Stakeholder Engagement in Communities

Submitted by John Thornburn on February 5, 2013 - 11:41am

In community based research, I think we all want stakeholder engagement practices to be meaningful. As change leaders, we often ponder the approach to engaging stakeholders. One filter that could be used is Bolman and Deal’s (1999) four frame model. Using the political lens within this model ensures that within our community development practices, we are at least informing politicians of our interest in developing sustainable change strategies. Civic structure already carries a tremendous amount of power and accountability to its taxpayers but should everything be their responsibility to change? Should we rely on local government to control and manage all of the community decisions?

Weisbord (2012) believed that the role of a change agent is to help systems unfreeze, move, and refreeze (p. 221). If we rely on government to be the sole change agent it could likely strip accountability away from its citizens. Block (1999) believed that reliance on government to manage change can result in a detached and isolated population with “people in our communities whose gifts remain on the margin” (p. 2). Although citizens are important stakeholders in every community, I am at a partial loss as to the best ways to engage all of them.  Block further commented that community fragmentation manifests itself by “low voter turnout, the struggle to sustain volunteerism, and the large portion of the population who remain disengaged” (p. 3).  Choosing the ‘right’ constituents can be as difficult as choosing too many.


    On one hand there is value in looking for an equal representation derived from multiple neighborhoods, political voices, or policy angles.  I fear, however, that this differentiated approach would bring out a variety of ‘usual suspects’ who want to complain or engage in selfish interests. The challenge I believe is to locate an equal distribution based on the factors involved in the specific change effort. Beckhard (1987) suggested that involving a cross-section representation of constituents from a range of hierarchical levels would provide adequate multilevel representation for the change effort (p. 693).

Another strategy would be to use the social relationships approach that Armenakis, Harris, and Mossholder (1993) noted hinge on social networks and begin cataloging the individuals that come up as important ‘informants’ in a community. Dexter (1970) believed that informants, although biased among their own constituents, can help identify latent values and assumptions due to their role as surrogate observers or experts that may otherwise not be captured by the investigator (pp. 10-11). This approach surely would provide a broader lens in identifying key change agents in a community. Schuster and Weidman (2006) however believed that engagement needs a minimal structure that engages multiple parties while maintaining a low political profile (p. 49). In my local experience I believe the latter will prevail. In the effort to respond to gaps in the community, the instability of revolving political interests, and a growing need for collaboration, the nonprofit organization I am involved with will begin the engagement process with its closest community partners.

I am currently in the process of engaging a community nonprofit organization’s Board of Directors in the identification of an appropriate methodology to engage their current Society members in dialogue and participatory action research. Using a diversified approach there will be an overlap of engagement processes between our community members, strategic planning, and socially innovative planning that can involve the partners in participatory action research. The Board of Directors has adopted a philosophy of engagement that befits the nature of participatory research and has the mandate to aspire to implementing this approach within the system.  Glesne (2011) believed that community based action research works well when stakeholders become agents of change in order to keep research cycles moving (p. 23). This approach is being seen as a desirable outcome for the organizational vision, mission, and values.

My skill is to work with community groups and as a consultant approach, invite, and convene stakeholders in dialogue. My passion is in engaging organizations in ways that treat all members of the system as equal participants in forming a non-traditional approach to community engagement. Through the methodologies of one-to-one interviews, Appreciative Inquiry, World Café’s, Open Space technology, and Transformative Scenario Planning we can enable our own role in creating change in our communities. When engaged in my role as a facilitator, I know I am successful when I am able to remain an observer and act as an action researcher. Lewin (1946) posited that “we need reconnaissance to show us whether we move in the right direction and with what speed we move” (p. 38). Hopefully the new patterns and themes that emerge from my inquiry with you can provide us all with insight that promotes the value of inclusive strategic planning for nonprofit organizations. Please feel free to connect with me at




Armenakis, A. A., Harris, S. G. & Mossholder, K. W (1993). Creating readiness for organizational change. In Burke, W., Lake, D. G., & Paine, J. (Eds.). (2009). Organization change: A comprehensive reader. (pp. 569-586). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Beckhard, R. & Harris, R. T. (1987). The change process: Why change? In Burke, W., Lake, D. G., & Paine, J. (Eds.). (2009). Organization change: A comprehensive reader. (pp. 687-698). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Block, P. (2009). Community: The structure of belonging. San Francisco, CA: Berett-Koehler Publishers.

Bolman, L.G. & Deal, T.E. (2003). Reframing Organizations. (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass.

Dexter, L. A. (1970). Elite and specialized interviewing. Evanston, Il: Northwestern University Press.

Glesne, C. (2011). Becoming qualitative researchers: An introduction. (4th ed.). New York, NY: Longman.

Lewin, K. (1946), Action Research and Minority Problems. Journal of Social Issues, 2, 34–46. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.1946.tb02295.x

Schuster, M., & Weidman, S. (2006). Organizational change in union settings: Labor-management partnerships: The past and the future. HR. Human Resource Planning, 29(1), 45-51. Retrieved from

Weisbord, M. R. (2012). Productive workplaces: Dignity, meaning, and community in the 21st century. (3rd ed.). San Francisco, Ca: Jossey- Bass.

What brings you to this work?

Hello John,

Thanks so much for sharing your insights on stake-holder involvement, collaboration and asking how we might increase engagement when it comes to these things.

I am curious with what brings to this work? What experiences have you had in the past that makes you believe: "engagement needs a minimal structure that engages multiple parties while maintaining a low political profile"?

Thanks for sharing!

Community research

Rachel, thanks for your comment and your great questions.

I have been involved for the past few years working with a Board of Directors in Delta, BC in various capacities. My initial capacity was co-founder and President of the non-profit Society Collaborate Delta. Currently I am acting as a community based action researcher for the organization and am just launching into the second phase of my MA in Leadership degree at Royal Roads University. The key tenet of the research is to engage multiple community groups to try and understand the value of building community networks that can incorporate diverse points of view into community based social planning. As part of this research, I am looking to use an appreciative inquiry methodology with threads of Future Search (Weisbord), World Cafe, and/or scenario planning (Kahane). These methodologies will allow the process to be non-partisan and develop content around what is important to the particpants and thus influence the strategic planning goals of Collaborate Delta. My background working with community groups stretches over 17 years in different capacities and if there is any way I can support any of your work, please let me know.

Best, John


Hi John,

Thanks so much for your response. Your experience and insights are so valuable to wokr we are doing at Tamarack and specifically, to the conversation we are trying to have on this learning community: exploring the value of a deepened sense of community.

Royal Roads is fabulous- the founder of Tamarack (Paul Born) also received the same degree, as did one of my previous co-workers and my mother. It is a special place where great learning happens!

Looking forward to reading more of your insights!