If you want your research to have an impact, a good place to start is working out who might benefit from your work. In this short guide and accompanying video, I will explain how to do a publics/stakeholder analysis using a simple template, so you know who to target in your grant application and who to reach out to first as you attempt to generate impact from your research.
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Three questions to start your pathway to impact
There are three questions at the heart of a good publics/stakeholder analysis, and I'll walk you through each. This will give you a sophisticated and holistic understanding of those you may want to engage with, and help you prioritise the limited time you have available for impact. You will be able to use the analysis to identify the top three people, organisations or groups that are most important for you to prioritise. There's no one right way to prioritise those you engage with - instead the tool empowers you to make that choice for your own, clear reasons (so you can explain why you haven't got to a particular group yet if asked). While it is easiest to think of "beneficiaries", this tool will also get you to think about whether there might also be groups who may be disadvantaged or harmed in some way as a result of your research, so you can consider how to reduce those negative impacts. Most people focus on individuals, groups or organisations, but you can use the tool to think about future generations and non-human beneficiaries.
To get started, download the Word template or print the PDF version. You can use this individually now, or you can use it to structure a discussion with colleagues. I sometimes invite a few colleagues and/or stakeholders to discuss this with me in a workshop setting, transferring the template onto the walls of the room using flip-chart paper and marker pens.
Question 1: Who is interested in my research?
The first question you need to ask yourself is who might be interested in your research. They can just be a little bit interested, and they can be interested in just one aspect of your research (e.g. your method or theory, or one research finding versus another depending on the outcome of your work). In some cases you may want to identify groups that you think are not (currently) interested in your research, who you would like to be interested, or who you think are important for other reasons (e.g. they may be particularly influential or impacted - see the following questions). Any organisation (or individual or group) may be interested in many different things - your task is simply to list those interest that coincide with your research interests.
Write the name of each public/stakeholder you think may be interested in the first column of the template, describing the nature of their interest in the third column. To help you think critically about the nature and level of their interest, the second column asks you to grade how interested you think they are likely to be. Don't hung up on this though, as it is highly subjective. The key thing is that you understand what aspects of your research you think each group is likely to be interested in, or if they're not interested but they are important for other reasons, write down why you think they are disinterested. You will start to notice that different groups have quite different interests, and you will be able to use this later on to craft tailored messages to each one as you embark on your pathway to impact.
Question 2: How might they influence my ability to achieve impact (indirectly)?
Now you need to consider if there are any groups or organisations who might have the ability to influence your ability to acheive impact indirectly. Indirect influence over impact can work in two ways:
1. Those who have the ability to facilitate your impact - organisations or groups who want to achieve similar benefits for similar groups to you, who may provide you with important new opportunities or resources that could empower you to achieve greater impacts than would have been possible had you not connected with them. The earlier you connect, the more buy-in they will have and the more they are likely to help you (and vice versa).
2. Those who have the ability to block your impact - organisations whose interests are compromised or harmed by your work, whether in practical or ideological terms. They may have the power to prevent you from achieving impacts and it is important for both pragmatic and moral reasons to engage early with these groups to ensure you do not have negative unintended impacts, and/or you can bring round dissenting voices and find a way to work together (or work around them if necessary)
Consider how influential each of the interested groups might be, whether they might facilitate or block your impact, rating them high, medium or low. Again, the key is to understand the nature of their influence. The ratings are subjective but should stimulate you to think more deeply about the question. Describe how you think each public or stakeholder could influence your ability to generate impact in column 5.
Question 3: Who is impacted?
Finally, there is an optional question about the level and nature of impact for each group who engages with your work. In some cases you may feel you have the answer to this already, and so you can skip this question. But it is a good discipline to ask yourself this question explicitly, because you will often realise that the impact is implicit (rather than explicit) in your answers so far. In particular, it is important to consider if there may be a negative impact here, so you can ameliorate this if possible. In some cases, this question reveals important hard-to-reach groups that may have limited interest and no influence, but who would benefit more than most other groups if you could only make it relevant enough to get them interested. Add information about the positive or negative impacts you think each group might get from engaging with your work in column 5 (alongside your comments on influence). Another reason this is a useful question is that you can easily convert a positive impact here into an impact goal in your impact summary or pathway to impact.
Helping the hard-to-reach
Your final task is to use the information you have collected to prioritise who you will reach out to first. There's no right way to do this - you have to decide what is most important to you. Traditionally, people used stakeholder analysis to select those with most interest and influence, to the detriment of those with high interest and benefit but little influence. That's why I suggest in the final column of my template that you identify individuals, groups or organisations who have low interest but high influence and/or benefit as hard-to-reach groups that may require special attention. There are two types of hard-to-reach groups.
First, there are the gate-keepers who have huge influence as gate-keepers to facilitate or block your impact, but who have limited interest in your research. For example, it may be at the edge of their desk and low-priority compared to other issues that are more central to their interests. As a result, they may not return your emails or calls, and it is tempting to ignore them because they are so hard-to-reach. However, when you eventually come to their attention, you may regret not investing more heavily in finding a way to get their attention early and find common ground, as they may have the power to stop you in your tracks, for example preventing you from getting access to data, people or resources that are crucial for your pathway to impact.
Second, there are the marginalised, who have little influence to either facilitate or block your impact, and who may have limited interest in your research, but who could benefit more than anyone else if you could only make your work relevant enough. This analysis empowers you to prioritise the hard-to-reach if you wish, as well as the already-interested and powerful. The choice is yours.
The point is that you make an informed choice. You don't just reactively reach out to whoever is easiest to reach, or those who shout loudest. You use what little time you have wisely, and prioritise those who matter most to you.
Choose your top three publics or stakeholders, and make a plan to reach out to them all. If you run out of time after you contact those three, then you don't need to feel guilty because you had a clear rationale for how you prioritised them. If someone is upset that you missed them out, then you can explain why you started where you did, and you will get to them when you have time. But you don't have time to reach out to everyone who might conceivably be interested in your research. So cut yourself some slack, and focus your energies. Use this tool to prioritise who you reach out to first, and do so intelligently.
There will be no more blanket emails now. Each of your top three public (representative organisations) or stakeholders will get an email tailored to their interests and priorities, because you know what they're interested in and how your research might be able to help, based on this analysis. There's nothing disingenuous about this. You are opening a ch