How to Engage Your Stakeholders

By Molly Penn

What’s a “stakeholder” anyway? Oops, like you, we sometimes fall prey to using jargon – sorry! A stakeholder is anyone with an interest in the outcomes your organization produces – so that would include your funders, your board, your staff, your clients or patrons or audiences and even your colleagues and competitors.

So why is it important to engage them? Because what makes a plan strategic is that it helps your organization respond to the important things that are happening in the environment in which you work.

  • Is fundraising on the decline?

  • Are your funders focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion?

  • Are your competitors growing or developing new business lines or programs?

  • Are the needs and interests of your clients/audiences/patrons shifting?

What makes a plan strategic is that it is about ensuring that your organization remains relevant and important. And the way to do that is to incorporate the voices and opinions of your stakeholders.

Okay, so we’ve got your attention about why it’s important to engage them in your planning process, so how to do it. Simple, call them up – right?

Not quite.

That may be the right mechanism to use (or a visit is even better), but before you do that, you have to plan what you are going to ask them. Every opportunity to speak with your stakeholders should be treasured – it is an opportunity to make an impression on them! So make sure you ask smart questions that are open-ended (not yes/no, or that’s all you’ll get). Once you have designed a set of really smart, strategic questions, you are ready to determine what is the best method to use to engage them. We use some or all of the following methods.

Methods to Engage Stakeholders

Focus Groups

Focus groups serve either of two purposes: (i) they enlist the participation of key stakeholders, so they have a voice in the planning process; and/or (ii) they glean critical qualitative feedback that is otherwise missing.


Surveys are used for soliciting quantitative feedback from a large number of people. They are not ideal for nuance, but they are great for making a large group of people feel they’ve been given an opportunity to be heard and weigh in.

Confidential Interviews

Confidential interviews are best for hearing the viewpoints of key individual stakeholders on issues of importance to the planning process (for example, funders, colleagues). They are also an opportunity to allow key internal stakeholders (such as board members) a chance to have their individual voices heard and to weigh in thoughtfully on the future of the organization.

Human-Centered Design Audit

It may be useful to incorporate a Human-Centered Design Service Audit, in which you use focus groups with clients or patrons to understand whether there are invisible barriers or challenges in engaging with your organization. The findings from this type of audit can help inform how best to streamline or improve your services and/or communication practices so they are most accessible and effective for patrons.


Have you heard the old adage “if you want advice, ask for money. If you want money, ask for advice”? The same logic here applies. That’s why every opportunity to engage stakeholders for advice should be treasured. Plus, it ensures your plan is relevant to them.

Talk to us about how to engage your stakeholders!

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