Late last year, for an intense 10 minutes, I found myself once again immersed in the dungeonous Land of the Stakeholder. I was editing a document that, within a single page noted that “invitees would include national stakeholders as well as stakeholders representing communities.” A few lines later, there was a “focus on local media outreach and engagement with stakeholders, “ followed by my favorite: “engaging stakeholders, elected officials, business leaders, stakeholders, media and residents.”
The stakeholders are everywhere! But, precisely who are they, and why are these nameless people cluttering up so much of the audience in social change communications? Are they carnivores who prefer flank to strip stakes, filet mignon to beef stew? Are they horse racing aficionados who are invested in the outcome at Belmont each year? Or, truth be told, are we getting lazy, taking short-cuts in our strategic targeting of audiences with a catch-all word that, in the end, means nothing?
Let’s hold ourselves to a challenging standard of articulating who the stakeholders really are. If we’re talking about advocates, we should say so. Are they the policy influencers who stand to advance the agendas of specific target audiences, if certain actions are taken? Or, put another way, are they the “interest groups” of old, like the teachers unions, medical associations, or Chamber of Commerce?
In a different vein, are they the constituents themselves — the homeless people, obese people and school children who certainly have a stake in policy reforms? Are they prisoners who stand to be released from incarceration if policy reform is implemented? Are they community college students, the object of education debates?
Those of us seeking to advocate successfully for poverty reduction and improved opportunities in health, education, sustainability, gender equality and a host of other desirables have taken as biblical that successful advocacy is rarely about reaching “the general public.” In fact, when counseling nonprofit leaders, we make clear very early on that the audience must be defined, and that it’s virtually never “the general public.”
We have dodged the hard work of accountability in documenting actual, quantifiable change by substituting “stakeholder” for “the general public” and a whole host of others involved in creating social change. If we’re honest, much as the general public has an interest in just and fair social policy, we’re all stakeholders, because we all have a stake in good outcomes that bend toward social justice.
Let’s hold ourselves to a challenging standard of articulating who the stakeholders really are.
So, we could all loosely claim a stake in affordable housing, but if we’re rigorous, the true stakeholders are those who can’t afford a decent place to live. And, we’re all stakeholders in plans to encourage healthier eating, but those most at risk of obesity, malnutrition or food-borne illness are the ones with a real stake in policies – less so than athletes with 8 per cent body mass index who down vegetable shakes for breakfast each morning. Sure, affordable housing and healthy eating are good for all of us in society, because they promote healthier communities and reduce public expenditures in one way or another. But, let’s be honest about who’s got a real stake in the game: it’s those of us who are suffering in one way or another.
If we want to be precise about the word “stakeholder,” we might want to stick to universal wants that truly affect us all equally and about which we are all vulnerable – a sustainable environment and world peace, for two. But, we communicators can certainly do better than falling back on “stakeholder” when speaking of big, cosmic, existential needs that are the definers of a functioning civilization.
Let’s name names, and measure our success as communicators by our ability to drive policy deciders in public and private life to achieve specific goals for specific groups of people – the people with the most at stake, the people for whom we really work.