How to map and influence stakeholders to get started

Summary: key points and action steps

CD isn’t a solitary pursuit, and no one can act alone to either start or sustain CD initiatives. Whatever the CD issue or need, whether at institutional, sector, organisational or individual level, many stakeholders will need to be engaged to support action.  Understanding who the stakeholders are, their interests, and how to engage them is one of the important first steps in developing a CD strategy or intervention. This understanding is integral to understanding both the specific context and the general institutional environment. The need to influence stakeholders might be about raising awareness and mobilising support for what needs to happen, or it may be about overcoming resistance to new initiatives and change. This page offers some guidance about how to get started.

The question ‘Capacity for what?’
needs to be kept at the centre of thinking, decisions and communications

  • First clarify the CD issues to be worked on and the messaged that needs to be shared:
    • Remember to consider all relevant levels when thinking about the issue and stakeholders. The trap of thinking that CD is always about developing individual skills needs to be avoided, the challenge might be that capacity exists but organisational or institutional constraints are preventing it from being used, which may call for engaging multiple stakeholders in different ways
    • In the first instance success is more likely through focusing on one or two key issues as a starting point. Trying to tackle too many issues at once will likely lead to problems.
    • Working on issues that give ‘quick wins’ is a good way to overcome resistance
  • Next map the stakeholders around this CD issue:
  • All the partners who will work together should clarify their shared assumptions and expectations, and their approaches to the CD issue, once this is done they can move to
  • Decisions which overall approach will work best to influence the target group about the CD issue, and which mix of specific methods and tools to use. This should include involving and or delegating to those who have the best change of being effective. For example, a senior decision-maker may be more likely to listen to one of his or her own advisors than to someone unknown, so the advisor becomes the primary target as the route influencing the decision-maker
  • Develop a simple, focused and persuasive message, which will be most effective if based on analysis of the capacity need, the critical factors that affect it, who could be influential in facilitating the necessary changes and what needs to be said in order to persuade them to act
  • Deliver the message through the people or tools most likely to have influence on the target group, adapting as necessary the focus or style for different stakeholders
  • Reinforce by following up. People may need to hear an idea many times, or in many different ways, before they are fully persuaded to act.


The first challenge that a CD champion might meet is how to identify the key stakeholders to engage in the development of an overall strategy or specific initiatives. Taking the time to do a good stakeholder analysis helps to deepen understanding of the specific context and the broader institutional environment. Stakeholder analysis can also help to identify champions and partners and help surface issues and challenges related to the broader context. Additionally the stakeholder analysis can help inform and prepare the ground for other important tasks such as assessment of existing capacity and needs – capacity for what? For who? 

The extent to which stakeholders need to be engaged will vary according to the intended initiative – it might, for example, be a general need to get others to support the integration of CD into existing or planned programmes and projects, a very specific need to persuade someone to try a new approach to CD when they are stuck on one particular way of doing things, or the need to address an institutional or environmental problem that is preventing capacity from being used.  To get started on engaging stakeholders it is necessary to work with three key questions, which should all be considered at all levels relevant to the issue under consideration:

  • What?  The first step in planning any action to engage others is to identify the issues for which their engagement is needed and the message or information that they need to hear about it.
  • Who? Every capacity need or challenge has many different stakeholders. Who are the key individuals or groups it will be necessary to work with in order to achieve the purpose of the CD initiative.
  • How? Which methods, tools or approaches are going to be most effective to achieve the purpose?


The first step in planning engagement and advocacy is to identify the priority issues to start with. Within any set of circumstances there will probably be a range of capacity issues that need attention, but no initiative is likely to be successful if it tries to work on everything at once, so targeting one or two areas of need to start with will increase the chances of achieving change. These might either be the big priority needs or perhaps something that would offer a ‘quick win’ that would help persuade others to engage on bigger challenges. Specific rather than general arguments for CD are more likely to be successful.

