Working with Stakeholders
A “stakeholder” is anyone who has an interest in your non-profit. Some typical stakeholders you might encounter include:
Current and potential employees, volunteers, and board members
Individual donors and grant foundations
Corporations and government agencies you wish to work with
The beneficiaries of your intervention
Organizations and people whose cooperation is important
How you interact with stakeholders depends on what type of role they play in your theory of change - in other words, how important they are in achieving your outcome.
1. BUILDING A STAKEHOLDER MAP
CE co-founder Karolina Sarek has created a guide on increasing the impact of your research by involving decision-makers. In this hypothetical research organization, the theory of change is that the organization shall conduct research that someone will act or build upon to improve the world. It would be a shame if the organization did a lot of great research, and then that research sat in an archive somewhere and never saw any practical use. Karolina’s post describes how to contact stakeholders early and often, to make sure that you are conducting research that they actually will use. This principle applies to more than just research organizations. Whenever the effectiveness of your intervention relies on somebody else doing something, you should be talking to those people and looping them in on your decisions. Look at your theory of change and try to identify as many stakeholders and decision-makers as possible. It often helps to put them in a spreadsheet. What comes next depends on the nature of your organization. If you are running a research organization, it might make sense to come up with a list of research questions and ask the people who are likely to use the research to rate those questions, as described in Karolina’s post. If you are running a corporate campaign, you might have a list of farms that you want to contact and speak to. Here are some templates to help you get started. Figure out a system for keeping track of stakeholders that makes sense for you.
2. PRIORITIZE IMPORTANT STAKEHOLDERS AND COMMUNICATE WITH THEM FREQUENTLY
Do not put off working with stakeholders as unimportant. If you’re so busy with direct work that you don’t spend sufficient resources on interactions with stakeholders, your work may be wasted. For example, if a government agency reconsiders your permission to operate in a region, your intervention will never be implemented. If a grantmaking organization changes its priorities, it may never use your research to make decisions. If a stakeholder decision is critical to your mission, stay in frequent communication and maintain a close awareness of their current priorities. Prioritize which stakeholders you talk to. It is easy to end up talking only to the most accessible or friendliest stakeholders. However, the most important stakeholders are the ones directly involved in generating impact. The spreadsheets outlined above can help you with this task. If your stakeholder is an organization, try to maintain a solid relationship with all levels of staff, from top to bottom. If you only work with mid-level staff, your message may not get through. You want to have a direct and friendly relationship with the head of the organization as well. You can use this customer relationships management template to keep track of stakeholders, ensuring that you speak to them regularly, and to organize your meeting notes. Such a template can also be turned into an app with a tool like AppSheets.
3. CONDUCT SYSTEMATIC INTERVIEWS WHEN APPROPRIATE
If you are likely to have similar types of meetings with stakeholders of a similar type, it can be valuable to create a systematic interview process. Make a list of questions to ask each stakeholder, with an eye to being able to methodically put each stakeholder’s answer in a spreadsheet. This allows you to systematically compare responses from stakeholders later on, which will improve your decision-making process. Karolina’s process mentioned above is designed for research organizations, and therefore focuses on getting information for what types of research will influence decisions. During interviews, she systematically asks stakeholders to rate the degree to which each potential research question will influence their decisions. She can use this information to prioritize the research most likely to sway the decisions that she believes are most important. You can use this stakeholder management for researchers template to replicate this process. Give each stakeholder a weight that corresponds to the degree to which the stakeholder’s opinion might influence your research agenda. This generally should correspond to the impact of the different decisions they might make as a result of your research. Then, ask your stakeholders to give numerical ratings of the various questions on your research agenda.
J-PAL has a similar guide to systematic stakeholder interviews for policy focused organizations, which focuses on understanding each stakeholder’s position within networks of organizations, knowledge of policy, amount of resources at their disposal, and decision-making power over how those resources are mobilized.
Here is a more simplified/less technical policy stakeholder management template inspired by J-PALs methodology. Cells with orange triangles on the top right corner have comments further explaining what the column is for. Pair this template with a structured interview in which you ask the stakeholder questions about who they are working with, what their interests are, and what they think about various topics related to your intervention.
Meetings are time-consuming for both parties, but you can make them more productive if you go into them with a plan. In unplanned meetings, it’s easy to forget to ask important questions, or to waste time deciding what to talk about. By using these systematic processes for meeting with stakeholders, you will have a ready-made template of questions to ask at every meeting, and you will likely sound more competent to the person you are interviewing. Practice conducting your interview with a friend a few times before you meet your first stakeholder. It’s sometimes helpful for one person to conduct the interview, while another takes notes in the background (although, consider whether the person you are meeting with might be intimidated by multiple interviewers). You can also record your interview and take your own notes later, although this may make some stakeholders uncomfortable or less likely to speak frankly.
4. UNDERSTAND AND MAINTAIN STAKEHOLDER MOTIVATION
Just as your organization has a specific mission, your stakeholders often have a specific set of priorities of their own. It’s important to maintain an understanding of your stakeholder’s priorities. For example, if your intervention does not align with the national priorities in a country of operations, you can anticipate that relationships with those government stakeholders may be a potential bottleneck. Ask your stakeholders what their priorities are and how you might help. Stakeholder motivations can also be more personal. Perhaps a stakeholder would like to be publicly seen as a leader in a field, or has always wanted to be part of an impact evaluation. Identify ways to satisfy the personal motivations of your stakeholders, without crossing the line to improper influence (e.g. never consider bribes). Possible pathways to satisfy the personal motivation of your counterpart include: improving their image as an innovator, make their name appear in the media, and bringing them in as a co-author on a study. One especially useful tool is to involve the stakeholders themselves in the decision-making processes that generate your program ideas. Even if you are nudging them towards an idea you have researched in advance, if stakeholders feel that they are part of the conversation and have a role to play in your decision-making, it often increases the degree to which they are personally invested in the success of your program. Ask your stakeholders for advice when appropriate - they are often useful sources of information. Be mindful of the possible conflict between stakeholders. While most organizations are friendly and are working together to do the most good, it sometimes happens that different organizations with similar missions have negative opinions of each other. Different government agencies often have friction, or are on different sides of a partisan issue. You should be conscious of the internal politics between the people and entities you interact with. Hire trusted staff with local government expertise to help you navigate these issues. If communicating with stakeholders is an important part of your organization, there are some resources you can review:
Resources by Charity Entrepreneurship
Are you working on a research agenda? A guide to increasing the impact of your research by involving decision-makers
External resources (free)