The Word "Stakeholder"
Updated: Sep 15
Earlier this fall we were doing work with a client about how to implement affinity groups in their organization. We had used the term "stakeholders" to refer to the groups of people who should be consulted throughout the process.
The client asked us to use a word other than "stakeholder" and generously shared the following explanation for the request:
“Stakeholder” from an Indigenous perspective is a term that carries a very negative connotation. It signifies the “claiming of land” by means of “staking it out” and making claim in accordance to many historical documents from Papal Decrees, Doctrine of Discovery, Terra Nullius and other European based rights of discovery to claim territory of supposedly unoccupied lands. By “staking claim” settlers were able to take ownership by literally putting stakes in the ground to define their “property lines”. Other reasonable synonyms:
(Source: Sohuwesyoklati (Brian Hill), Indigenous Initiatives Advocate, City of Waterloo)
It was an "I didn't know I didn't know" moment for me. Although I know the history of the land rush and staking claims in North America, somehow I hadn't connected it to the word in the business context to realize that there are better terms to use. We landed on the term "key partners" instead.
When I used to teach grade 8 history we would watch the following clip from the movie Far and Away about the Oklahoma Land Rush in the 1890s. I would pause the clip at 0:43 to focus on the three Cherokee men who are watching from behind a barrier. As a class we would discuss what the men might have been thinking and feeling, and the significance of the fact that they are shown for two seconds in a scene that lasts for 3 minutes and 29 seconds. This clip brings up a lot of emotion. It so clearly shows that the land was taken from the Indigenous peoples and nations. According to this article on Wikipedia, two million acres of land were staked in a single day on April 22, 1889.
Now that we have connected the word "stakeholder" with the history of staking a claim to land we will not use it any longer to mean "people who should be consulted" and will instead use one of the many other synonyms.
Update: September, 2023
We were recently introduced to two excellent blog posts by Mark Reed about the word stakeholder that we'd like to add as additional reading. He also suggests relevant parties/groups as a good alternatives.
Here they are:
Reed, Mark. “Alternatives to the Word “Stakeholder.”” Fast Track Impact, 22 Nov. 2022, www.fasttrackimpact.com/post/alternatives-to-the-word-stakeholder.
Reed, Mark. “Should we Banish the Word “Stakeholder.”” Fast Track Impact, 2 Aug. 2022, https://www.fasttrackimpact.com/post/why-we-shouldn-t-banish-the-word-stakeholder.