Imagine your organization is undertaking a long overdue strategic planning process. You’ve picked a great consultant, gotten your staff and board excited, and are starting to form a vision of where your organization could go next. Then the question of the stakeholder interview arises.
Your consultant recommends conducting a series of stakeholder interviews early in the planning process. You might be wondering:
- How many stakeholders will be interviewed and how much time will it take?
- Which stakeholders should we interview?
- What kind of input will stakeholders have that you don’t already know?
- Wouldn’t a stakeholder survey be faster, not to mention less burdensome on the stakeholders and likely cheaper for your organization?
- How will you know that the interviews are effective (rather than a waste of energy)?
Yes, stakeholder interviews take precious time. This includes scheduling, preparing interview questions, conducting interviews, and then analyzing individual and collective feedback. The stakeholder interview process isn’t fast. But if done well, it can be incredibly valuable, yielding unexpected insights that make your strategic plan even stronger.
What is a Stakeholder Interview?
A stakeholder interview is designed to gather targeted feedback from an individual who has an established connection to a project, program, or organization. Stakeholder interviews focus on gathering insights from a diverse range of stakeholders who are not decision-makers when it comes to the topic discussed.
In the strategic planning process, stakeholder interviews may be supplemented by surveys or focus groups. The difference is that a stakeholder interview is one-on-one and intended to gather deeper insights from a smaller group of people.
For a nonprofit organization, stakeholders can include staff, volunteers, partners, donors, clients, and community members, among others.
Elements of an Effective Stakeholder Interview
First and foremost, a stakeholder interview is designed to provide you and your organization’s leadership team with new insights. Yes, some of what stakeholders say will sound familiar. But much of it may be new and unexpected. Which is the point!
Conducting a strategic planning process requires that you be open to considering the full scope of challenges and opportunities for your organization. That means understanding what’s working and what isn’t. That’s where stakeholders come in. They aren’t decision-makers when it comes to your strategic plan, but they do care deeply about your work and will be affected by your choices.
While each consultant or firm may have their own approach to stakeholder interviews, there are several key elements that distinguish effective interviews.
- A Space that Allows for Honesty: Perhaps the most vital element of an effective stakeholder interview is ensuring that the interviewee feels comfortable being honest. If you truly want to create a strong plan, you need to know what people’s actual experiences with your organization are, rather than what people think you want to hear. Interviewers generally let people know up front that feedback will be anonymized, but interviewers’ mannerisms and listening ability can also affect participants’ comfort being honest.
- Customized Questions: Stakeholder interview questions should be customized to your individual organization. That means no printing off lists from the internet. In designing questions, you’ll want to start by thinking about how you intend to use the data and insights gathered. For example, are you perplexed about which opportunities you should pursue, and which you shouldn’t? Or are you concerned that your management culture is not as strong as you’d like? Targeting some questions to your specific concerns can ensure you get the information you need to make decisions about your strategic plan.
- Openings for Unexpected Insights: On the flip side, you’ll want to be sure that more open-ended questions are also included. This gives interviewees the space to say what’s on their mind, including reflections that may not be on your radar yet. Your interviewer should be prepared to ask follow-up questions when a stakeholder provides new or unexpected feedback.
The Power of Hearing Diverse Stakeholder Perspectives
Here at Funding for Good, we were recently reading a CNN piece that highlighted all the ways new trains have “changed the way we travel in 2022.” As we perused the list of different airport trains, panoramic supertrains, floating trains, and hydrogen-powered trains, it reminded us why having diverse perspectives is so critical.
Like each type of train, each stakeholder’s experience with your organization is unique.
A stakeholder interview is designed to understand the nuances of that experience. When combined, a series of stakeholder interviews will provide much more than words on paper. You’ll be constructing a three-dimensional model that reflects all the different ways people interact with and perceive your organization.
With this model in hand, you’ll be ready to undertake a strategic planning process that is filled with insight, builds alignment, and sets your organization up for success.