The impact of language: rethinking the term “stakeholder”

By Danielle Rocheleau

At times, picking the best words can feel tricky. Our hearts are in the right place, and we want to make choices that are inclusive of everyone in our communities, but language is complex! And everyone has their own, unique perspective.

Knowing that engagement is core work at Laridae, we are always monitoring how language is shifting, and how we can continue to improve our approach to ensure:

  • We are clearly communicating our intended meaning
  • We are bringing people into conversations in a way that ensures they feel seen, heard and understood

As organizations dig deeper and better understand their equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility (EDIA) work, we have seen an increase in discussion about the term “stakeholder.” This term has been a staple of the non-profit sector for decades. However, it carries some history, and even with the best intentions, it may alienate some of those folks who you want to bring in.

In this article, we’ll share the process we go through when we’re thinking about language and shifting our communications approach. We’ll use the example of “stakeholder” to illustrate some of the challenges, and how we have attempted to address them.

Full disclosure: we are working through our thinking on this. In the meantime, we thought this could be a good opportunity to share our process – and our uncertainty – with you. We’re seeing other organizations – including some of our clients – working through this as well, and we thought it could be helpful to try and process this out in the open, together.

  1. Step 1: Understand the concern
  2. Step 2: Define what you want to convey
  3. Step 3: Develop some alternatives
  4. Step 4: Gather external feedback and test the alternatives
  5. Step 5: Make a decision, educate, implement, and monitor

Join the discussion

If you are interested in joining the discussion: we posted on LinkedIn, inviting our connections to share their thoughts and approaches to the term “stakeholder”. You can visit the post to hear what others have to say, and chime in with your own thoughts and questions.

Step 1: Understand the concern

As a first step, it’s important to understand and empathize with how your language may be felt by the folks you are communicating with. We want to be respectful of the people we’re engaging with, and know that you do too.

So, what are some potential issues with the word “stakeholder”?

It can be seen as disempowering

The term “stakeholder” originally referred to someone who had an interest in the outcome of a bet, because they had placed a wager (“stake”) on it. (The origin of the word “stake”, incidentally, goes way back to when people would place their bets on top of a post, but we don’t need to get into that here!)

Some, like Dave MacLeod, see this connotation as enough of a reason to reject the term. The problem is that in this sense of the word, a stakeholder’s relationship with an organization is not reciprocal. The so-called “stakeholders” are affected by the outcome, but they have no power to influence it. Using the term “stakeholder,” then, can undermine the power, ownership, and authority of those you are looking to engage with.

It has been associated with colonialist practices

Another reason to rethink using this term is its colonialist associations. During the Westward expansion, European settlers literally “staked” land to claim their ownership, displacing (or worse) the Indigenous people who originally lived there. These settlers have been described as “stakeholders,” and this association makes it an especially destructive choice of words when working with members of First Nations, Metis, or Inuit communities.

It has corporate connotations

The term “stakeholder” also carries corporate connotations. It is often used to refer to a company’s shareholders, creditors and investors who have a purely financial interest in a company’s success.

This for-profit orientation can understandably lead to confusion for a non-profit audience, and bring to mind an unnecessarily narrow and capitalist interpretation of the word.

So what?

Even after considering these perspectives, you may be thinking that the word “stakeholder” doesn’t strike you as particularly objectionable. After all, it’s commonly used. And people seem to get the gist.

The thing is: if you want to effectively communicate with others, your perspective isn’t the only one that matters. Communication is a two-way street, we need to consider the impact our words will have on people we are engaging with. If our words alienate them, then we are less likely to be able to form a connection.

Step 2: Define what you want to convey

So now that we have a clearer understanding of the concerns with the term “stakeholder,” it’s time to think about what we’re trying to say when we have used the term in the past, so that we can begin to look for alternatives.

For us – and for our clients – the term “stakeholder” often comes up in the context of “stakeholder engagement”: the process of reaching out to clients, partners, community members, funders, etc. to learn more about how they perceive your organization, and what they value. This activity is critical to any healthy non-profit organization and can be especially important when deciding on strategic priorities during the strategic planning process.

So, when we’re talking about the importance of engaging “stakeholders”, who are we talking about?

For Laridae, we are talking about individuals or groups who are in a reciprocal relationship with your organization. They can be impacted by your organization and they can also have an impact on your organization. This is where the historical roots of the term “stakeholder” fail to meet the intended meaning.