When identifying issues it is important to consider all the possible entry levels.  It might be that individuals need knowledge and skills, but in many cases the primary challenge is not at that level, or not only at that level, and other factors may be much more important. It may be that the organisational structure and systems do not facilitate the flow of resources needed for individual’s capacity to be utilised. Alternately the challenges might be systemic blocks at the institutional level, such as necessary laws – a critical aspect of the enabling environment – being non-existent or out of date.

A poorly functioning provincial department

An organisational level example might be that while local government officers are in general capable of fulfilling their mandate, they are not able to do so because the senior managers of the provincial department they work in are stuck in a paralysing political party conflict that has created deep divisions among different staff factions.  The result is that many staff are unable to cooperate on essential tasks and the flow of resources is unbalanced. In such a case the critical capacity factors are NOT technical – at the level of individuals’ skills or the availability of resources.  The challenge is in the organisation’s ‘soft’ capacity dimensions, namely: how conflict is managed, how power is distributed and used, and how both affect functional relationships and the allocation of resources.

Whoever is arguing the case for CD will need to be well informed about the chosen issues in order to be very clear when talking to the target audience.  This can best be done through participatory discussions and exercises to help all stakeholders deepen their understanding of the range of issues and together formulating a strong case.

Keeping the question ‘Capacity for what?’ at the centre of everyone’s thinking will ensure accurate definition of the hoped for change. Arguments can then be developed accordingly.

In the provincial department the answer to ‘Capacity for what?’ is to manage and resolve conflicts, and to establish and maintain functional relationships that prioritise fulfilling organisational mandate over party interests.

As background information it might also be necessary to include some ‘big picture’ dimensions such as:

  • The recognition in the aid effectiveness agenda of the need for demand led CD, especially the Paris Declaration and the Accra Agenda for Action
  • Important documents such as the NEPAD Capacity Development Strategic Framework
  • Budget information about what is being spent on CD

The message should be kept simple, direct and consistent: it is better to have a few key points well delivered than a lot of information in which the important message gets lost.  A message that is positive about future benefits and links the issue to the concerns of the targeted audience through practical examples and lessons learned is more likely to be persuasive than a message that is critical about current problems. The message should be varied to make it specific for different people and groups within the target audience, taking into account the important levels that will need to be addressed for a comprehensive solution. Adapting the way the message is presented to achieve the greatest impact on different audiences without changing its key points is called ‘framing’.


In any circumstance CD involves many people at different levels ranging from policy makers through middle managers to ordinary staff. When considering engaging and persuading key stakeholders, they will fall into two main groups: the target audience and the partners. To get started through finding the right entry point requires analysis to work out who falls into which group.  It will help if to map out everyone who is potentially involved, as:

  • Target audience: those who need to be persuaded – politicians, policy makers, implementers, intermediaries, participants, or perhaps combinations of people at different levels.
  • Partners: those who will work together in a variety of roles

The analysis then needs to go deeper, by identifying:

  • Who is known, what is known about them and the best way to communicate with them
  • Possible ways to reach those who are recognised as being important but not known to any of the partners acting together on the CD initiative. For example, it might be necessary to first target an advisor in order to influence a political decision-maker.

Target audience

Remember that the target audience will likely change and expand over time as the work progresses. There always needs to be a balance between being inclusive of all who might be stakeholders in bigger capacity issues in the longer term, and staying focused on key individuals and groups, who are, or need to be, directly involved with the activities currently in hand. The better the stakeholders are known and defined, the easier it is to select the most appropriate tools and approaches to reach and influence them. The target audience needs to be known and understood in terms of:

  • Key decisions makers and other prime actors: Who has the power to make decisions and shape relevant policy about capacity needs?  Who and what influence the decision-makers?  What interests do decision-makers have in supporting CD?
  • Other power dynamics, including control of money and other resources: Who has the power to support or block implementation of any decisions made? What are their interests and concerns? How is finance allocated and distributed?
  • Potential allies who might support the arguments, those who will resist, and those who might be neutral: Who would gain what from a CD initiative and what influence do they have on decision-makers?
  • Linkages between the different actors involved: Where do bridges already exist and where will do they need to be built?
  • Potential conflicts of interest: Who might view themselves as a loser? Where might CD be in competition with other initiatives that are considered equally important? What is needed to avoid or mitigate potential conflicts of interest?
  • Where is the resistance? It is helpful to analyse resistance for what it represents in the context, and for ideas about how it can best be addressed? Ignoring or arguing with resistance is not a constructive response.

