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Stakeholder Identification: A Beginner's Guide

A few months into my fellowship at the Department of Energy, my mentor suggested I do stakeholder mapping to help build a new research and development direction in our office. There was one hiccup: I didn’t know what stakeholder mapping was. 

Simply put, stakeholders are the people or groups who could be affected by, help with, or have influence over a project. Identifying stakeholders is crucial so you can communicate with them, understand their different perspectives, and keep them involved when planning a project. Many, if not all, fellows will do some form of stakeholder mapping during their fellowship. 

I searched for stakeholder mapping methods to learn the basics. Some protocols involved sorting stakeholder groups into tables or visual diagrams based on their different interests and capabilities, like a stakeholder analysis worksheet from NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management. But most of this advice still seemed rather abstract. 

Wanting more concrete tips, I consulted fellows Alice Grossman, Elizabeth Christienson, Matt Kandel, and Seema Alim, whose research and work experiences include stakeholder identification and engagement.

Alice’s research in the transportation sector has involved identifying and communicating with stakeholders such as the public, city government, and contractors. Elizabeth’s postdoctoral research focused on the governance of disaster recovery and resilience, and she managed a team that identified stakeholders to survey and communicate with, such as first responders and groups disproportionately impacted by disasters. In Matt’s work on international development consortium projects, he’s engaged stakeholders in Malawi, Ghana, and Kenya as part of research and research capacity strengthening projects. Seema’s work involved implementing infrastructure projects around the world, which required engaging regional stakeholders. 

These fellows helped break down stakeholder mapping strategies into manageable steps.

1. Identify broad stakeholder roles 

  • First outline broad stakeholder roles, then do deeper research to find specific stakeholders with those roles. For example, in Seema’s infrastructure projects, she included stakeholder roles such as environmental lobbyists, community organizations, and regulatory agencies. Further research could identify specific stakeholders with those roles, such as a local parent-teacher association. Seema suggested partnering with a consultant who knew the community well to help identify local stakeholders.
  • Ask people with sector knowledge for stakeholder recommendations to make sure you’re not missing anyone.
  • Check projects similar to the one you want to implement to find parallel stakeholders, who might be mentioned and cited in public reports. 

2. Determine the boundaries of your stakeholder list

  • You’re not going to be able to identify every possible stakeholder, but it’s still important to make sure every broad stakeholder role is represented so that you’ll hear different perspectives.
  • Set a timeline to finish your stakeholder list, but also remember that the list is a living document that can be updated later. The bounds of your stakeholder list will depend on your time and budget. 
  • Your stakeholder mapping objectives can guide how extensive your list needs to be. Think about how often and for how long the stakeholder list will be useful. You can also calculate how much time you’ll have to engage and communicate with stakeholders after identifying them, to help determine a realistic number of stakeholders.
  • With limited time to identify and engage stakeholders, you may need to prioritize certain stakeholder roles over others. Elizabeth’s research team developed an approach for recruiting stakeholder participants that prioritizes those who are most impacted by an issue and those who have the most power to do something about the issue (and it’s also possible that those are the same stakeholders).
  • You may need to avoid over-representing a stakeholder role, depending on the objectives of your project. For example, if the goal is information gathering, prioritize a wide breadth of perspectives rather than focusing on many stakeholders within one category. 

3. Decide if you need to further analyze or visualize your stakeholder list

  • Some stakeholder mapping protocols involve further analyses and visual diagrams, which could help make stakeholder relationships and patterns more apparent. These analyses and visualizations might be useful for an internal deliverable or communications tool. 
  • Since it takes more time to further analyze and visualize a stakeholder list, first consider if this work is necessary for your objectives. A spreadsheet or a nested stakeholder list is usually sufficient, though it’s still important to think about the relations and hierarchy among stakeholders. 
  • Some teams conduct stakeholder mapping exercises for internal purposes to identify missing stakeholder groups and to prioritize stakeholders. Mapping exercises might include sorting stakeholders in tables and Venn diagrams based on their relationships with the issue or project.

These tips are just a starting point and there’s room to dive much deeper. After identifying stakeholders the next major step is communicating with them to hear their views. Stakeholder engagement strategies vary widely depending on objectives and project type, and could include surveys, public forums, and interviews. You may want to reach out to colleagues with experience in similar fields for the most relevant stakeholder engagement advice.  


Image: Sarah Loftus

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