have to read through mountains of text to analyze the feedback. Alternatively, they can be done as text answers to a very small set of questions (4 or 5).
Focus Groups: Focus groups are good when you want to get feedback from sub-groups within your community. For example, if you are an education organization, you might do a focus group with students and another with teachers and another with principals to glean the distinctions in their points of view. Focus groups allow for generative conversations where people can react to their peers’ comments.
Human-Centered Design Audit: Similar to a focus group, a human-centered design audit asks stakeholders to walk you through their entire process of engaging with your organization from start to finish, in order to have them help you identify any potential barriers - either logistical challenges, language barriers, or other types of access barriers.
HOW TO TALK TO YOUR STAKEHOLDERS
No matter what form you use to engage your stakeholders (see above), let’s say you have your stakeholders ready to engage with you. Here are some tips for how to manage these conversations:
Set the context: Tell them why you are asking for their input/feedback. Convey why their opinion is important to you. If you can, try to connect the conversation back to their interests. “It is important for us to understand your perspective on …. “ and “I hope this conversation will give you some useful information as well so you can ….”
Ask powerful questions: If you have the opportunity to hear feedback from your stakeholders, you want it to be useful to you. Don’t ask yes or no questions or that’s all you’ll get for an answer. Ask open-ended, generative questions, such as “if you were starting our organization over again from scratch today, what would it do and why?” Ask questions that will help you better understand where you may be going off course, how you can better serve the needs, and what should be your primary focus.
Listen actively: Once you ask the question, listen carefully to their answer - reflect back to them what you heard to make sure they feel heard and that you heard them accurately. Clarify anything that isn’t clear rather than assume what you think they meant. At the end of the conversation, summarize what you heard and ask if they have any other thoughts (give them the chance to tell you something you didn’t ask).
Review and reflect on their feedback: Make sure to review what they said, and reflect on how that feedback will be specifically meaningful to your organization. If they provided helpful suggestions, this is an opportunity to engage them more deeply - ask them to join a task force to help you work on their ideas.
Offer ways to stay involved: Plan ahead so you have some ideas of ways stakeholders can remain involved with you if the conversation truly engages them. See the task force idea above, or discuss forming an advocacy coalition, or perhaps they could be a candidate for your board.
Don’t forget to thank them: No matter what the review highlights, make sure to share your gratitude for their participation - they have given you the gift of their time and their wisdom - that’s worth a thank you.
Engaging stakeholders can take a lot of effort and be quite time consuming, but in the end, it is what makes or breaks your ability to make a difference in the world.