If the key to capacity in the provincial department described above is breaking the political deadlock, who would need to be targeted to address the challenges? There are several groups that could potentially be important to work with – national and local politicians, central ministry officials, local media, local communities/voters, local government staff associations, and maybe more.


Collaboration between those who are committed to the issue not only benefits everyone through the sharing of expertise, knowledge about context, potential points of resistance, lessons learnt and other resources, it also extends the scope of influence and potential impact. Additionally advocacy is generally much more persuasive if a group are presenting the same message. Potential partners need to discuss their interests and find both the fit and the areas of difference.  Why would national politicians be interested in a provincial department solving its problems and starting to function properly? Perhaps because they want to get re-elected in that province.  Or maybe the local government association is being discredited and losing influence in other places because of the department’s poor functioning. In which case the association would have much to gain if it was seen to help resolve the conflict and move the department towards resolution.  Before partners and allies start working together it is wise for them to take time to clarify their shared values, assumptions, motivations and expectations. Doing this will make them stronger in discussions with others and identify who would be best to take which roles and tasks. Those who do not have any access to national politicians, for example, might be best able to contribute by supporting others who do have that access, or by facilitating connections to other key actors.


Effective communication means:

Developing a persuasive and effective message depends on doing the analysis of the capacity need and the critical factors that affect it, who could be influential in facilitating the necessary changes and what need to be said in order to persuade them to act.

Delivering the message involves choosing and using an appropriate variety of tools. There are several communication tools that can be used to put a case to others. Review the variety of options to find the tools with the biggest potential impact on the target audience:

  • Lobbying: lobbying is defined as attempting to directly influence decision-makers. It can be either formal – through letter writing and scheduled meetings, or informal – at chance meetings, through leaflets, or invitations to events.
  • Project visits: visits can both demonstrate good practice and show the full extent of the need, challenge or issue in order to encourage stakeholders to engage with CD initiatives.
  • Mobilising demand: getting the people who would most directly be involved in and benefit from CD to speak out can be a good way of influencing decision makers. 
  • Leaflets and newsletters: printed matter can be used to raise awareness with different groups. Eye-catching headings and simple presentations of the facts relating to the issue can get the message across to a lot of people.
  • Engaging a powerful spokesperson: someone who is well respected by the target audience may be able to do a lot both to put pressure on decision-makers and to raise awareness within wider groups of stakeholders.
  • Working with the media: media such as TV, radio and the press can play a significant role in advocacy, through influencing decision-makers directly or through changing public opinion on an issue.

Reflection questions

How would you use any or all of these methods if you were working on the provincial department challenge? Which would most likely be effective, and which would probably not be so useful?

For example, lobbying politicians and other high level decision-makers is particularly relevant when the capacity challenge is not of a technical nature but in the soft-political-relational dimensions of organisational functioning. Similarly, mobilising demand, perhaps both the local electorate and the central ministry, to articulate how they are affected by the department’s poor functioning would also be a good way to influence political party leaders so that they put pressure on the provincial managers to resolve the conflict. Working with the media might be very effective for mobilising publicopinion, but not so relevant for the central ministry.  It may not be appropriate for you to undertake these activities directly, but you can play an important role by supporting partners in your network, like the local government association, to do so. 

It is equally important to pick the right time and place for delivery, so planning should include assessment of the time frame surrounding the selected issues. It is always worth monitoring for events that present ad hoc opportunities for delivery of the message. More important though is to watch and analyse current activities and trends that present opportunities, for example, the start of a policy debate is an appropriate time to lobby decision-makers. Or perhaps an election is coming up and it would be a very good time to mobilise public opinion. 

