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Partners vs. Stakeholders
In talking about the importance of partnerships, the words "partner" and "stakeholder" are often used interchangeably. While the two are similar, they are not true synonyms. Partners and stakeholders serve different purposes and make different contributions. Before beginning any new project, it is important to be clear on who your organization's partners are, who the project's stakeholders are, what each can bring to a project, and how the project is going to make the most effective use of both.
A partner is a person or organization associated with another in some action or endeavor and who shares in both the risks and rewards of the joint effort. It is possible for partners to have different levels of investment in a project and, therefore, a proportional share of the risk. The key is that a partner brings something to the table -- knowledge, skills, and/or resources -- and stands to benefit in some way from the success of the project.
A stakeholder is a person or group having an investment or interest in an enterprise. They may share in some risk or reward, particularly if their investment is monetary, but what they stand to gain may not be tied directly to their contribution in the same way as that of the project partners. Stakeholders are often those who are vested in how a project is designed and whether it is successful, but they may not have direct responsibilities and tasks that influence project completion.
The Importance of Knowing the Difference
At times, participants in public safety efforts can be both partners and stakeholders simultaneously and sometimes the dividing line may be subtle. The difference between a partner and a stakeholder is more than semantics and must be understood. Stakeholders who are treated as partners may find themselves at regular project meetings wondering why the demand is being placed on their time when they have nothing to offer on the details of implementation. Partners misidentified as stakeholders might be missing from those meetings, leading to significant delays in implementation simply because they are not there with their needed expertise at the time a decision is made. They may not understand why the response is necessary or say why the issue is important and initially lack commitment.
When partners' and stakeholders' roles and responsibilities in a project are clearly defined and understood, you can be sure that each will be integrated into the project's activities and decisions in ways that are appropriate to their levels of investment, risk, and reward.
This overview was adapted from the article, Partners vs. Stakeholders, by Deborah Spence, Senior Social Science Analyst, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice. The article first appeared in the August 2008 issue of Community Policing Dispatch.