Best of AEA365: As an Evaluator, Do I Use Words (e.g., Stakeholder) That Can Be Harmful to Others? by Goldie MacDonald & Anita McLees

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This post was originally published on August 3, 2021

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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