Listening to the Stakeholders By Dr. Kent R. Wilson
How well are you listening to the stakeholders?
While for-profit organizations have owners or stockholders that the leaders of the business are accountable to, nonprofit organizations have no human owners, just stakeholders. And if you are a part of a Christian nonprofit, you ultimately are accountable to God as the Owner of all that exists. Stakeholders come in many forms ranging from donors, members, community representatives, family members of constituents, and sometimes even the clients themselves. They are an amorphous group or groups that often defy identification or clear expectations.
A steward leader recognizes that he or she has a responsibility to develop a relationship with the “owner” of the resources which have been placed in his or her trust in order to know the owner’s objectives and goals. But herein lies several questions that steward leaders typically ask when I speak to them about stakeholder relationships. How do I define who the stakeholders are? And how to I develop a listening relationship with them?
In an earlier CLA blog this year I addressed the first question, so here I will just focus on the second question regarding listening to God and the stakeholders. Steward leadership is all about managing organizational resources that have been placed in our trust in order to achieve the objectives of the Owner or “owners.” Therefore, we cannot steward well without knowing what the owners want, and that requires a relationship of listening and communication.
When it comes to listening to God as steward leaders, I have found that most Executive Directors take this responsibility seriously. They want to know God’s will for the organization and for their leadership, and often develop a pattern of regular prayer and personal retreat to develop a growing relationship with Him. But what about the board? As the chief steward of the organization, can we honestly say that opening a board meeting in prayer is the same as developing an active, listening relationship with God? I challenge boards of Christian organizations to take their listening, submissive relationship with God more seriously. Make prayer and listening a more active part of your board life as you submit the mission and decisions you face to God’s will and direction. Push yourself in learning more about corporately listening to Him.
The nonprofit organization also has “owners” on the human level who we call stakeholders. Once we have identified who the stakeholders are of our organization (the subject of my previous blog), then we need to figure out how to develop a relationship with them to discern their objectives for the organization. But because of the complicated nature of who our stakeholders are and how they often don’t speak with one voice, this is where steward leaders sometimes are hesitant with the concept of accountability. How can I steward the organization according to the objectives of the stakeholders if those objectives differ from what I am hearing from God, or if they even differ from one another?
I’ll admit that stakeholder relationship and accountability is not easy, but it is none-the-less necessary for us to steward well. Seek ways to engage with stakeholders in groups and ask them direct questions concerning their agreement with the mission, vision and strategy of the organization (the primary vehicles that we use to communicate the objectives of the organization). Balance the input of individual stakeholders with the majority to avoid being influenced by only a few. Dialogue with stakeholders, being willing to disagree with their input when you feel they are suggesting something that is not in the best interests of the organization. A stakeholder relationship is a two-way relationship that involves honesty, dialogue and mutual trust. And test everything you hear with God.
Communicate back to stakeholders what you are hearing from them and how the organization is accomplishing it mission. But avoid the practice of sending all stakeholders the same generic quarterly or annual reports with little customized communication that addresses the specific needs for information they may have. Accountability is more than just published reports: it’s also listening, tailoring specific information to different groups, and addressing outcomes more than activities. But most of all, it’s about building relationships.
Kent Wilson (PhD) is a leadership coach and nonprofit leadership specialist. After running nonprofit organizations for 30 years, he now serves as an executive coach with Vistage International and program coordinator for CLA’s Leader2Leader peer advisory program. He is also co-founder of the Steward Leader Initiative, and frequently trains boards in steward-governance.
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