How to Engage Multiple Stakeholders and Succeed

Ken Hoffman, PublicEngagement

Helping groups to work together to solve complex issues can be a challenge, particularly when those groups don’t see eye to eye. Perhaps the biggest challenge in pulling together a coalition of groups is that you’re likely to get a mix of different types with differing perspectives. Social groups, business groups and fundraising groups, for instance, all have different priorities. The challenge escalates when the issue in question is politically divisive. In such cases, it often seems competing groups are speaking different languages. This, needless to say, makes communication difficult.

It’s just such kinds of projects I really enjoying working on: helping groups that are sometimes at odds with each other find new approaches that allow them to work together. For instance, I participated in a series of discussions with a diverse group of stakeholders about how to address the issue of homelessness in an Ottawa neighbourhood.  Local businesses wanted to see panhandlers disappear; social agencies wanted to be able to continue to serve their clients; local residents wanted to be able to feel safe and to walk unaccosted down their streets.  Over the course of several meetings we were able to develop an approach that all of these different groups could support.

Here are five effective strategies for engendering cooperation among stakeholders with different views on an issue:

1. Create a space for respectful conversation

Communication is a prerequisite of co-operation. The most crucial step in getting stakeholders to work together is to foster an environment where productive conversations can happen. The first step, however, is listening.  Let each group tell their side of the story in a place where they won’t be immediately criticized by others.  Even if the groups do not agree with one another, it is important that they at least hear each other and respect where others might be coming from.

2. Find a lynchpin

In particularly contentious situations where opinion is strongly polarized, it is often helpful to find a mutually respected person who can help bring the parties together.  In our case the local City Councillor was such a person.  She was widely respected by all groups, she could bring everyone to the table, and she could make the positive interventions that helped to move the conversation forward.  In other cases there might be a community or organizational leader, or even a skilled mediator who can help play the role of lynchpin to bring opposing sides together.

3. Find common ground

Even though the stakeholders may be expressing very different opinions at the table, is it possible to find an issue on which they can all agree, or at least a starting point?  In the case of our homeless discussions the group agreed that the overall goal they all wanted to achieve was to make the street safe and welcoming for all people.  They also agreed that they wanted to focus on working with homeless youth, because they felt they had the best opportunity of success with this group.

The different stakeholders were also able to contribute to the solution.  In this case, the youth wanted ways to be able to earn money legitimately; local businesses and residents had occasional jobs they all needed to have done; social service agencies wanted to be able to support youth in reconnecting with education and employment.  The groups found common ground on which they could work together.

The groups came up with the idea of a “job bank” where street youth could be hired by local businesses and residents to do odd jobs, and they would receive support services from social agencies for training and housing.  This was a unique initiative that none of the stakeholders could have developed in isolation.

4. Nurture relationships

Relationships are built been people, not organizations.  For people to work together they need to get to know and trust each other.  And that takes time.

It is difficult to build relationships at meetings alone.  If possible, find time before or after meetings for more unstructured time together over coffee or a meal.  Spending time getting to know one another informally can really pay dividends when the conversation starts to address more challenging issues at meetings.  People are less inclined to attack someone they have gotten to know and respect; they may still disagree, but the attacks are less likely to be personal.

Relationships are also developed by working together.  Pick small projects where you can get to work with a few other people and start to get to know each other.  People will learn about the way others work, how they approach issues, and how they can work together.  Relationships developed over smaller, less contentious issues will help enormously when addressing the bigger issues.

5. Build on small successes

Start with a small project where you think there is a high probability of the group being successful.  This positive experience will help the stakeholders to feel positive about the partnership they are entering into.  It will help cultivate relationships and build confidence for addressing more challenging issues.  Success builds on success!

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