Stakeholder Consultations

By Jane Logan
This article was first published in The Canadian Association in November 2004.

Two years ago, I was involved in a three-day multi-stakeholder consultation that gathered veterinarians, slaughterhouse operators, meat processors, farm representatives, regulators, research scientists, and animal welfare activists.

The goal was to develop a code for the humane handling of farm animals. I was in awe of the organizers' risk taking. Progress was slow, but participants got to know one another, understand each other's views and create some first steps together. There were no hidden agendas and there was a genuine desire to ensure farm animals were well treated. I arrived thinking the organizers were wildly ambitious and left with huge respect for transparent and inclusive consultation. The stakes were high and so was the long-term pay-off. It taught me to embrace the challenges of airing diverse opinion, because common understanding is the first step in developing sustainable solutions.

Why consult with stakeholders?

Whether your organization is working on a strategic plan, policy development, or creating a new program, consulting with key stakeholders is an important factor in achieving ultimate success. Here are some benefits of reaching out to stakeholders through surveys, one-on-one meetings and multi-stakeholder consultations.

  • Quality input leads to quality decision-making. A broader perspective reduces "group think", helps to challenge traditional thinking, and sparks creativity in problem solving.
  • Greater stakeholder satisfaction with the final planning product comes from their involvement in shaping it.
  • The chances of successful implementation increase as more stakeholders feel committed to the plan or project's goals and take ownership of the plan's design.
  • Good governance, transparency and open communication are served when Boards communicate and receive feedback from stakeholders, instead of being guided by personal agendas.

Above all, don't consult with stakeholders just to say you did. If you include them, it must be because you are willing to include their point of view and you intend consultation to result in change or a new direction.

What is a stakeholder?

Stakeholders are groups who have an interest in an organization's work, and to whom the organization has an ethical duty. Association stakeholders include members, employees, related organizations, potential partners, suppliers, the public, regulatory bodies, and the government. Not-for-profits and the voluntary sector may also add clients, community groups, community leaders, volunteers, funders and donors to this list while in the business world, customers and owners are also included as key stakeholders.

Think widely when considering who your stakeholders may be:

  • Board of directors
  • Members
  • Clients/customers
  • Issue experts
  • Community groups
  • Potential new clients or members
  • Community leaders
  • Owners
  • Competitors
  • Partners & potential partners
  • Employees
  • Public
  • Donors
  • Regulators
  • Funders
  • Suppliers
  • Government
  • Related organizations
  • Investors

Who to consult?

Internal stakeholders are likely to be consulted more frequently, but don't ignore external input. Stakeholders on the periphery of your organization may bring important new points of view to planning.

With good ongoing lines of communication, it is neither practical nor necessary to consult with all stakeholders on every issue. Realistically, some may not be interested. Others may have a negative attitude towards your organization such that the difficulties of dealing with them overshadow their potential contributions. Competitors won't be consulted about your strategic plan, but you may seek their input on policy development like an industry response to new legislation. As a rule of thumb, the bigger the change contemplated, the more important broad stakeholder consultation becomes.

When to consult?

Nothing beats regular two-way communication, but focussed consultation with stakeholders is appropriate for gathering data as a prelude to planning and in strategy and objective setting stages.

Three options for stakeholder consultation

  • Surveys are a cost-efficient way to gain input from a large number of people. On-line surveys will even tabulate themselves these days. Make sure you are asking the right questions to get at the information you need, and that respondents are representative. When the Director's Guild surveyed its 3,800 members, it entered every respondent in a draw for free annual dues in their region. This incentive ensured a large sample size and a truer understanding of the grassroots. Surveys are a low-risk, low-cost starting point, and are best followed up with mechanisms for dialog, creativity and consensus building.
  • One-on-one meetings are an excellent way to build personal relationships while gathering data. It's important to set expectations with participants on how the information will be used and the range of other people to be consulted, so no one is disappointed if all of their ideas are not reflected. Above all, make sure the information gathered is accessible to the larger decision-making group. Interviewers sometimes return after extensive one-on-one meetings and discover they are too far behind in their "day jobs" to generate more than a bare bones summary.
  • Multi-stakeholder consultations bring together various stakeholders in a neutral forum, and are powerful tools for sharing ideas, building consensus and developing commitment to the end product. As the Roman philosopher Seneca said around 2000 years ago, the best ideas are common property. Often annual conventions allow time for policy or strategy development workshops. The key is to structure these sessions so they are not a series of speeches representing entrenched positions, but genuine workshops. An independent facilitator will create a comfort zone and process for constructive contribution. Keep in mind: don't ask people what they think unless you're prepared to think about and act on what they say.

Table 1: Comparative benefits of various stakeholder consultations

Think of stakeholder consultation as insurance

There are four common reasons for not consulting stakeholders at the outset of major planning or policy development exercises:

  • You know what's best for them and, frankly, they don't.
  • Their input won't change how the organization conducts business. There is too much invested in current programs to change priorities, and too few resources to add new ones.
  • You don't want to expose divisions of opinion through a public airing of major issues. Dissent could get out of control.
  • You can't afford the time or expense.

This kind of thinking is a severe handicap to successful planning and sustainable implementation. It sows the seeds of organizational obsolescence.

Stakeholder consultation is important insurance for the long-term effectiveness of an organization and enabling it to build sustainable new directions. Results may be quick or they may be slow and steady. The Canadian animal farm welfare stakeholders are still on track and working towards a code. They have neither bogged down in bureaucracy like the European effort, or become too splintered to take further common action like their American counterparts. They are building on the foundation laid during multi-stakeholder consultation, where they forged a common sense of responsibility for the end product.


© Logan Strategy Inc.