Who will benefit from your research and who will block it? How to identify stakeholders

Updated: Feb 21, 2020

Updated 2019 guide now available here.

For the original 2016 guide, continue reading...


Researchers are increasingly expected by funders to identify and incorporate ‘beneficiaries’ into their work from the outset. Working out who might benefit from your work isn’t always easy though. Even if you do know who will benefit from your research, an equally important but often unasked question is: “who might be disadvantaged or lose out as a result of my research?” Even if you can answer both of these questions, there is another crucial question that every researcher should ask themselves: “who has the power to enable me to do my research and achieve impacts, and who has the power to block my work?”

It is just as important to identify individuals, organisations and groups who my be disadvantaged by the outcomes of your work, or who may block your research, as it is to know who your beneficiaries are, and who can help you. Knowing about potentially problematic stakeholders at the outset can give you the necessary time to adapt your research so that it no longer disadvantages those groups, or work out ways of ameliorating negative impacts before you run into opposition or achieve bitter-sweet impacts for one group at the expense of another.

What is a stakeholder?

A stakeholder is any person, organization or group that is affected by or who can affect a decision, action or issue. Rather than just identifying ‘beneficiaries’, a stakeholder analysis seeks to identify people, organisations or groups who may be either positively or negatively affected by your research. In addition to identifying those affected by your research, stakeholder analysis seeks to also identify those who might affect your ability to complete your research and generate impacts, either positively or negatively. These stakeholders might not directly benefit from or be negatively affected by your work, but they may have the power to enable or block your work from making a difference.

Why analyse your stakeholders?

It may seem self-evident that all the relevant stakeholders should be identified prior to any attempt to engage. However, it is surprising how often this step is omitted in research projects that need to work with stakeholders. In many cases this omission can significantly compromise the success of the research. For example, the project may miss crucial information that could have been provided, had they engaged with the right people.

In cases where very few stakeholders are identified or engaged with, this can lead to a lack of ownership of project goals, which can sometimes turn into opposition from certain stakeholders. In cases where a single important stakeholder has been omitted from the process, that organization or group may challenge the legitimacy of the work, and undermine the credibility of the wider project. Stakeholder analysis helps solve these problems by:

  • Identifying who has a stake in your work;

  • Categorising and prioritizing stakeholders you need to invest most time with; and

  • Identifying (and preparing you for) relationships between stakeholders (whether conflicts or alliances).

A successful stakeholder analysis will help you:

  • Start talking early to the right people, so that you can identify any major barriers to your work, and identify the people who can help you overcome those barriers. There is evidence that projects that engage with stakeholders early engender a greater sense of ownership amongst stakeholders, who are then more likely to engage throughout the lifetime of the project, and implement the recommendations of the work you have done together.

  • Know who you need to talk to: don’t just open your address book or talk to the ‘usual suspects’. Find out who might lose out, as well as who will benefit. Find out who is typically marginalized and left out, as well as the people and organisations that everyone knows and trusts. For example, Bec Colvin suggests drawing on methods from the arts to identify stakeholders using tacit knowledge or past experience. Those who are left out are usually the first to question and criticize work that they feel no ownership over.

  • Know what they’re interested in: you need to have a clear idea of the research issue at stake before you will be able to effectively identify stakeholders. But that doesn’t mean that the research questions and issues you explore together should be set in stone. As you begin to identify stakeholders, you will find out more about the nature of their stake in your research, and you may need to broaden your view of what is included in your work, if everyone is to feel that their interests are included.

  • Find out who’s got the most influence to help or hinder your work: some people, organisations or groups are more powerful than others. If there are highly influential stakeholders who are opposed to your project, then you need to know who they are, so that you can develop an influencing strategy to win their support. If they support your work, then it is also important to know who these stakeholders are, so you can join forces with them to work more effectively. There will be some influential stakeholders who have relatively little interest in your work. For example, they may have a broad remit that includes many issues that are more important and urgent to them than the specific focus of your research. Influential individuals are often busy and inaccessible, and you may need to spend significant time and energy getting their attention, before you are able to access their help.

  • Find out who is disempowered and marginalized: stakeholder analysis is often used to prioritise more influential stakeholders for engagement. Although time and resources may be limited, it is important not to use stakeholder analysis as a tool to further marginalize groups that are already disempowered and ignored. Many of these groups may have a significant interest in your research, but very little influence over the issues you are researching, and little capacity to help you achieve the impacts you want.

  • Identify key relationships so you avoid exacerbating conflicts and can create alliances that empower marginalized groups. It can be incredibly valuable to know in advance about conflicts between individuals, organizations or groups, so that you can avoid inflaming conflict and where possible resolve disputes. Through stakeholder analysis, it can sometimes become possible to create alliances between disempowered groups and those with more power, who share similar interests and goals, thereby empowering previously marginalized groups.

Methods for stakeholder analysis

Doing a proper stakeholder analysis doesn’t have to take a lot of time. We would recommend that you invite a small number of non-academics who know the stakeholder landscape well to help you with this task. But if you are short on time, then even if you just fill out the table below with your research team, you will be able to do far more impactful research than you would have done if you did not take this step.

The following methodology will take you approximately 2 days to complete, including between half a day and a day for an initial workshop, followed by a series of half hour telephone interviews to check your findings with key stakeholders (which is also a great opportunity to get their feedback on the focus of your research and start getting ownership as you adapt your work to stakeholder interests). The following steps are designed to be straight-forward and replicable, but this does not mean that they should be inflexibly applied. Local circumstances may require these steps to be adapted, to ensure that the stakeholder analysis is a tool that brings stakeholders together and facilitates active engagement in research.

1. Identify 2