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Nonprofit Stakeholder Engagement 

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I once worked a nonprofit that poured lots of resources into ‘visioning’ activities. The staff spent hours taking personality assessment, writing about their values, and crafting statements about their teams. The idea was to create a vision for the strategic plan. Leadership took this info, disappeared into months of meetings and emerged with a plan.

But the plan it was flawed from the beginning. Getting staff buy-in became a herculean effort. Clients did not understand or agree with the goals. People quit or cried or both. Finally, after two rough years of lost dollars and talent, the board voted to scrap the plan and start again.

And why? Well, asking staff to write down their vision is just the first layer of this work. Many staff members have deep understanding into operational aspects of an organization. Instead of simply offering ‘vision’, they should be important players in developing implementation strategies.

Furthermore, for the majority of organizations, a ‘team’ is larger than the folks who work in the same office. Plans fail because important voices of clients, community members, volunteers and other agencies, are absent from the planning process.

I understand. True stakeholder engagement is hard work.

Yet if nonprofits don’t engage all of their stakeholders, plans become one-sided, rooted in the values of leadership and not the values of the community it is serves.

Stakeholder engagement is risk management. Any project is more likely to succeed if all of the variables are taken into consideration.

But how to begin this important work? There are many terrific resources such as toolkits that can help you design your process. Here’s a few quick tips to get you started:

When you invite people to participate, stretch yourself. Don’t just ask the volunteer who shows up to every event, seek out the client who called to complain.

1. Be uncomfortable.

When you invite people to participate, stretch yourself. Don’t just ask the volunteer who shows up to every event, seek out the client who called to complain.

2. Open the table.

Invite people who aren’t even on your radar.  Use your staff, volunteers and other constituents to figure out who your stakeholders really are.

3. Offer multiple engagement points. Then offer them again.

Not everyone can come to a 10 am meeting on a Tuesday. Figure out ways to meet your stakeholders where they are. Continue to seek them out. Let them know how important they are to the process.

4. Listen

This might be obvious. However, sometimes organizations play lip service to community engagement, really just wanting to move their agendas forward. Keep your mouth closed and listen. This can be difficult, especially if you are committed to a particular outcome. Consider hiring a consultant or inviting someone from outside to help with the process.

5. Take action.

Engagement is an active, so if you are collecting feedback, do something with the results. Inform participants what will happen with their ideas. Make sure you deliver. Follow up often and consistently to share outcomes.

6. Involve stakeholders throughout the process

A major mistake busy nonprofits make is only engaging at stakeholders at the beginning. Use your community to test new ideas, to check progress, to help celebrate successes. Real engagement is an ongoing process.

For help designing effective stakeholder engagement plans connect with Kerri Drumm. 

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After fifteen years in the nonprofit sector, Kerri Drumm founded Purpose Aligned Consulting in 2014. She has experience on three continents, in two languages and on literally thousands of mission-driven projects and programs.