Sustainatopia and Stakeholder Engagement

In May, I had the opportunity to join Sustainatopia, a leading conference on social, financial and environmental sustainability.
The conference offered multiple tracks and a diverse array of sessions, including the importance of investing in women-led businesses, cities of the future, health and wellness and sustainability for millennials. 
I participated in the panel discussion, “Stakeholder Engagement”. As a group, we represented a wide range of stakeholder engagement opportunities, connecting with students, nonprofits and corporations. We explored how to engage with different stakeholder groups and how those engagements can be most effective.
David Dinerman, the panelist from Hampshire College, shared a pertinent story of students’ rising concerns about the investment of the college foundation’s funds.  As part of the Black Lives Matter movement, the students wanted assurances that the funds were not connected to companies that used prison labor. The college foundation confirmed this point, and then the students dug deeper to find a looser connection between a company in the foundation’s investment portfolio and one of its vendors using prison labor for a particular product. The students pushed for divestment of the company. But, the university turned the tables, asking the students if they were interested in engaging directly with the company to emphasize the need for higher ethical standards in vendor selection and vendor management. The college explained that divestment from the company would not be sufficient to make that company change its practice. However, if the students ran an awareness campaign, then they could have a greater impact. While the students chose not to pursue direct engagement with the company, this story brought forward a new discussion about engagement with different stakeholder groups and how to have impact.
Is it better to engage than divest? Is it better to engage than protest? Or is it a healthy dose of all that drives social progress?
Below I outline tips for meaningful stakeholder engagement between stakeholder groups, civil society and corporations.
Tips for meaningful stakeholder engagement
1. Identify your purpose (e.g. to raise public awareness of an issue, to engage in dialogue, to directly influence change, etc.)
At the outset, all parties need to be clear on the purpose for engagement. Ultimately, the engagement will be about creating change. But, is that change aimed at an immediate shift or impact, or is it expected to come over time through longer-lasting and consistent engagement with the corporation?
All parties should be willing to discuss their intentions, and use the conversation to start a roadmap to the goal.  Openness at the beginning of these conversations can ease existing tensions. However, if tensions are high and it is not possible to align the goals of all parties, then this is an opportunity to bring in a neutral third-party facilitator.
2. Build a strategy
Stakeholder groups need to strategize about the type of engagement that they will conduct, as well as the frequency of the engagements and approach in order to meet the different parties’ needs. Then, develop a schedule of meetings or communications to reach that point of change.
The groups also need to find a common language to speak to each other to move the issue ahead. This may require that all parties accept starting the conversation in terms that suit one specific stakeholder. For instance, starting the conversation in business terms could mean discussing the issue as it impacts the corporation(s) and how the proposed change will avoid/lessen negative impact to the business. The conversation can then expand to address additional issues that are of key concern to the other stakeholders.  
3. Set short and long-term goals
Change is hard, but it is more approachable when the ultimate goal is clear and broken down into milestones. All parties need to agree on the goals, and identify if they are short or long term. Create goals that offer “wins” for all parties to ensure that all stakeholders buy into the change ahead. Finally, set milestones to reach those goals and identify natural consequences if the goals are not met.
4. Review (be prepared to adjust your goals)
To keep the engagement going, make this an iterative process. Be prepared to ask everyone to stop, review and reassess the progress. If progress is slow or an impasse has occurred, then adjust short-term goals and milestones. The important thing is to keep moving, making sure that the stakeholder engagement is delivering incremental change, greater communication and an increased willingness to address problems jointly.
For more information on how Silicon Valley Community Foundation can help your organization engage effectively with your stakeholders, or for other corporate responsibility questions, please contact