When and how should organizations identify their stakeholders and interests?

Regardless of the purpose of your effort, identifying stakeholders and their interests should be among the first, if not the very first, of the items on your agenda. It’s generally the fairest course you can take, and the one that is most likely to keep your effort out of trouble.

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  • If you want to involve stakeholders in a participatory process, the reasons are obvious. They should be part of every phase of the work, so that they can both contribute and take ownership.Their knowledge of the community and understanding of its needs can prove invaluable in helping you to avoid mistakes in your approach and in the people you choose to involve.
  • If your intent is a participatory action research project, stakeholders should be included in any assessment and pre-planning activities as well as planning and implementation. That way, they’ll understand the research process and project much more clearly, and can add to them.
  • If you want your process to be regarded as transparent, stakeholder involvement from the beginning is absolutely necessary. The community will only believe in an open process if it’s truly open.
  • If your effort involves changes that will affect people in different ways, it’s important that they be involved early so that any concerns or barriers show up early and can be addressed.
  • In situations where there are legal implications, such as the building of a development, involving stakeholders from the beginning is both fair and can help stave off the possibility of lawsuits down the road.

In short, in most cases, the earlier in the process stakeholders can be involved, the better.

HOW DO YOU IDENTIFY AND ANALYZE STAKEHOLDERS AND THEIR INTERESTS?

The first step in identifying and addressing stakeholder interests is, not surprisingly, identifying the stakeholders. We’ve discussed in general terms the categories that stakeholders might fall into, but the list is different for each community and each effort.  It’s an important part of your job to determine who all your stakeholders are, and to try to involve them in a way that advances your goals.

Once you’ve identified stakeholders, the next task is to understand their interests. Some will have an investment in carrying the effort forward, but others may be equally intent on preventing it from happening or making sure it’s unsuccessful.  Stakeholder analysis (also called stakeholder mapping) will help you decide which stakeholders might have the most influence over the success or failure of your effort, which might be your most important supporters, and which might be your most important opponents.  Once you have that information, you can make plans for dealing with stakeholders with different interests and different levels of influence.

IDENTIFYING STAKEHOLDERS

In identifying stakeholders, it’s important to think beyond the obvious. 

Beneficiaries, policy makers, etc. are easy to identify, whereas indirect effects – and, as a result, secondary stakeholders – are sometimes harder to see.  A push for new regulations on a particular industry, for instance, might entail greatly increased paperwork or the purchase of new machinery on the part of that industry’s suppliers.  Traffic restrictions to control speeding in residential neighborhoods may affect commuters that use public transportation.  Try to think of as many ways as possible that your effort might bring benefits or problems to people not directly in its path.

Given that, there are a number of ways to identify stakeholders. Often, the use of more than one will yield the best results.

  • Brainstorm. Get together with people in your organization, officials, and others already involved in or informed about the effort and start calling out categories and names.  Part of the point of brainstorming is to come out with anything that comes to mind, even if it seems silly.  On reflection, the silly ideas can turn out to be among the best, so be as far-ranging as you can.  After 10 or 15 minutes, stop and discuss each suggestion, perhaps identifying each as a primary, secondary, and/or key stakeholder.
  • Collect categories and names from informants in the community (if they’re not available to be part of a brainstorming session), particularly members of a population or residents of a geographic area of concern.
  • Consult with organizations that either are or have been involved in similar efforts, or that work with the population or in the area of concern.
  • Get more ideas from stakeholders as you identify them.
  • If appropriate, advertise.  You can use some combination of the media – often free, through various community service arrangements – community meetings, community and organizational newsletters, social media, targeted emails, announcements by leaders at meetings and religious gatherings, and word of mouth to get the word out.  You may find people who consider themselves stakeholders whom you haven’t thought about.

DISCOVERING AND UNDERSTANDING STAKEHOLDER INTERESTS

As we’ve mentioned several times, stakeholder interests may vary.  Some stakeholders’ interests may be best served by carrying the effort forward, others’ by stopping or weakening it.  Even among stakeholders from the same group, there may be conflicting concerns.  Some of the many ways that stakeholder interests may manifest themselves:

  • Potential beneficiaries may be wildly supportive of an effort, seeing it as an opportunity or the pathway to a better life… or they may be ambivalent or resentful toward it.  The effort or intervention may be embarrassing to them (e.g., adult literacy) or may seem burdensome.  They may not understand it, or they may not see the benefit that will come from it.  They may be afraid to try something new, on the assumption that they’ll fail, or will end up worse off than they are.  They may be distrustful of any people or organizations engaged in such an effort, and feel they’re being looked down on.
  • Some stakeholders may have economic concerns.  Sometimes these concerns are merely selfish or greedy – as in the case of a corporation with billions in annual profits unwilling to spend a small part of that money to stop its factories from polluting – but in most cases, they are legitimate.

