What is stakeholder engagement and why do we need it?

As you probably already know, your organisation is part of a big community with which it has a lot of interactions. No organisation can fulfil its mission by being isolated from its environment, target group or any other entities it encounters in its activity. These interactions are beneficial and useful for all parties involved, but it can be that sometimes they also generate conflict. Also, while members of the organisation may have a thorough knowledge about the organisation’s environment and the needs of its target group, it can happen that this knowledge is not accurate, being biased by different factors.

Different initiatives that organisations have (let’s call them projects from now on) will create interactions with different persons or entities and will generate different interests from them. Let’s think at a charitable concert that you want to organise for the cause of youngsters with disabilities. Whom will your project interact with and who will have an interest in it? The first answer can be “youngsters with disabilities and the spectators” and this is true, at least partially. But, for sure, the artists performing will also have some interest related to the concert (in terms of schedule, sound equipment, the songs you wish that they play, payments, etc.). If you have sponsors, they will also have some interest in the way you are organising, how you promote them and what will their sponsorship be used for. Moreover, if the concert is done in a public space, you will also interact with persons passing by (your concert can be in their way or they can be interested in joining it), so even they share an interest in your project. All these parties (plus any other that for some reason will be impacted in a positive or negative way by your project) are your stakeholders. When planning and organising your event you should also take them into consideration by informing them about your initiative, by consulting with them about it and even by including them in the actual implementation, this process being called as stakeholder engagement.

Stakeholder engagement is not a new thing, as it is already common for successful businesses and social enterprises to engage their employees, customers, suppliers or host communities and to make changes according to the needs of their stakeholders. Still, this is something that often happens just with the big companies or more developed NGOs, while a lot of the smaller ones either don’t find it important enough or don’t even think at the process as an option. This happens not only as a consequence of lack of knowledge, but also because leaders fail to acknowledge different advantages that the process brings to their organisations, like:

Being in contact with your stakeholders will provide valuable input that will help you adapt your plans so that you will fit their needs better, making your projects more appealing and less problematic. It is true that you may guess some of your target group's needs, for example, but didn’t it happen to you to plan something and then to find that people were not so interested in what you did? Don’t you think it would have helped to ask them also about their interest or even to make them be part of the whole organising process?

Engaging your stakeholders will generate more ideas that will help you prepare much better a project. Haven’t you even found yourself saying: “Oh, I didn’t think of that!”? The more persons you ask who have some interest in the topic of your initiative, the more ideas you get and this will help you get different perspectives and solutions for your issues, helping you become more creative in your work.

Making your stakeholders part of the project will give them a sense of ownership and will make them more involved in the activities. Often people enjoy more getting involved in things that they have helped create rather than being directed into things with which they have no connection to.

Different risks associated to your activity can be better identified, as you will benefit from the experience of more persons who are connected to your initiative.

Being in direct contact with its stakeholders will help the organisation create a more positive image in the community, thus increasing the support it gets from it.

To make things a little bit more clear, let’s think about three situations. The local authorities have planned to organise some activities for the youngsters in your city or village. Which of the three options would you enjoy more:

1. The local authorities will create and implement a plan and you can participate in the activities they think are best for you, if any;

2. The local authorities consult with the youngsters and youth associations and together you will create a plan for the activities that the local authorities will implement;

3. The local authorities consult with the youngsters and youth associations about the plan and will also offer interested parties the resources they need to put this plan into action and organise some of the activities that target the youth?

Usually most people will prefer number 2 or number 3 as it does not only take into account their opinion but also allows them to get actively involved in the whole process and direct it in the way they think is best. You enjoy it more when you are also contributing to the decision-making and what is happening is also taking into consideration your opinion, right? Moreover, it is also nice when you can get to participate and even coordinate some of the activities, as you can use your experience and own resources for creating a better experience for your target group. Well, all these lead us to another important aspect related to stakeholder engagement: the different levels of engagement.

