Stakeholders can feel like a somewhat mystifying term. It is often over-used and yet sometimes little understood, partly because it covers a breadth of people and perspectives difficult to subsume under a single category.
Essentially, stakeholders are the people with expectations of, and opinions about, your work. So how much do you know about them and what they think of you? Be it the Board of Trustees, journalists, politicians, donors or volunteers, it can sometimes be difficult to seek out feedback or check in, especially when there’s so much else going on. It can be a bit of a turn-off, amidst the hustle and bustle of the everyday, to stop and think: are we really listening?
Sometimes we might assume we already know what our stakeholders think because we speak to them a lot. Yet in our experience, it’s not uncommon to interview someone who holds views different to what the charity commissioning the project might have expected.
Another reason we don’t ask questions is that we’re worried about what we might find out. But having the courage to address difficult issues is essential to the health of any organisation, and charities who ignore this do so at their peril.
In some cases, it’s also possibly a resource issue. We might feel we can’t do much to change things, so what’s the point of asking in the first place? Consulting with key audiences and influencers can help to set markers, inform future goals, and prioritise resources. Even if we can’t act on things straight away, putting feelers out helps to identify next steps. Sometimes, it’s also confirmation that you’re already on the right track.
From our experience of working with charities, we know how vital it is to keep up to date with the people that matter. We tend to call these ‘stakeholder audits’. In the past, clients have used such studies to take stock of their brand, inform future strategy and direction, or benchmark success over time.
We’re aware that it can seem like a daunting task, so from the stakeholder studies we’ve conducted over recent years we thought we’d share a few useful pointers we’ve learnt along the way for carrying out research.
- It’s not just about the organisation; it’s about reaching the right person. Identifying key influencers isn’t just about targeting the places or organisations sympathetic to your work, it’s about getting through to the right person with the right role. An important first step is making sure you know who exactly you need to speak to.
- The journey is the destination. Something we’ve learnt is that the research process itself is sometimes just as important as the output. Giving people the opportunity to input into a larger decision-making process can really help to build affinity as well as satisfaction with you and your work. A stakeholder audit is not just about what you’ll get out of it, but offering a chance to feed in. Sometimes it really is the taking part that counts.
- Be clear about what you’re asking for and why. This allows you to put parameters on the discussion and for interviewees to understand where their input is going. A helpful starting point is: what organisational decisions are you hoping to make on the basis of this?
- Be prepared for what you might hear. There’s no point going through an exercise like this if you have pre-conceived ideas, so be open to the range of viewpoints.
- Get a fresh perspective. It’s tempting to run stakeholder research internally, but the advantage of external support is that you avoid bias. In other words, if I ask your opinion of me, you might tell me what you think I want to hear (rather than something closer to the truth). Carrying out stakeholder research as part of an independent process helps to get beyond the surface.
Want to know more? If this has piqued your interest, why not check out our case studies, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also download our consultancy briefing pack, alongside this blog.