Funder by the Department of Human Services Auspiced by Our Community

Help Sheet

Identifying your stakeholders

An important part of your group or organisation's planning process is to think about the people and groups you are serving or who have an interest in your work. These are the people and groups with whom you need to build relationships.

You may think identifying these interests is easy but the reality is a little more complicated especially for larger not-for-profit organisations who may get tangled up the question of who, exactly, is "the organisation"? Its founders? Its current members? Its committee of management? The people it provides services to?

For smaller consumer groups the questions are less complex because the purpose of a self-help or self-advocacy group is almost always to improve the lives and life opportunities for its members. However, even then, there are competing interests and many questions that a group does need to broach amongst its members in order to understand where it fits in its local community.

Questions might include:

  1. To what extent is your group interested in changing community attitudes towards mental illness? Do you want alliances with groups already doing some of this work in the community?
  2. Does your group want to be inclusive of people labeled with mental illness who have understandings across a spectrum from radical to quite conservative interpretations of their experience?
  3. Does your group want to focus on learning about illness? If so, where is this expertise going to come from?
  4. To what extent is your group interested in dismantling medical model understandings of 'mental illness'? What is your relationship with other social change movements such as the Disability Rights Movement, the Queer Movement, the Feminist Movement and so on?
  5. To what extent is your group based on the premise that consumers/survivors should speak for themselves and others should not speak on your behalf? What are the state, national and international organisations your group should be linked into?
  6. To what extent is your group interested in issues to do with social inclusion and recovery? How well is your group linked in with other groups interested in these issues through the internet?
  7. To what extent is your group seen by its members as a tool for social change around issues to do with mental distress? How broad is your membership criteria and how well linked are you with other community groups representing, for example, refugees, victims of child abuse and trauma, prisoner self-support groups and so on?
  8. Is the group comfortable with the term 'mental illness' at all? If your group is not comfortable with this term, have you searched the internet to find The National Empowerment Centre in Boston, USA and other important sites around the globe?
  9. Is the group interested in ideas to do with 'representation' or is the group more interested in ideas to do with 'consumer/survivor leadership'? If so, have you read the consumer/survivor literature in this trend and provided copies for members of your group?
  10. What do you want to do? What skills does your group have? What knowledge do you want and who in the local community can learn from you about mental distress or 'mental illness'?

Members and other consumers

The situation in relation to membership and those benefiting from the work of your group or organisation is a complex one in mental health. It depends on the purpose of the group or organisation.

A self help group such as the Mad Pride Collective has a primary purpose of enhancing the lives of its members. However, once a group has grown into a small to medium organisation and has started to provide advocacy services, for example, another important interest group emerges - the users of these advocacy services.

If, at the next Strategic Planning Day the group opts to turn primarily into a consumer-run not-for-profit service organisation then the Mission Statement will reflect this change and the users of your service will be of primary importance. Without them, the organisation - as it is now structured - would have no reason for existence.

It is also possible to take a wider view of the group's community of interest. Take, for example, a community theatre group that has grown out of a Psychiatric Disability Support Service but is now well down the track towards independence. The group's mission is to provide an outlet for local drama enthusiasts and to provide low-cost entertainment for the community.

The community of interest in this case would include not only those who sit in the audience or buy a program, but those who direct and act in the show, make the costumes, put up the sets, handle the lighting and usher the audience. All of these might be mental health consumers but not necessarily.

While these people may be volunteers, they will often also be 'consumers' [users] of the consumer groups' services as they 'use' the group as a vehicle to derive experience, social interaction, enjoyment, etc.


Small self help groups

Many community groups encourage and indeed vigorously seek new members. Members are, obviously perhaps, the essence of small self help groups. They are the group.

Membership can often be fluid in such groups in mental health because of the nature of people's experiences of emotional distress. People often need time out to spend looking after themselves. The sector is renowned for people, including people in positions of authority within consumer organisations, coming and going in and out of active participation. Hence counting their numbers is perhaps a less telling gauge of the relevance and importance of the group it may be in some other community groups.

Nonetheless it remains important to notice if and when membership changes and try and map this alongside changes in group functioning, internal disputes, or other factors that may be important at a local level.

Self and systemic advocacy groups

It is also important that groups are clear about the degree to which they are open. In Victoria, some of the more successful local groups have an open membership that does not use the language of the medical model. That is, you don't need to be diagnosed with any 'illness' you just have to identify as someone who would get something out of a group set up to benefit people who have, at one time or other, been labeled 'mentally ill'.