A classic case is that of the conflict between open space preservation and the opportunity to sell land for development. Farmers and other rural residents often have almost no other assets but their land. If, by selling it, they can become instant millionaires and live comfortably in retirement after working very hard for very little all their lives, why should they be expected to pass up that opportunity in favor of open space preservation?

In some U.S. states, farmland has been preserved by the state’s paying farmers the development value of their land (or something close) in return for a legal agreement to always keep the land in cultivation or open space. Conservation easements – agreements never to develop the land, no matter how many owners it goes through – sometimes are negotiated on the same basis.

  • Economic concerns may also work in favor of an effort. An initiative to build one or more community clinics can provide construction jobs, orders for medical equipment, jobs for medical professionals and paraprofessionals, and economic advantages for the community. It might be backed, therefore, by unions, equipment manufacturers, professional associations, and local government, largely for economic reasons.
  • Business people may have concerns about such things as universal health care or regulation. While these may be good for the larger society, they may actually hurt some businesses. Especially for very small business, where a slight change in profits may mean not a drop in share price, but the inability to sustain one’s livelihood, this is a big issue. Businesses may have economic concerns in the opposite direction as well. Violence prevention might bode well for businesses in areas that people are hesitant to frequent because of the threat of violence, and it might also reduce the risk of losses and physical harm to the business owners themselves. Thus their positive interest in an effective violence prevention effort.
  • Organizations, agencies, and institutions may have a financial stake in an effort because of funding concerns. Their ability to be funded for conducting activities related to the effort may mean the difference between laying off and keeping staff members, or even between survival and closing the doors.
  • Efforts that concern issues that are controversial for cultural reasons, such as abortion and gay marriage, may be enthusiastically supported by some segments of the community and fiercely opposed by others. While such hot-button issues may not be resolvable, it’s important to understand the positions of stakeholders on both sides.
  • Ideological as well as cultural differences may also drive stakeholder interests. Those who believe that government shouldn’t be seen as the source of anything but the most basic services that people obviously can’t provide for themselves – the military, roads, police, public education – might oppose government-funded programs to help the poor, maintain public health, or provide other services that others deem necessary for the well-being of the community.
  • Legislators and policy makers may be concerned with public perceptions that they’re wasting public money by funding a particular effort. (On the other hand, they can be convinced to spend the money by the perception that an effort is one the public is greatly in favor of, or one that will return more than is being spent.)
  • The jobs of organization staff members engaged in carrying out an effort can be drastically changed by the necessity to learn new methods, increases in paperwork, or any number of other requirements. Depending on the situation, they may be more than willing to take on these responsibilities, may have ideas about how they can be made less burdensome, or may resent and dislike them.

Mandates that don’t directly affect various professionals may affect them indirectly. The jobs of police, teachers, therapists, medical personnel, and others can be changed by changes in laws, regulations, or policy. Increased or decreased emphasis on enforcement or treatment for drug-related offenses can place new obligations on police and others, even if they haven’t been involved in deciding on the changes. Reporting requirements for child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, and other types of crimes may affect the work of teachers, doctors, nurses, therapists, and others.

  • Family concerns may enter into stakeholder interests as well. Parents in many places can now be reported for child abuse for applying punishments like spankings with a brush or belt that their own parents may have used as a matter of course. Without discussing the rights or wrongs of the issue, it’s important to understand that some people will see this as protecting children and others as interfering with parental rights.

You don’t have to – and in fact shouldn’t – guess what stakeholder interests are. Ask them what’s important to them. If there are stakeholders that aren’t willing to be involved, try to talk to them anyway. If that isn’t possible, try to find out their concerns from others who are likely to know. Most stakeholders will be more than willing to tell you how they feel about a potential or ongoing effort, what their concerns are, and what needs to be done or to change to address those concerns.