Usually, people consider that they have enough interaction with their stakeholders if they manage in some way to inform them about what is happening or maybe consult them. While these are also useful in the process, stakeholder engagement is more than this, as the level of participation can be even higher than this. The next examples will clear things a little bit more for you. Let’s think that you want to organise some workshops with the youngsters in your community. How can you engage your stakeholders in this? Here are some different levels:

1. Information (providing objective and accurate information that will help the stakeholders understand the plan you have foreseen, the alternatives that you have not followed, the reasons for this and the opportunities that the activity brings to the stakeholders) – in this case you, alone or together with few other colleagues, will create a plan for the activities and implement it. Before or during the implementation you will inform your stakeholders about what will happen, when, what were the aspects you took into consideration when you chose these activities, how can others participate and what benefits they may have.

2. Consultation (getting feedback from your stakeholders about the plan, alternatives and results) – in this case you don’t create the plan just with your colleagues but you also involve different stakeholders, by asking for their opinion and taking it into consideration. The stakeholders you consult should not be only the ones in your target group but also any other persons or entities on which your activities will have some impact.

3. Involvement (working with the stakeholders throughout the planning and implementation process and making them part in the decision-making) – You will not only consult your stakeholders, but you will also include them in the decision-making bodies that will coordinate the activities. Still, the final decision about what will happen is yours.

4. Collaboration (both you and part of your stakeholders are taking responsibility for different parts of the project) – In this situation your stakeholders become partners in the whole project and you will not only plan together but will also divide the tasks with them, each being responsible, deciding and implementing parts of the whole project.

5. Empowerment (the decision-making is entirely of the stakeholders) – This is the ultimate in stakeholder engagement: it is not only that you work together with your stakeholders for implementing the activities but you give them the lead, meaning that they are the ones to decide and your role is just to guide and offer support.

Of course, different stakeholders will be interested to engage in different ways. While it can be that your target group will like to be more than consulted and some will even want to be part of the whole organising process, the people who are living next to the places where you want to set-up some events will probably be satisfied if you just consult with them about the best way in which your activities could have the least impact on them. Still, if there is one thing that you should have in mind after reading this chapter, that would be to always take into consideration the stakeholders of your projects, not only by informing or consulting them, but also by using different tools for engaging and even empowering them. This is the best way to be sure that your plan reflects their needs and that different problems will not occur later on throughout the implementation.




Practical exercise

Elements of stakeholder engagement

Participants will be divided into 3-5 groups, depending on their total number. The number of groups should be: 3 for less than 16 participants, 4 for 16 to 25 participants, 5 for 25 to 36 participants.

Each group will receive the description of a key aspect related to stakeholder engagement and the different levels on which the stakeholders can be engaged (the 5 levels presented above). The trainer can group these 5 topics at his/her will. Using a flipchart paper and the competences acquired in the last days, each team will have to make a presentation about the given topic.

After this, new teams will be created comprising of members from each of the initial teams (at least one from team no. 1, team no. 2, ... and so on will be part of each new team). These will move from one flipchart to the other in given time and order and, when one of the members will be at his own flipchart, he will present the information contained, thus insuring that everybody will learn about all the key aspects of stakeholder engagement


Practical exercise

Exercise on participation

Participants will receive different roles, acting as various members of one community (from simple citizens to business people or state officials). They will have the task of planning (for 20 minutes) and organising (for another 10 minutes) the “City youth day”, an event that addresses youngsters in the city.

After this process, all that happened will be analysed together with the trainer from the perspective of participation in decision making. Participants will be asked about their involvement in the decision making and in the actual organising of the event. The group will discover how frustrating it can be not to be involved or how consulting and empowering stakeholders brings multiple advantages to any initiative. Hart’s model of participation can also be presented in order to further structure the information.

Examples of roles in the community

Ladder of participation - source: "Compasito – a manual on human rights education for children!" (http://www.eycb.coe.int/compasito/)


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