Teamwork Tips: Stakeholders

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What is Stakeholder Engagement?

According to BiodivERsA’s Stakeholder Engagement Handbook, a stakeholder is someone who influences or is influenced by research. This includes policymakers, individuals in the private sector, non-governmental organizations, local communities—anyone with a vested interest, involvement, or funding in a project. 

The handbook outlines four levels of stakeholder engagement. 

  • Informing shares results with stakeholders. 
  • Consulting asks stakeholders for opinions. 
  • Involvement has stakeholders provide resources or data. 
  • Collaboration positions stakeholders as partners directly contributing to the team. 

Engaging with stakeholders holds many benefits, but takes time, money, and effort, requiring careful thought and planning. Stakeholders can be involved at any point in the process. They can help define the vision, develop project plans, provide training or data, review works in progress, or promote finished products using their public connections. Each stakeholder will have a unique role, with some preferring more or less involvement.

Research Benefits

Engaging with stakeholders offers researchers practical, localized information to tailor their work for maximum impact. 

“The biggest benefit of working with stakeholders is they understand how it’s actually going to get used,” says Dr. David Johnson. Dr. Johnson was principal investigator for flood risk mitigation, one of four interdisciplinary projects from Purdue Policy Research Institute’s (PPRI) Breaking Through, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation from 2016-2019. The other initiatives were big data ethics, agricultural sustainability, and climate tipping points. 

“By engaging the community with townhall meetings and involving local government organizations, they have a wealth of on-the-ground experience about what the local community thinks and what they’d actually use. That provided invaluable feedback about how we could improve the product we’re developing.”

In addition, having broader discussions with the intended audience proactively manages potential negatives and reveals unexpected positives.

“When I went over the summer, the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority pulled together a stakeholder group from different state agencies, NGOs, and community members so we could show them a prototype,” says Dr. Johnson. “Their feedback was validating. They were able to point out uses for this tool we hadn’t thought of before, and other groups that might be interested in the data.”

Often, stakeholder engagement helps research provide real-world results.

“Without external stakeholders, the project wouldn’t have been completed,” says Dr. Brett Crawford, co-investigator on PPRI’s climate tipping points project, an educational game to help policymakers. “Engaging with delegates to learn how they treat tipping points in their own work opened our eyes to what they knew and what they didn’t and how that could be built into our game to be useful for them. Without those interactions and knowledge, we wouldn’t have been able to craft the game we did.”

Stakeholders’ insights may shift a project’s direction by giving researchers a personal example of a non-academic position on the topic. This can be accomplished through informal mixers or press events to promote open discussion.

“We had press events at PPRI’s suggestion and that turned out to be a very good idea,” says Dr. Tom Hertel, principal investigator on agricultural sustainability. “The official press club event was in September, but in January we had two pre-events that brought key stakeholders to campus to interact with us. We had our own ideas about what was interesting and important in our research. However, we were surprised to find what resonated with the focus group was better R&D investment, increased knowledge, and better productivity in agriculture as a sustainability solution.”

Incorporating local knowledge or a practical focus early on in a project ensures the research will be a relevant asset beyond publications. And stakeholders’ expertise may apply to future projects as well.

“The benefits were much larger than I realized,” says Dr. Hertel. “Once you start talking to stakeholders, you realize they have a lot of knowledge about these issues. Many were in the scientific community, the private sector, or at high levels of government, and I received a lot of education in talking to them. They would follow up with papers or memos or react to what we were doing. It was very valuable for me.”

Of course, engagement isn’t a one-way street. Researchers may benefit from interacting with stakeholders, but the stakeholders benefit, too. The knowledge they gain can aid them in crafting policies or connecting with their communities even after the project’s end. 

“We’re helping decisionmakers in international climate negotiations grapple with a complicated scientific concept: climate tipping points,” says Dr. Manjana Milkoreit, principal investigator for climate tipping points and co-investigator for agricultural sustainability. 

“The first phase of the project was going to the community and asking: What do they know? What do they want to know? The game design took this knowledge and said, if this is what they know, here’s how we build on it so you can observe how tipping points effect people a hundred years from now. Expanding people’s ability to imagine and engage the future is the greatest benefit for those who joined game sessions.”

Projects involving multiple stakeholders present exciting opportunities for the stakeholders to interact with each other, such as at PPRI’s press event.

“The stakeholders were keen to engage with each other,” says Dr. Hertel. “It was a rare opportunity to discuss controversial issues off-the-record and think about common solutions.

Bottom Line

Including stakeholders in a meaningful way benefits the researchers, the project, and the stakeholders themselves. This can take many forms based on the project’s complexity and the stakeholders’ availability, but the process doesn’t have to be difficult, especially if researchers rely on open communication and build on others’ expertise. 

“It’s had a big impact on what I’m doing,” says Dr. Hertel. “Now, I automatically build a press club event into my proposals. However, I got smart about it. The Farm Foundation organizes these events regularly, so instead of spending a year of my life developing this, I can partner with them.”

Disseminating the information to policymakers may be the best option for a particular project, while engaging directly with stakeholders at a private conference works better for another. Each project is different, and each stakeholder brings a unique relationship to the table. Moving forward, consider how you can involve stakeholders in your current or future work, and how that experience might shape your end result.

“This has been a nice opportunity to work on a project with a different goal than producing papers or generating knowledge,” says Dr. Johnson. “The Mellon Foundation has been instrumental in supporting funding that’s stakeholder- and problem-driven, as opposed to traditional academia. The goal is to engage stakeholders on the ground and produce something someone will find useful and immediately valuable in the real world.”

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