Seems like we’ve seen a lot of articles talking about planning words—words that are okay for planners to use, or are not okay to use, or should be given clearer meaning. Heck, we’re guilty of the latter, adding to the fray ourselves (with an explainer we think you’ll really love: what IS walkability, anyway?).
So I tread humbly into this piece by acknowledging up front that I am, again, adding to the fray. I’d like to think this piece is a little different from the others though, because this isn’t an explainer, I’m not discouraging you from using some term, and I’m not necessarily hoping to convince you to say one thing or not say another. I’m sharing a story. One about how my thinking has evolved with respect to a particularly oft-used planning term: “stakeholder.” More specifically, I’m conflicted about using the term in certain contexts, particularly when working with communities and the people who make them up. Which I do often.
This story begins with a discussion I had many years ago, in a different career, when I was presenting to my Planning Board. I was working for a county government planning department, and throughout my presentation, I referenced the “many stakeholders” my office had met with. After the meeting, I was approached by a woman who said “I really wish you wouldn’t say ‘stakeholder.’ It doesn’t make sense. I think of the pointy-end of the stake, and that the people you’ve heard from are holding it.”
Put another way, I took her perspective to mean that public commentary was shaping the outcomes of the project in a way that may not mirror her desires. Thus, she sees as a possible result something inequitable occurring to her. Fair enough. Nevermind the sound public engagement principles deployed during that effort—a topic for a later time.
But it did get me thinking, and I had no decent substitute that encapsulated the nuances that “stakeholder” carries—shared ownership in a problem, involvement in resolving it, creating solutions, not favoring just the loud voices.
So yes, I was without a substitute. Until just a few months ago.
A consultant we were working with (Chris Danley, now with Alta Planning) used the word I think is the best substitute: “shareholder.”
It’s a subtle switch, but an important one. Shareholder rightly implies that citizens, like investors in a company, own the corporation that is the community, and therefore can shape the direction of their community through their input. It implies that ownership in that direction is divided among all other citizens. It implies equity and evenhandedness.
Here’s how Chris describes it:
Sure, it’s a term that comes from the boardroom. But, like many terms in the English language, its essence extends beyond the context in which it originated.