The Art and Science of Stakeholder Management in NGOs

“Human behaviour is very complex; it is not logic alone that defines our attitudes and impulses. On the contrary, we have a psychological side (often little known even to ourselves) that prevails in many situations. It is only with considerable thought and self-knowledge that we can understand this psychological side.” The Human Change Management Body of Knowledge (HCMBOK®), Third Edition

Business is about relationships and relationships involve ego. It is a delicate balance to achieve the objective while keeping each key stakeholder on board, particularly when stakeholders have conflicting end goals.

Defining stakeholder management

A stakeholder is a person (or entity) who can affect and/or be affected by the organization—who, in other words, have a stake in the work. Stakeholders (such as volunteers, donors, and vendors) influence the NGOs ability to fulfil its mission; they are also the people (such as citizens, partner organizations, and the community) who experience the consequences of the NGOs choices and actions. Stakeholders can be categorized as internal (those who work for or volunteer with the NGO) or external (such as government agencies and the media).

Who are key stakeholders within NGOs?

The communities that NGOs serve form the backbone of stakeholder engagement. Oftentimes low community participation can be a key reason projects to not successfully take off, even with all the funding available. A natural reaction to change is suspicion, even when the change looks good. The history of donor involvement can impact future willingness of participants. Particularly if the experience was not positive.

The development of a network of community partners who serve as change agents is key to bringing the community on board. Where I come from, the villages are run by the “Sabhuku” who is essentially the Mayor of the village. Starting a project in the community without the blessing of the Sabhuku literally guarantees failure as there will be little buy in. In the same vein resistance may come from low consultation with the community, a process led through the community leaders. The importance of identifying the decision-making influential stakeholders is further explained in the Stakeholder Mapping section.

Donors naturally form an integral part of the NGO environment. Ensuring alignment between the donor intent and the NGO objectives is key. Misalignment in this area can lead to projects being dropped before completion or funding being withdrawn. In many projects, funding comes with terms and conditions which may be in conflict with the philosophy of the NGO. Conducting sufficient stakeholder mapping will surface these issues early on, allowing for adequate time for any necessary interventions.

Suppliers form the lifeblood of many NGOs as the supply chain is key to ensuring the goods and services get to the communities, at the right time and price. It is also important to map suppliers and their intentions. Oftentimes NGOs are viewed as cash cows and this can result in pricing that is not competitive or in procurement practices that may not meet scrutiny. For example it may be cheaper to purchase from a Supplier importing from a country that practices child labour but it would be unethical. The integrity of the supply chain can also impact the continued funding of an NGO.

Why do we worry about engaging stakeholders?

Project delivery requires a holistic approach, especially in complex projects that cut across sectors and transcend geographic boundaries. Projects have the potential to stall or fail as a result of what we commonly term “people issues”. This can be avoided by having a strategy for identifying impacted stakeholders and developing a plan to engage with them appropriately. The ultimate aim is to reduce resistance to the change and promote engagement.

Negative anticipation is a common reaction when people interact who do not know each other. The process of managing stakeholder perceptions and moving a stakeholder’s stance from negative to positive is both an art and a science. As the old adage goes, “Perception is reality”.

Stakeholder Mapping

The Stakeholder Map is the main tool for performing stakeholder analysis. Through the mapping process it is possible to develop a clear picture of the level of engagement of the stakeholders. In very large, high-impact projects, monitoring a long list of stakeholders may not be feasible. In this case the 80/20 principle applies. Make the stakeholders with greater influence on the project a priority. This does not necessarily mean only senior stakeholders, at all levels you will find power and influence.

Expectation management is a process that begins early in the process and is managed throughout the project lifecycle. As stakeholders understand the impact of the change, their position may change for either the benefit or the detriment of the project.  These expectations must be understood to ensure alignment with the project outcome.

Developing your Stakeholder Map

Stakeholder mapping involves stepping  into the shoes of the stakeholder and seeing the project from their point of view. The “What’s In It For Me (WIIFM) principle helps to understand how to position the idea in a manner that is likely to elicit a better reception. Stakeholders often resist when they sense tokenistic approaches or rubber-stamping. It is critical to genuinely understand what the stakeholders needs, and aspirations are and blend that with our own goals and aspirations

It is important to evaluate the stakeholder’s capacity to influence project decisions and direction. It is important to differentiate between a stakeholder as an institution vs as an individual stakeholder. For example, you may think a Ministry department head is powerful when in reality they are not because of internal politics. Stakeholder mapping allows you to split hairs and really understand POWER and capacity to INFLUENCE and shift decisions

There are 4 main categories to consider:

Decision Makers: They are the main players in the project’s decision-making process. They have an impact on budgets and project direction

Direct influencing agents: They do not have the power to decide but influence project direction and mood directly;

Indirect influencing agents or opinion makers: They do not have the power to decide but can influence the project by acting behind the scenes.

Spectators: They will feel the change, may boycott it but, alone, they cannot change the project result

Categorising stakeholders into Probable change supporters and non-supporters, sometimes known as Antagonists.

Sellers: They support and sell the project naturally, are proud to participate;

Supporters: They will support changes provided they clearly understand their purpose;

Unstable Stakeholders: This classification is common in the beginning of the project when a Stakeholder’s position is not yet clear.  Lack of positioning is the typical behaviour of this type of stakeholder.

Probable Resistant Stakeholders: These are Stakeholders who cannot yet be classified.  Their signals are not clear like those of the Stakeholders classified as Unstable.  However, their background, personal style or the impact of the change on their activities allow us to infer that they will probably resist to the change;

Open Boycotters: Stakeholders who do not hide their dissatisfaction openly resist the change;

Veiled Boycotters: These Stakeholders seem to be onboard but they resist behind the scenes.  This Stakeholders requires special attention because they can use tactics that undermine the project without the manager noticing what is happening.

The classification of stakeholders helps to narrow the list of who the key stakeholders are.


“You might have been trained to be a good speaker, but you probably were never trained to be a good listener”

In order to develop a trusting relationship, it is important to be able to talk frankly and openly with the stakeholders to really understand the sources of their distress. Speak less and listen more, the ability to be a good listener actually is not an easy task. You have to develop an empathic attitude and keep your mind open with a non-judgmental approach. At times it is important to listen for what is not said.

Stakeholder mapping is not a once off exercise and must be continued through the lifecycle of the project.

As the old adage goes, “People do business with those they know, like and trust.”

To learn more about effective stakeholder management and hone your change management skills, visit us at

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