(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.