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Empowering Voices: Strategies for Meaningful Stakeholder Participation

Updated: May 1

Three people conversing
Plan who to Invite to participation in community conversations

In The Art of Engagement: Cultivating Meaningful Community Relationships, we discussed why stakeholder/community engagement is vital for non-profits who want to be responsive to stakeholder needs. We discussed how asking the five W’s and how was a great way to frame the stakeholder engagement process and define who to invite.

Now, let’s look at how to choose the best stakeholders to invite by considering your WHY and what you want to learn.

Identifying Stakeholders

Most non-profit organizations share common stakeholders: clients, volunteers, funders/grantors, donors, community partners, collaborators, and champions.  Some organizations may also identify other groups as stakeholders, such as: 

  • Municipal, Regional, Provincial, and National Politicians.

  • Families of the clients you serve (if appropriate). 

  • Sponsors and business leaders who contribute expertise, in-kind donations, or space.

Knowing who to invite to participate in your stakeholder engagement hinges on understanding your WHY.  

  • What is it you want to learn? 

  • How can each group contribute? 

  • How will their contributions be valuable? 

  • What specific perspective does each group bring to the conversation and planning table? 

  • How will you use this information for decision-making? 

Who you invite is influenced by what you want to learn… 

If your WHY is learning how to meet client needs better, consider inviting:

  • Program participants to better understand needs and desires.

  • Funders/grantors to reflect on changing funding requirements and streams. 

  • Partner agencies to understand service gaps, programming shifts, or where collaboration opportunities exist.

If your WHY is completing a five-year strategic plan and you want to understand the marketplace more fully, consider inviting: 

  • Clients and volunteers (current and past). 

  • Partner agencies. 

  • Community Champions.

  • Staff members.

  • Board members (current and past).

  • Funders/Grantors. 

  • Special interest groups (politicians, professional advisors, etc.).

Getting insight from this broad spectrum of stakeholder perspectives ensures you understand the strengths you can build on, existing opportunities, and outcomes your stakeholders wish for your agency. This sets a solid foundation for organizational decision-making. 

If your WHY is figuring out how to attract and retain great staff, consider inviting: 

  • Current, past, and possibly future staff members. 

  • Sector Human Resource Professionals.

  • Board members (current and past).

  • Funders/Grantors. 

  • Special interest groups (unions, politicians, professional advisors, etc.).

These groups of stakeholders can inform acceptable salaries, benefit packages, flexible hours, vacation, and other incentives that could help you create a menu of “employee options” for employee packages. By including Funders / Grantors and special interest groups, you can get their ideas and perspectives while sharing the realities of hiring in the current marketplace.  By inviting staff, you gather their ideas, gain insight into what is most important to them, and empower them to brainstorm innovative and reasonable employee benefits packages.  

As you can see, knowing why you want to engage your stakeholders and what you want to learn influences who you invite.  

Ensuring Diversity of Ideas

Diverse group of people
Ensure diversity among participants to get impactful and innovative ideas.

With an understanding of the types of people to invite, you next need to consider the best attendees. This can be tricky. You want to ensure that you invite stakeholders with diverse opinions and a range of experiences; this will lead to deeper discussions and more innovative outcomes.  Strengthening existing relationships is also essential. Finding a balance between diverse ideas and existing relationships can be challenging.  

Why? Often, those we surround ourselves with think like we do. We have connected because we share values, ideals, and principles. It’s easy to communicate with each other.  While these individuals' voices are important, we must also ensure that individuals who do NOT think like us are included in the conversation and that their ideas are valued equally.  This may mean we invite those who like to “stir the pot” and are comfortable sharing ideas that differ from the norm. When we create space for diverse ideas, debate, and curiosity, we open ourselves to innovative solutions and shifts in perspective that could serve us better over the long term.  

Ensuring that a diverse audience is included is essential if you are committed to being open to all insights and ideas from your stakeholders.  Listening attentively to ideas that may seem “out-there” or “radical” may trigger other ideas that can evolve and flourish, setting up a new opportunity for organizational growth.

Not all stakeholders will be able to come to a community conversation.  There may be many reasons for this: time, location, role in the community, role in the family… 

When setting up stakeholder conversations, ensure you provide stakeholders with varied opportunities to join the discussion.  Some stakeholders will love the debate and energy that arises during a well-facilitated world café or focus group; others will respond better to an online survey, which they can do at their convenience; and others may prefer to do a phone interview that is set up in advance.  Using only one stakeholder engagement method is not recommended, except in specific situations (staff conflict resolution).

At HIP, we have found these recurrent trends around engaging different stakeholder groups: 

Online Survey

Community Conversation (World Café or Focus Group)

Phone Interviews

Best for clients, volunteers, partners, donors, and stakeholders who are committed but not actively engaged in daily organizational endeavours.

Best for repeat clients, active volunteers, staff, key partner agencies or donors or funders, Community Champions, or business leaders.

Best for politicians, funders with limited time and who are not local, business leaders, donors and sponsors, and client families.

The key to creating opportunities for your stakeholders to engage is to craft “conversations” that build upon each other.  While these stakeholder engagement methods gather essential data, each asks slightly different questions around a shared theme (the Why). When considering who to invite to participate in online surveys, consider the types of questions you are asking and who can provide the best insights. 

Reflecting on who to invite and which stakeholder engagement activity best suits each group helps craft an engagement process that gathers the information you want and strengthens relationships while opening opportunities for ongoing communication.

Consider the stakeholder engagement processes you have been involved in.  What made them successful? How might they have been done better? Share your ideas below so that our community can learn from each other. 


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