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As an evaluator, do I use words (e.g., stakeholder) that can be harmful to others? by Goldie MacDonald & Anita McLees

Hello, we’re Goldie MacDonald and Anita McLees from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2020, CDC scientists and communication specialists prepared principles and preferred terms for non-stigmatizing, bias-free language to guide employees engaged in COVID-19 response activities. At the time, we were both deployed to this response and read the document in earnest. While others have known this for some time, we learned that stakeholder can have “a violent connotation for tribes and urban Indian organizations.” As we looked at the term more closely, we saw that others have questioned its origins and use. For example, in 9 Terms to Avoid in Communications with Indigenous Peoples, authors in British Columbia, Canada explained that “Indigenous Peoples are rights and title holders not stakeholders so avoid this term at all costs.” In Banishing “Stakeholders”, Joshua Sharfstein, Vice Dean for Public Health Practice and Community Engagement at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and former Secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, discussed the term as having a “mercenary connotation.” It was used to refer to someone who “held the money of bettors while the game was on.” He explained that this meaning likely evolved to current understandings of the term that include individuals or groups with a concern or interest (e.g., financial) in an endeavor, organization, program, etc. In the same article, he cautioned that the catchall phrase “obscures the landscape in question, much like a dense fog.”

Practice Wisdom

We’ve both worked as evaluators for more than 20 years and used the term in evaluation plans and reports, presentations, and more. We could have pushed ourselves and our colleagues to question its origins and utility; that mistake is an important lesson for the future. For nearly a year, we’ve replaced the term in conversation and written work. As a result, we see how the term minimizes or obfuscates diverse interests, organizations, people, perspectives, roles, or types of engagement important to evaluation processes and products. In Table 1, we compiled some of the words we’ve used to replace the term. Each time we replaced it, we tried to use plain language to improve clarity and reduce potential for bias or harm to others. We don’t expect the examples below to resonate with all readers or work in every situation. But, continued dialogue on language can be an opportunity to improve evaluation practice in meaningful ways.

Table 1. Words we’ve used to replace stakeholder and the individuals or groups we aimed to represent.

Example Language Individuals or Groups Represented
Collaborators or contributors Those who co-create or participate in evaluation activities or provide in-kind resources to support evaluation
Community members Those with an interest in a program or its evaluation located where activities are implemented or other relevant places or spaces (physical or virtual)
Donors or funders Those who contribute financial resources to support a program or its evaluation
Intended users Those expected to use an evaluation in some way
Other evaluators Peers or professionals whose work shapes ours or who apply or learn from our work
Organizational leaders Individuals who contribute to decisions that can influence a program or its evaluation (e.g., access to human or financial resources)
Partner organization Government or nongovernment entities who collaborate on program or evaluation activities
Policymakers Officials who influence or make acts, laws, or rules that can shape a program or its evaluation
Program colleagues, personnel, or staff Those who plan, implement, or manage a program
Program or evaluation participants Individuals who take part in a program or its evaluation (e.g., complete a survey)
Subject matter experts Individuals with specialized knowledge or experience relevant to a program or its evaluation (laypersons or professionals)

Disclaimer: The opinions and reflections expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

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6 thoughts on “As an evaluator, do I use words (e.g., stakeholder) that can be harmful to others? by Goldie MacDonald & Anita McLees”

  1. Hello Goldie MacDonald and Anita McLees,

    As an educator, I am very aware of the power of my words and how I choose to address my students. Understanding the diversity in my classroom, I strive for equity. Your article really resonated with me as it described the importance of having ongoing knowledge and professional development to maintain a current understanding of harmful phrases and ways in which we can create lesson plans and assignments using language. This year, diversity and inclusivity is more important than ever. Ensuring that you use the proper language can make everyone feel included. Understanding the words that should be used to replace stakeholder and to include all individuals and groups that are being represented during an evaluation was very useful and made me reconsider the language I am using during my lessons at school.

    Kylie Dickinson

  2. Goldie MacDonald

    Dear Jen Hayes, sincere thanks for your thoughtful comment. I am now curious about “collaborator” as a term with some history. I remember the Saunders article you shared but I will read it again with fresh eyes. You remind us that language and its use is present (and important) in the Program Evaluation Standards even when it is not discussed explicitly. As an aside, your experiences meeting and treating people as human first would make a wonderful blog post here!