Reinforcing the message is essential, because it is vary rare for anyone to be persuaded to adopt change and act differently on the basis of only one exposure to a new idea.  Sometimes people need to hear an idea many times, or in many different ways, before they are fully persuaded. Changes in organisational systems or personnel can also mean that messages get lost or need to be adjusted over time. All these reasons call for the need to treat engagement and advocacy activities as ongoing needs rather than one-off events. 

Case study: Capacities at Multiple Levels and the Need for Connection: A Bhutan Example

Case study by Hendrik Visser

The case study is from Capacity Development in Practice (2010) ed. Ubels, J et al.  Earthscan, London.  For downloads of the digital versions of the full publication or separate chapters, visit….

This case study shows how, over time, a group of development practitioners from SNV working on an Environmentally Friendly Road Construction programme in Bhutan engaged various stakeholders in the sector and advocated successfully to persuade them of the need to shift from a purely technical approach and incorporate CD for the whole sector and related systems into the programme. It also highlights two really important points about mapping and influencing stakeholders:

  • The need to recognise and work at multiple levels in the system in order to achieve sustainable system and sector change, so starting from the technical basis of the project the team then worked iteratively to draw in more stakeholders in the broader system as they project progresses
  • The use of ‘quick-wins’ to influence those who were initially resistant to anything beyond a technical project

For those who read the case study, the questions below might be useful prompts for discussion and analysis. 

Reflection questions

The SNV team kept a CD focus central to their thinking and decisions from the start of the first phase of the project.  How would you answer ‘Capacity for what?’ to describe the capacity goal they used to guide their work?

  • What can you learn about mapping stakeholders from the way that the SNV team worked with expanding and different groups and levels of stakeholders over time?
  • What were the most effective approaches and methods used by the SNV team to develop, deliver and reinforce their message about CD?
  • What were the benefits of the ‘quick win’ activities and how did they influence key stakeholders to change their perspective and embrace CD as well as the technical aspects of the project?
  • What can you learn from this example that you can apply to your own context and current CD challenges?

Recommended readings for the case study

The Bhutan case study builds on the introduction, in Chapters 2 and 3 of the book, of multiple dimensions and multiple actors in capacity development. Political and governance dimensions of capacity, accountability and micro–macro linkages are further discussed in Chapters 11, 12 and 13 respectively. The issue of (bridging) leadership is also touched upon in Chapter 16, and practices for ongoing learning are the topic of Chapter 21. The following are some other key readings on a systemic and learning approach to capacity development illustrated in this chapter.

  • Fukuda-Parr Sakiko, Lopes Carlos, Malik Khalid (2002) Capacity Development. New Solutions to Old Problems, United Nations Development Programme and Earthscan Publications Ltd, London.
    The authors make a case for understanding development as a transformational process, an organic development process where building local capacity is essential. They analyse system capacity at the individual-organizational and institutional-societal levels.
  • Chambers, Robert (2003) Whose Reality Counts? Putting the Last First, Intermediate Technology Publications, London.
    Chambers provides valuable insights on how professionals and organizations create their own realities. He cautions about an inability and lack of motivation of professionals to understand the reality of ‘poor people’ and their complex livelihoods, thus creating a cycle of development activities that is based more on the (unconscious) needs and mental models of the professional and his organization than the need and reality of the poor.
  • Morgan, Peter (2005) The Idea and Practice of Systems Thinking and their Relevance for Capacity Development, European Centre for Development Policy Management, Maastricht.
    Morgan provides a concise and comprehensive overview of ‘systems thinking’ theory and its implications for capacity-development approaches. He highlights how systems behave, in terms of patterns and flows more than in individual actions and events. (See also for other publications worth a look.)
  • Wilber, Ken (2001) A Theory of Everything, an Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spiritualism, Shambala Publications Inc, Boston, MA.
    Wilber offers an ambitious framework for understanding and navigating complex change. He analyses theories on the development of human consciousness and highlights three broad development stages: ego-centric (self), ethno-centric (family) and world-centric (whole). These stages are applicable for individuals as well as collectives like societies. He also makes a case for better understanding how informal systems (like values and beliefs) interact and are inter-dependent with formal systems in society. 

Next section: How to work with incentives to stimulate change