Stakeholder is not a dirty word.

(Editor’s note, April 2023. Since I wrote this article last year, the topic has heated up a bit. Please read through the comments as well as the article to get a better sense of my point of view on the subject. Thanks.)

(TL:DR: we are now using “titleholders and stakeholders”. Boom.)

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.

18 Comments

  1. robert fister

    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.

    • Don Enright

      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. Mike Mayer

    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.

  4. Twice in one day I’m arguing that names matter, as they shape how we think about the subject so named.
    In this case, if there’s a disconnect between the implications of the name, and the reality, then it just stores up trouble in the long run as people become disillusioned and worse.
    Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation: https://www.citizenshandbook.org/arnsteinsladder.html
    By saying partner and not meaning it, are you sliding down the snake all the way to level one?

    I’d love to know whether ‘It was determined that this word was offensive to indigenous folks’ based on a meaningful engagement with indigenous opinion, or on hear-say and supposition. Whether that decision was true delegation to indigenous views or itself an example of placation / tokenism or even manipulation! (Not saying it was intended as that by the poster or participants described)

  5. Thank you Don
    Words matter. English has a rich heritage. Banishment of a word demands extreme vigilance, and should seldom (arguably never) occur. Offense taken by a somebody, or a groups of somebodies, is poor justification for censorship. To do so risks eroding centuries worth of etymology, based on a contextual sentiment. If a word has been highjacked for damaging purposes, there is an opportunity for redemption of the language, not erosion. Employ the term accurately; encourage; affirm; comfort; champion, and reclaim the semantics for good.
    The term “stakeholder” may not have preceded colonization of North America. Its meaning, however, was not complicit with colonialist attitude and abuse.

    • Don Enright

      I don’t think anybody’s talking about banishment or censorship but I like the idea of redemption in this context.
      It’s well and good to talk about a word’s rich heritage, but basic communications theory dating back to the 1950s holds that there are three elements to any communication: sender, message, and receiver. If the receiver hears a word in a way that has hurtful connotations for them, surely we can find a new word. Where I think we do more harm than good is using euphemisms like “partner” for stakeholder; they’re not the same thing and calling someone partner when we have no intention of entering into partnership with them is the height of colonial deceit.
      Where redemption happens is when both parties realize that the word isn’t the problem; the relationship is.

  6. Catherine Dube

    Oy vey. If you look up the origins of the word “stakeholder” it comes from GAMPBLING. “also stakeholder, 1708, “one with whom bets are deposited when a wager is made,” from stake (n.2) + agent noun from hold (v.). Originally one with whom bets are deposited when a wager is made. By 1965 as “one who has something to gain or lose” (in a business, etc.), “one who has an interest in” (something).” https://www.etymonline.com/word/stake-holder — and it does pre-date American expansionism. It has nothing to do with physical wooden stakes… this controversy is all fabricated. I recently asked a Navajo guide about this controversy, and he told me that in Navajo culture, warriors would stake themselves to the ground to hold them in place and ensure bravery in battle. Another use of the word “stake” that actually has nothing to do with origin or modern usage. My thoughts!

    • Don Enright

      Catherine- Yes, any etymology I have read suggests the same origin. That said, words change meaning with use. That is to say, “stakeholder” will always have that origin or etymology—but it may not always have that meaning; it may take on new resonance, new meaning, through use, as you point out. For better or worse, that’s how language works. I just don’t see the value in digging in and telling people they’re wrong when they tell us a word sounds hurtful to them, even though they may have a historical misapprehension about the word’s origin.
      And the Navajo story, while interesting, isn’t particularly germane to this discussion and sounds a bit like what-about-ism, don’t you think?

  7. Not sure what happened to my original comment — but not “what-aboutism” at all. Just some insight into how indigenous people might look at a word in yet another way. Every word in our language can be seen as offensive if it is suggested to be — as a teacher and writer in Ethics and Qualitative research, it is frustrating to have to change accepted language (people know what it means) because of a misinterpretation of that language. So — don’t judge me. That is not helpful.

    • Don Enright

      Catherine- while I stand by my what-about-ism suggestion, I do hear you about the frustration of feeling pressured to abandon useful words.
      I do stakeholder engagement for a living, as part of my work in interpretive planning. I need that word. I need a blanket, somewhat vague term to describe everyone who has an interest in a project. Early in a project, we ask the client, “Whose lives are going to be affected by what you’re doing?” Those are stakeholders. I don’t have another good word. We can say “interested parties” but part of stakeholder engagement is understanding that some of those parties may be not be interested at all, yet still hold power over the project. So that word doesn’t work. We can say “communities”, and I do use that word a lot, but some stakeholder groups are not communities. Donors, for example, don’t know each other and never talk to each other. They’re important stakeholders but they’re not a community. “Partner” is a particular kind of stakeholder. The people who might be inconvenienced by your construction project are stakeholders but they’re sure not partners. See what I’m saying?
      So I am loathe to give up the word. I use it a lot. But I am also sensitive to how and where I use it, and I try to be as specific as I can. When I am speaking to or about First Nations, I use resident, title holder, partner, or simply First Nation as appropriate.

  8. I have searched the options too for my students… right now I have suggested: (group) representatives or advocates; or people with special insight, interest, or expertise. There really is no other word. I feel for you. It is frustrating. I have my ethics students do a stakeholder analysis every year — now I have to figure out what to call that. Any suggestions?

    • Don Enright

      I suggest taking them through this particular communications problem and maybe, if you have time, have some dialogue about how we can use language subtly and sensitively while still trying to be as clear and efficient as we can.
      I don’t have any simple solution either.

  9. Invested/affected parties?

    • Don Enright

      Yup that is fairly accurate. As a writer I would likely use “communities” in any kind of public-facing communications, as it’s more positive and inviting, though as I mentioned it’s not always accurate. In any analysis or nitty-gritty conversation I think affected parties or invested parties might work. Again I think there’s room for nuance and flexibility.

  10. Below is a explanation from Bob Joseph. I think understanding our role in engagement and consultation is paramount, and relationship building with communities is key to developing meaningful messages.

    https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/9-terms-to-avoid-in-communications-with-indigenous-peoples

    “Indigenous Peoples are “rights and title holders” not “stakeholders” so avoid this term at all costs. Indigenous title was first recognized by King George III in the Royal Proclamation of 1763 yet Indigenous Peoples continue to struggle to have their constitutionally protected rights recognized.

    Stakeholder is the blanket term used to describe an individual, group, or organization that stands to be impacted by the outcome of a project. But, the problem with blanket terms is that they tend to be used indiscriminately so there’s a potential to offend.

    If non-Indigenous stakeholders have issues with a project they have the freedom, and the right, to lobby the government in an attempt to affect change. They can also engage in negative media campaigns, and hold protests.
    If an Indigenous community has issues with a project they can do the same.

    But, and this is the crux of the difference, Indigenous Peoples also have the ability to actually bind up a project in legal process because they have constitutionally protected rights. Indigenous communities are not mere stakeholders, they are Rights holders. And that’s the term that should be used. You stand to offend them if you call them stakeholders.

    So, for example, for your engagement communications, you could make the distinction and say “Rights holders and stakeholders are invited to…””

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