  3. Dear Goldie MacDonald and Anita McLees,
    Thank you for the thoughtful post about harmful language within evaluation. I had not even considered stakeholder a problematic term, but now that I know that it is I an eliminate it from my evaluations and from my language. Luckily, the English language is not short of words that can be used without causing harm. The chart you provided is great, and I will use contributor or invested group from now on.
    You use the word collaborator, and I often do also in my writing. I tend to find a negative connotation with the word collaborator, mainly from a historical perspective. Those who collaborated with an invading military group in World War II, for example, were called collaborators. It has no personal effect on me, but I wonder if that causes any harm to anyone who was involved in a situation like that?
    Currently I am in the process of working to change my language to a human first perspective. Rather than refer to people primarily by a deficit, the goal is to refer to people as human first. For example, rather than call someone disabled, refer to them as a person with a disability, or someone who is homeless could be referred to more respectfully as a person who is currently without a home.
    The final aspect of your post that I appreciate is the way you emphasize the importance of the use of plain language. This is a very important goal for evaluation plans as they need to be digestible for those who are invested in them. An excellent evaluation will not do any good sitting on a shelf somewhere if no one wants to read it. Saunders (2012) explores this when he examines usability practice: “The other key dimension refers to the design of the vehicle of the message to maximize engagement…but also the way in which the design of the evaluation lends itself to communicability and is formed in such a way that its potential as a knowledge resource is made more apparent.” Maximizing engagement will obviously require language that is welcoming to all invested people.

    Saunders, M. (2012). The use and usability of evaluation outputs: A social practice approach. Evaluation, 18(4), 421–436. https://doi.org/10.1177/1356389012459113

  4. Hi Goldie and Anita,

    Thank you for such an insightful article on how to be intentional when using language as a program evaluator. I’m currently participating in a course titled “ Program Inquiry and Evaluation” as part of the Queen’s University Professional Masters of Education program. As the final activity in the course, we are responding to articles on the AEA365 website.
    I’m also an educator in British Columbia and have witnessed this shift in terminology with regards to indigenous peoples. For example the school district that I teach at is currently phasing out the use of the word “ aboriginal” and replacing it with indigenous. Sometimes I wonder to what extent these terminology changes sow confusion as they tend to change with every decade.
    Having said that, I agree that the use of the term stakeholder when referring to indigenous peoples doesn’t really make sense, since they are the original inhabitants of the land. The use of more inclusive terminology with indigenous populations is going to be important to increase buy-in and participation of evaluation efforts. Shulha and Cousins reminds us that when intended users participate in evaluation they increase “ their ability to use research procedures and a sense of ownership in the evaluation results and their application” ( Shulha and Cousins, 1997,p.199).
    The changes in terminology also reflects a larger decolonizing trend in North American culture which rightly so aims to shift power away from the colonizers. For example, these same discussions about the appropriateness of the word “ stakeholder” are being engaged in the business circles as well. Slogget points out some additional problems with the term. It is oftentimes used to hide and cover a lot of different people; the word “ stakeholder” ultimately becomes very meaningless ( Slogget, 2018) . As you’ve illustrated in table 1, there are plenty of more accurate terms to use than the word stakeholder. I have gained so much valuable information as a result of reading your article and will be incorporating more inclusive terminology in my practice as well.

    Thank you !

    Sloggett,R. ( 2018,January 30). Is It Time for Business to Ban the Word Stakeholder. Linkedin. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/time-business-ban-word-stakeholder-richard-sloggett/
    Shulha, L., & Cousins, B. (1997). Evaluation use: Theory, research and practice since 1986. Evaluation Practice, 18, 195-208.

  5. Dear Goldie MacDonald and Anita McLees,

    Thank you for your post! As an educator that works inside international schools, your insights and reflections on wording impacted me. Currently I am completing a masters program at Queen’s University in literacy education. Our program always attempts to bridge what we are learning in school to reality; one of the courses I am currently enrolled in is Program Evaluation Theory.

    One thing I have learned about evaluations is the importance of data generation and data gathering, through surveys, documentation of meeting minutes, and the like. Your post really reveals to me the importance of language. As a teacher that could potentially create the evidence for an evaluator that is doing a program evaluation, I think it is also important to be cognizant of language usage in these documents as well to ensure that an evaluator has accurate documentation as well as not using language that is harmful to others. Offensive language can also serve as a distractor to the evaluation process. From my limited understanding of program theory and evaluation, one big aspect of this field is using precision in language to illustrate an idea.

    Currently, in my program evaluation course, I have used the word stakeholders for my current evaluation and logical model that I am working on. Thank you for your post because it has kindled me to use your suggested chart above and revise my language both on my website and my logical model. For example, one of the “stakeholders” in my evaluation is director of curriculum at a large international school organization. She was addressed as a stakeholder, but now I plan to edit my plan and address her as a policymaker. Other teachers that have implemented the program that I am evaluating would likely be called subject matter experts instead of stakeholders. Do you think I am on the right track?

    Thank you for your post as it has kindled rumination for both my professional practise as a teacher and also in the evaluation I am currently working on in my course.

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