Active, Inclusive, and Equitable: Rethinking Stakeholder Engagement
By: Jocelyn Corbett
All sectors have an equal need — and opportunity — to ensure that their services and products are designed inclusively. Whether at a nonprofit, corporation, or philanthropic organization, stakeholder engagement should holistically address the needs and aspirations of all people. How? By ensuring their voices and perspectives are intentionally included throughout the full design process.
Examples abound of products put on the market intended for the general public only for the public to discover that the products were not designed with everyone in mind. The seat belt, designed for male bodies, is a prime example. Facial recognition software that fails to recognize people with dark skin tones is another. Nonprofits may think they are immune to such issues. The reality: they are not. Businesses, nonprofits, and foundations have much to gain from adopting equity-centered stakeholder engagement.
What Is Stakeholder Engagement?
Stakeholder engagement is the method of involving and collaborating with people who have a vested interest in an organization’s initiative. It is an active commitment. Equity-focused stakeholder engagement requires building trust, cultivating relationships, and being consistently transparent and accountable. Centering those who stand most to benefit from the organization’s efforts, and who are most likely to experience unintended consequences if initiatives are poorly designed, is at the heart of effective stakeholder engagement. To borrow a phrase coined by the disability rights movement, good stakeholder engagement follows the principle, “Nothing about us without us.”
Rethinking Stakeholder Engagement
The practice of stakeholder engagement hasn’t kept pace with the field’s learnings and intentions. A study by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations found that only 36 percent of grantmakers incorporate feedback from grantees through surveys, interviews, or focus groups. Organizations must execute the appropriate strategies and honor the dignity, wisdom, and experience of the people for and with whom they are working to design programs, services, and products that meet the needs of our rapidly diversifying nation.
The Corporate Racial Equity Alliance is undertaking an equity-centered stakeholder engagement process to help us develop corporate standards to advance racial and economic equity. These standards provide companies guidance around adopting new ways of operating and seek to substantially improve the lives of the nearly 100 million people living in or near poverty in the United States, the majority of whom are people of color. People of color and people experiencing economic insecurity have the most to gain in the success of our effort. They can also speak directly to corporate behavior change that would improve their lives. Therefore, we designed a stakeholder engagement process that amplifies their needs, aspirations, and perspectives.
Most recently, we hosted a 60-day public comment period to gather feedback on our conceptual framework and methodology. We learned from the opinions and perspectives of 300 people through 11 virtual roundtable discussions, an online survey, and intimate convenings. Many of the people we reached are too frequently left out of key business conversations. Of all of our discussion participants, 78 percent were people of color, 48 percent were living on a low income, and 45 percent were 24 years old or younger, representing the next generation of business leaders.
Designing Our Stakeholder Engagement Strategy
The rich feedback we received affirmed the process we are undertaking and strengthened the substance of our work. Three key strategies supported our success and can be adopted by nonprofits, foundations, and companies alike to center those who stand to be most impacted by their programs, services, or products.
Facilitate Active Engagement
Actively inviting people in to give feedback, rather than passively encouraging involvement, creates a more dynamic process. Stakeholders deserve to be seen and heard. In our roundtables, we actively engaged participants by creating environments where they could be their fullest selves. We hosted targeted sessions for priority groups, like youth, allowing peer groups to come together and feel comfortable sharing among others like them. We provided multiple ways to contribute in a session, from speaking up in a meeting, to sharing written comments in a document or via the chat function. That allowed a broad range of stakeholders to comfortably share their perspective. In our virtual roundtables, we incorporated antiracist facilitation techniques, establishing mutual community agreements about how we would treat each other before we dove into the questions and discussion.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Proactive, people-centered engagement helps garner thoughtful, honest feedback from a diversity of voices.
Design for Inclusion
Inclusive stakeholder design should be a central theme of any stakeholder engagement process, not an afterthought. Organizations should develop a list of stakeholder groups and perspectives they are seeking at the outset. They should invest time and resources to ensure they are reaching intended audiences in a way that draws them in. In other words, set robust key performance indicators (KPIs) for your stakeholder engagement strategy, disaggregate KPIs across race, gender, and other important dimensions of lived experience, and be accountable to hitting your goals. Recruitment must not be tokenizing or focused on checking a box, but rather should be designed to honor the humanity of potential participants through a thoughtful invitation and an acknowledgment of the time and labor requested.
During our 2022 public comment process, we noticed we weren’t getting sufficient participation from stakeholders within Indigenous communities. We responded by cultivating authentic relationships with Indigenous-led organizations. We ensured we were positioned to meaningfully engage Native communities going forward.
KEY TAKEAWAY: While doing stakeholder engagement work, set clear goals for participation across demographics and lived experiences, and invest time and care in extending respectful invitations.
Remove Participation Barriers
Designing an equitable stakeholder engagement process means we must consider how privilege and oppression could hinder people from participating or providing honest feedback. We considered what our various stakeholders needed to participate and we worked to fill those needs. For our participants, that meant we needed to honor their time, lived experiences, and expertise through meaningful and appropriate compensation. We hosted calls at varied times, including nonworking hours. This allowed stakeholders to participate in the way that worked for their schedule. We also accounted for accessibility with tech support and language translation.
KEY TAKEAWAY: An equity-centered stakeholder engagement strategy calls for a steadfast commitment to removing barriers to participation.
Investing in equitable and inclusive engagement can build trust and goodwill with stakeholders, increase transparency within (and beyond) an organization, provide better risk management, and advance equity. Designing our stakeholder engagement plan to hear from those with essential lived experience and expertise has been tremendously fruitful. Not only are our forthcoming corporate standards more likely to meet the needs of people of color and people living on a low income, but we have also started to build relationships with hundreds more people whom we hope will utilize the standards to support corporate accountability.
The success of our social change efforts demands a different approach. How will you listen?