Stella Smith: Bring your stakeholders together to manage their interests

Forums, meetings and visits can bring funders, trustees, staff and service users together to hear each others' views on crucial issues

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

A few weeks back, in a rash moment of generosity, I volunteered to organise a family holiday. I acted in haste and am now repenting at leisure. What seemed like a simple suggestion, a nice notion of us all taking time to be together, is turning into a battle of wills, with me in the middle trying to find a holiday that will suit everyone. Some of us want to visit art galleries, the youngsters are set on fish and chips by the sea, while my partner and I would be happy anywhere near a takeaway and a quiet pub.

Anyone who has ever led the development of a charity strategy or project will recognise the challenge of trying to keep everyone happy. The donors love new and innovative projects, but shy away from core costs. Staff might not see a need for new initiatives, but really want investment in premises and training. Volunteers might not be so concerned with training, but want to be involved in work that really has impact and uses their skills. When you have to keep lots of people with very different interests satisfied, exciting, innovative ideas can soon lose momentum.

Many of us are experienced at managing different stakeholder interests. We are used to long rounds of meetings, consulting different groups and revising proposals to include every comment or concern. Unfortunately, our efforts often result in uninspiring plans and vague statements of intention to which everyone can sign up but which give little clarity about the way forward.

We need to get better at managing different stakeholder interests, and a good first step would be to bring different stakeholders together. We typically have separate conversations with each interest group, which means they don’t get to hear others’ perspectives. Instead of having separate consultation events, we should facilitate conversations across our stakeholder groups. This might mean, for example, holding forums, meetings and visits that bring funders, trustees, staff and service users together to hear each others’ views on critical issues.

We also need to get better at understanding different perspectives internally. At cross-organisational meetings managers often seem hard-wired to contribute to every topic from the perspective only of their key stakeholder. The fundraising manager will look at every proposal only in terms of income generation, whereas the service delivery manager thinks only about service users and the HR manager always talks about the impact on staff retention, and so on. When people always approach meetings from the same perspective, conversations become repetitive and unproductive and change happens painfully slowly.

Rather than trying to appease everyone, charities have a role in facilitating conversations across stakeholders, helping them to understand others’ aspirations and concerns. We also need to get better at thinking strategically in our internal staff meetings. We should look at our own functional interest in the context of the wider organisation and support decisions that are in the interests of the long-term health of the organisation rather than just the short-term benefit of our team. After all, if we want our stakeholders to think strategically and compromise, we need to be able to lead the way. And with that in mind, perhaps I should call a family meeting and reconsider whether we really need to be so close to the pub.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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