Why engaging stakeholders throughout your initiative is so important
How many of us have worked on a project, program or initiative and thought about how great it would be to “just do it myself”? We think it will be so much simpler – that we can get it done faster, avoid dealing with those people that are never happy, and escape the organizational turf issues. While this simplicity may seem enticing, in the long run it doesn’t lead to meaningful or sustainable change. Many of the societal issues we face are very complex and can’t be solved by one person or organization. After working for more than 10 years in the public sector, I saw firsthand the need to involve stakeholders in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of complex initiatives. Today’s blog explores what stakeholders engagement is all about and how you make it happen.
What is Stakeholder Engagement?
Stakeholder engagement is the process of enlisting those who are most affected by an issue in the process of developing and implementing strategies to solve it. A stakeholder is just what it sounds like: a person, organization, or community that has a stake or interest in your initiative. They can directly impact or influence your effort.
Why is Stakeholder Engagement Important?
It comes down to fairness. Those affected by or involved in an issue should have their voices heard on that issue. Their opinions matter.
Beyond the fairness issue, including all the stakeholders is important because their input will make your effort more effective. Different stakeholders know the topic from very different perspectives, and without all those perspectives, even the most informed and experienced grass-tops expert is reckoning without all the facts.
And then there’s the buy-in factor. Efforts that have meaningful engagement of all stakeholders have an easier time during implementation. Sometimes this is because the involved stakeholders have spread the word so the effort doesn’t come as surprise when it starts being implemented. Sometimes this is because having all the stakeholders involved gives you the chance to A) find out about, and B) resolve some of the possible problems associated with your effort before you begin implementing.
I could go on at length about the other reasons why stakeholder involvement is so important, but rather than get all the way up onto my hobbyhorse, I’ll just leave it at this: Meaningful stakeholder engagement processes ((Glanz, K., Lewis F., & Rimer, B. (1997). Health Behavior and Health Education (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers.)):
- Start with where the people are and allow stakeholders to create their own agenda based on their wants, not just their needs;
- Lead to a deeper understanding of the issue by engaging stakeholders to identify root causes of problems and translate those problems into solutions;
- Empower stakeholders to own and control the issue;
- Build capacity by engaging stakeholders in problem solving; and
- Lead to better decision making and implementation.
- Define your stakeholders early in the process. Brainstorm on your own, call organizations you know, or talk with others who have been involved in similar efforts.1 Think about the goal and what knowledge, skills, attributes, and resources you need to achieve it. Then determine who can bring those to your initiative. These are the stakeholders you will invite to be part of the process. Write it all down – you don’t want to forget any of it!
- Develop a stakeholder engagement plan. Decide how you will involve stakeholders throughout your initiative such as hosting meetings, having informal discussions, conducting conference calls or webinars, or running focus groups. It is best to host your events after normal business hours, especially if you want community members to attend.
- Develop a communication plan. Communication helps to get stakeholders to the table and to keep them engaged. A communication plan identifies your stakeholders, identifies what messages to use, and reminds you what communication vehicles work best to reach them.
- Use a high-quality facilitator. The facilitation of stakeholder meetings can make or break your stakeholder engagement process. It’s worth finding a skilled facilitator, even if you have to pay for the service. Most stakeholder groups go through a process of forming, storming, norming, and performing before achieving ideal performance. A skilled facilitator can lead them through it while remaining neutral, establishing trust, engaging all members, and managing conflict. A good facilitator can also prevent the group from losing focus.
Making it Happen for YOUR Effort
Whether you are just starting an initiative or well along your way, it is never too late to engage stakeholders in your effort. During my next blog, I will give you a real life example from Spark to illustrate how to put your stakeholder engagement process into action.
- Community Toolbox Stakeholder Engagement Tools
- The Community Tool Box is a big fan of participatory process. That means involving as many as possible of those who are affected by or have an interest in any project, initiative, intervention, or effort. In this section, they discuss how to find and involve the right stakeholders and respond to their needs.
- Brochures on Public Involvement, Environmental Protection Agency
- Due to extensive mandates requiring public involvement in environmental processes, the EPA has provided many tools on their website for engaging a broad range of stakeholders. In particular, the brochures are relevant to engaging the public on any issue. They provide steps and information on budgeting for public involvement, identifying people to involve, technical assistance, outreach, using public input, evaluating public involvement, improving public meetings, and overcoming barriers.
- Kouzes, J. & Posner B. (2002). The Leadership Challenge. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Larson, C & LaFasto, F. (1989). Teamwork What Must Go Right/What Can Go Wrong. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications Inc.