Stakeholder is not a dirty word.

As an interpretive planner, part of my job is helping parks, heritage sites, zoos, and aquariums identify the people around them whose lives or work will be affected by what they’re doing. So, early on in the interpretive planning process, I ask if we can sit down and identify their stakeholders.

And more and more, I get the same reaction: “Oh, we don’t use that word.”

Um, ok. But why?

Here’s what I mean by “stakeholder.”

Stakeholders are literally anybody who has a stake in what you’re doing: anybody whose life or work is affected by your project or program. It’s a broad term and encompasses many sub-groups.

  • Visitors and potential visitors
  • Community members
  • Indigenous title holders, residents, and partners
  • Community nonprofits (naturalist groups, streamkeepers, historical societies, etc)
  • Sponsors (remember that word?)
  • Local media including social media writers and influencers
  • Local and regional government
  • Other regulating bodies
  • Your own staff and volunteers
  • Other heritage sites in your region
  • Tourism marketing groups
  • Local merchants and businesses
  • Academics and subject matter experts
  • And so on.

Even though the term is broad, it’s still useful. Each of these groups needs your attention; each needs to be consulted or at least kept up to date with what you’re doing.

In general, when you’re working on an important new project or program, your stakeholders—all of them—should hear from you regularly. (About every six weeks is a good rule of thumb, though it depends on the scope and timeline of your project.) They shouldn’t all, necessarily, get the same communications.

Different stakeholders fall into different categories. There are those to whom we simply send updates; there are those that we consult with early in the interpretive planning to get their guidance; there are those that we work with intimately every step of the way (and we make sure we implement what they need.)

“But we use the term partner now.”

Yeah, here’s where I’m going with this. More and more, I see agencies using the word partner as a kind of flattering euphemism. And I get it; ‘stakeholder’ isn’t very sexy. It’s a matter-of-fact, workmanlike term. The word ‘partner’ is inspiring and empowering. But here’s the thing:

It’s much easier to call people partners than it is to actually treat them like partners.

Partnership implies shared risk, shared responsibility, and shared reward. A stakeholder becomes a partner when you enter into a written agreement with them—one that includes some kind of sharing of power.

Is someone blowing sunshine up your skirt?

If someone is calling you “partner” but not giving you access to decision making, not sharing benefits with you, and not asking you to shoulder some of the risk, they’re using a euphemism to flatter you. It might be worth your while to try to determine exactly how much influence you really have over what they’re doing.

Stakeholder is not a dirty word.

In the name of honest, simple communication, let’s stop calling people “partners” when we really mean stakeholders. And let’s spend a little time asking ourselves why, for many interpretive agencies, the sharing of power—the elevating of a group from stakeholder to true partner— is the most difficult thing of all.

5 Comments

  1. Thanks, I agree with you and I will remember to take notice of any activity associated with these terms.
    Thanks again

  2. Hi Don,
    We recently had a session that specifically discussed the use of the word stakeholder as a historic term that originated from settlers ‘staking’ their territories and ultimately laying claim to land that they had no right to take from indigenous people. It was determined that this word was offensive to indigenous folks and not to be used in reference to them. I get the gist of what you’re saying, but in this case I choose not to use the word stakeholder out of respect.

    • Hi Brigitte- that is a really interesting point of view. The etymology of the term, as I can find it at least, doesn’t really support the idea of a stake on territory. See:
      https://www.etymonline.com/word/stake-holder
      But I can see how those overtones might be attached to the word and how it can be offensive. What term are you using instead? Is it partner? If so how to you define partners against other levels of stakeholders? What vocabulary are you using?

  3. Hey Brigitte & Don — thanks for addressing the word stakeholder. I can see how it might be offensive and also see how at times it could be the right word to use. And yes, partners is just a bit too strong for the reality of most situations. So turning to my trust thesaurus here are some other suggestions:
    colleagues
    collaborators
    associates
    participants
    And there may be something even better. Now I can start thinking differently and see where this takes us as language can help us change our attitudes and understandings….thanks to you both.

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