How to cultivate stakeholder relationships

Addressing civic challenges often involves understanding diverse perspectives from many stakeholders, including people who are directly and indirectly impacted by a particular problem. Towards the goal of supporting community-driven design, we developed a guide to help participants and mentors establish and build relationships with community stakeholders. Always remember that stakeholders are people.

Principles for engaging with stakeholders over time

Focus on cultivating the relationship before asking for what you need

When developing a relationship with a stakeholder, cultivate your relationship with the person before asking for their ideas, help, and time. Strive to move at the pace of trust. Focus first on getting to know people rather than getting to know problems. Build empathy by focusing on what matters to the person you will be working with.

Prioritize small improvements over massive change

Thoughtful civic design might offer a small, seemingly trivial, but impactful change. One approach to civic design is to look for many opportunities to make definite, even incremental short-term improvements to the ways that people experience a civic issue. On their own, each small improvement might feel trivial, but (a) try not to lose track of the fact that small changes can meaningfully improve a person’s life, and (b) each small opportunity for improvement might point toward bigger opportunities to make lasting improvement as well as (c) root causes underlying the challenge.

Appreciate that stakeholders have shared their time with you

Time is valuable. When you request something from stakeholders, remember that you are asking for their time and energy. While you and your team are working to address meaningful civic issues that may matter to the stakeholder, be grateful when they offer their time and energy. You might demonstrate your appreciation by writing thank you notes, by responding promptly when stakeholders raise questions, and by paying attention to them.

What does that look like in action?

Establish connections

There are many ways to find people with whom you want to connect. Start by thinking about who you know in your immediate community of friends, family, and neighbors and branch out from there. After thinking about your own personal network, think about the challenge itself, e.g., does it occur more often in some regions of San Diego than others, what groups of people might be affected by or related to the challenge, who are the people or institutions that might already be working to address the challenge? This line of inquiry can help to identify the stakeholders involved with a civic challenge.

When initially connecting with a stakeholder, aim for the first meeting to operate less like an interview and more like a meet-and-greet. When reaching out to a stakeholder, come with general questions about their day-to-day, rather than targeted questions based on your hunches about the design challenge space. (e.g., What kind of role do you play related to [design challenge arena]? In what ways do you currently work to address [design challenge arena]? What is going well? What is not going so well? Where do you anticipate this going in the future (near term, long term)?)

Express sincere interest

Enter the conversation with a sincere interest in what matters most to the person you are meeting. Strive to ground your questions in the perspective and language of your stakeholder, rather than drawing exclusively from your preconceived hunch about possible solutions.

Be honest and committed

Be transparent and realistic. Don’t promise a stakeholder more than you know you can contribute: Under-promise and over-deliver. Ask the person about their level of interest in the civic design process, to appropriately plan for their participation (or lack thereof) in the future.

Document the evolving relationship

The stakeholder relationship ultimately serves as a tool for tracking how you and your team navigate the problem-space for a particular civic design challenge. Take notes on the following as you develop a stronger relationship with a stakeholder group:

  • Description of the design challenge space as described by the stakeholder
  • Role the stakeholder plays related to the design challenge space
  • Insights about possible solutions to the challenge (or workarounds)
  • Assets currently available that may help address the challenge
  • Description of the relationship-networks that connect assets
  • Key terminology/language used by stakeholders, particularly any nuances in language that may vary across the design challenge landscape

Monitor for unintended consequences

Sometimes a particular design proposal can result in negative unintended consequences for a stakeholder. For example, a design proposal may advantage those with rich resources over those with few resources, and thus, perpetuating inequity among stakeholders. As you and your team build stakeholder relationships, we encourage you to regularly pause and reflect on those relationships, how they influence your approach to civic design, and shape your role as a civic innovator.