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Three Truths About Stakeholder Engagement

While the who, what, and how of engaging stakeholders varies in each context, we’ve consistently seen three things.

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Strategies for social change are stronger when we engage a diverse group of people in shaping solutions. Through our work helping nonprofits and foundations set strategies for social change, we are seeing growing interest in engaging stakeholders when shaping strategy and, in particular, ensuring people closest to the issues have power to shape solutions.

While the who, what, and how of engaging stakeholders varies in each context, there are three things we’ve consistently heard from partners and seen ourselves:

1. Successful strategies rely on engaging a diverse set of stakeholders in shaping them.

When we talk about diversity here, we mean role — as described in the definition above — and identity. In thinking about identities, racial diversity should be the first consideration because we know that race is the biggest difference that makes a difference in terms of outcomes people experience in the U.S. You will probably want to consider other identities in developing your strategy as well. For example, in our work with a national organization that serves people affected by mental health challenges, it was important to engage stakeholders from a diversity of geographic areas (urban, suburban, rural) since we knew that geography impacts the types of support people can access. We also knew it was important to engage people with different relationships to mental health challenges, from individuals personally navigating them, to their family members, to those who provide mental health services.

Stakeholders: People who will be impacted by your strategy and/or should influence its development. This could include community members, staff, board, public officials, funders, etc.

2. Stakeholders closest to the issues should lead your strategy.

This often means those who have historically not had the power or resources to shape solutions. Board members and staff without ongoing lived experience may not fully grasp the nature of the challenges they’re trying to address. And creating strategies without engaging those directly impacted keeps power from them. Miriam’s Kitchen — which works to end chronic homelessness in Washington, DC — strives to center their guests (which is how they describe people who access their services and others with lived experience of homelessness) in everything they do. Their efforts started in their advocacy program, engaging people who have experienced homelessness and empowering them not just to get involved in advocacy but to be true partners and leaders in that work. The staff quickly realized that their guests had valuable insight into the organization’s other programmatic offerings as well. Today, Miriam’s Kitchen ensures guests have a voice in shaping the organization’s program strategies. (Watch our webinar to learn more about how Miriam’s Kitchen engages guests.)

3. Stakeholder engagement should be an ongoing practice.

Authentic stakeholder engagement is rooted in trusting relationships. Approaching stakeholder engagement as a checkbox exercise will likely cause more harm than good. Organizations that have built ongoing relationships with stakeholders — like Miriam’s Kitchen has done with their guests — can create open channels for feedback and communication that ultimately helps them do their work better. When the Greater Rochester Health Foundation was developing a strategy for its Healthy Futures program, which aims to improve the health and well-being of children ages 0-5 in the region, the foundation knew local parents and families were important partners to engage. The experience of engaging parents and families to inform this program strategy led the foundation to realize they could have greater impact if community stakeholders have more voice in all their strategies. Today, as Senior Program Officer Danette Campbell-Bell shared in our webinar, “the foundation is taking a back seat and allowing stakeholders to drive what we do.”

A Call for Deeper Engagement

As you work to engage stakeholders, continually challenge yourself and your organization to take it further. Look for opportunities to engage stakeholders, particularly community stakeholders, as co-creators or shift decision-making power to them. If your stakeholder engagement centers those closest to the issues and is rooted in authentic, trusting relationships, it is more likely to result in stronger outcomes.

To learn more about engaging stakeholders in your strategy, read our field guide and watch our webinar.

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