This feeling of reciprocity is critical. It is one of the primary reasons to conduct engagement in the first place. You want to hear from the people you have an impact on, so that their thoughts, values, and priorities will have an impact on you. This creates a sense of buy-in and ownership amongst all the parties that are involved, and ultimately helps to reinforce trust.

Step 3: Develop some alternatives

Now that we know who we were trying to refer to with the term “stakeholder” – people or groups who are in a reciprocal relationship with your organization – we can start thinking about words that could better describe this.

Some simple alternatives

Some simple options that might come to mind include:

  • Partners
  • Collaborators
  • Allies
  • Supporters
  • Contributors
  • Advocates
  • Community members
  • Co-creators

If you’re looking at this list, and you’re finding yourself unsatisfied, you’re not alone.

In our eyes, none of these words perfectly fit the intended meaning. In fact, there may not be a perfect word in the English language to replace it.

But we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good – we’re looking for something that is better than “stakeholder”. We also need to be ok with understanding that this is an iterative process, and the language will likely continue to evolve.


Another phrase that we have been considering as a replacement is “interest-holder”.

This phrase has the virtues of 1) removing the term “stake” – with its colonial and capitalist associations – while 2) sticking as close to the original phrase as possible. In fact, we are actively trialing this with several of our clients, and it has been working well.

“Circles of Responsibility” (CoRes)?

Another possibility we’re mulling over is using the concept of “Circles of Responsibility” (CoRes), put forth by EarthWork Collective. In their words, the term “embraces all of those to whom you owe your business’ [or organization’s] success—employees, customers, clients, suppliers and contractors. All those who keep you on your toes—government regulators, competition, investors and shareholders. And everyone who depends on your company to do the right thing—the community it operates in, the greater society and, of course, the non-humans we share this planet with.”

This phrase has the advantage of being similar to the familiar phrase “Circle of Care,” which refers to the wide group of people who support individuals accessing social and health services, and extends beyond traditional family members. For some organizations, this will resonate strongly.

No single alternative? Get specific.

If you’re not satisfied with any of the options above, another way to go is to give up on the idea of trying to use a single word to describe what is actually a diverse collection of people and groups who hold different kinds of relationships with your organization.

This was Goldie MacDonald and Anita McLees’ preferred approach to tackling the conundrum. Rather than using a single umbrella term, they instead use plain language to describe each different group: “collaborators or contributors,” “community members,” “donors or funders,” etc.

Step 4: Gather external feedback and test the alternatives

When it comes to figuring out alternatives for the term “stakeholder,” we at Laridae are essentially at Step 3 and 4.

In fact, this we consider this very article to be part of this step! We’re putting our candid thoughts out there, and in return, we’d like to hear the thoughts of our…erm…the people we care about, and who care about us. Feel free to join the conversation over on LinkedIn.

As noted above, we’re starting to experiment with using alternative terms with some of our clients, especially if they’ve proactively expressed an interest in shifting to new language.

You might notice that our subsequent communications will use alternative phrasing. This is us trying things out, seeing what works and what doesn’t. Since language is about connecting with others, it only makes sense to get their feedback.

Step 5: Make a decision, educate, implement, and monitor

Ok, so we’re not ready to drop anchor on anything yet. But if we ever do get to that stage, we know that making this decision is only the beginning of a whole new process.


If you decide to implement new language, you’re going to want to roll it out with an intentional educational campaign. We’re not talking about enrolling all your partners in a webinar! We just mean that you’re going to want to anticipate potential confusion and try to get ahead of it.

For example, if we were going to shift away from the term “stakeholder”, we would want to take the time to explain to our clients:

  1. Why we made the decision
  2. What term(s) we are going to use instead

This will help reduce confusion and help everyone feel more comfortable moving forward.


You’re also going to want to monitor how it goes. It’s possible that we’ll make a bad decision, and our new term leads to confusion and consternation. If that’s the case, we want to know that as soon as possible. If you’re going to fail, fail quickly! That’s why we monitor and listen. Once we know something’s not working, we can back up, regroup, and try again.

Further reading

I hope you found this article useful! Feel free to join the conversation over on LinkedIn. If you’re interested in learning more about the discussions surrounding the term “stakeholder”, here are some of the articles that we read that got our wheels spinning:

Interested in talking?

As I mentioned above, we’ve posted about this on LinkedIn, in order to encourage conversation amongst the community. Feel free to join the discussion!

We’re also happy to speak with you about this, or any other challenges your organization may be facing.