This open house policy works against further isolation of people diagnosed with mental illness, and allows people to define themselves in any way they want which is empowering and shifts the focus from the 'illness' to the community.

There are other consumer groups that are 'closed groups' in that they bring together people with the same or similar medical diagnoses. Membership is diagnosis-specific and new members are attracted through word of mouth, presentations at conferences, the internet, published brochures and publicity through hospital networks.

Without members, these groups would have no reason to exist. Often membership and meeting attendance is enhanced by the group inviting 'professional experts' to speak to its members about topics that are directly related to the diagnosis concerned. Sometimes the self-help aspect is incidental to the perception that professional insight can be gained from joining the group. Therefore, maintaining a calendar of interesting speakers becomes central in some of these groups.

Some groups support both consumers and 'carers'. These groups have a mixed membership and often potential members are attracted through Psychiatric Disability Support Services, public notices, ads in local papers, local government and so on. Sometimes these groups come together for a few months only to, for example, run a specific campaign around a topic like cannabis and 'mental illness', "homelessness" or to fight for a new facility to be built.

Larger Groups and Incorporated not-for-profit Organisations

Members of larger consumer groups and organisations can be divided into categories such as:

This way, fees can be paid according to the individual's capacity to pay. Unwaged consumers often have no outlay at all.

This is a way larger consumer groups and small to medium not-for-profit consumer organisations can raise funds without compromising their core purpose of being run by and for consumers.

Usually, these groups have a policy that differentiates between the voting rights of consumers and others and which mandates consumers hold positions of authority such as the Chair of the Committee of Management (Board) or Chief Executive Officer (CEO).

Sometimes the entire Committee of Management is made up of consumers and this, also, is written into the constitution.

Having non-consumers as non-voting members and groups can provide a way to raise much needed resources but this must be done in a way that does not exclude people for whom the group exists in the first place.

Having non-voting members can also help to create a common community around a particular group or cause. They can be drummed up to attend group functions, called upon to operate stalls, sign petitions, help out in the working bee and asked for donations.

Members are vitally important community group supporters and imperative to a group's survival.

Staff, Volunteers, Governing Body

In many community groups, staff members - volunteer or paid - are among the most important people in the organisation. The staff have a deep understanding of the day-to-day workings of the organisation, are closest to the needs and opinions of the clients and supporters, and will have to cope with the implications of an expansion or contraction or change in direction.

They are likely to have first-hand knowledge of what kinds of fundraising initiatives have worked before, understand which programs are working and which ones are not, and know what pressures the organisation is facing.

Your organisation's governing body - its Board or Committee of Management - is another important stakeholder. If the staff constitutes the arms and legs of the community group, the Board or Committee of management is its mind.


This group may include corporate, philanthropic and/or Federal, State or Local Government grantmakers or funders, or individual, group or business donors.

While it would be nice to think that funders will be happy to hand over a cheque and let you get on with the work, the reality is usually very different.

Funders take very seriously their duty to make best use of the limited funds available - and expect the same of the community groups they fund. They generally provide strict conditions dictating how their money can be used - often stipulating that funds can only be used for a particular project or program - and generally demand not only rigorous accounting of how the money has been spent, but information about what outcomes have been achieved by the program.

Similarly, there are very few "no strings attached" donations that are made to community groups. Donors will often specify which specific cause or project they consent to their money being used for and most also want to see real results - as unfair as it might seem, few people are willing to see their hard-earned money being used to pay a community group's phone bill.

Even if money is given as general operating support (in the form of ongoing government funding, for example) there are generally implied restraints placed on the funds. Those groups that use money in what are considered inappropriate ways - on "unreasonable" administration costs, for example - will quickly earn disapproval.

Sponsors and Partners

Sponsors and partners often place even more explicit demands on the use of their resources than funders. These may include public acknowledgement, naming rights, access to membership lists (which may be considered by the group to be totally inappropriate in an area where stigma and discrimination are rife - there are many consumers who do not want the world to know they have a 'mental illness'), etc.

The important thing to do before accepting these conditions of sponsorship is to consult with your membership to make sure:

Usually sponsors' and partners' requirements will be spelled out in an agreement signed by both parties beforehand. Their interests (spelled out or otherwise) must also be considered carefully by the group's governing Committee or Board.

Important partners for your organisation might include businesses you have entered into a formal relationship with, your local council, local MPs, other not-for-profit organisations you collaborate with, your peak body, etc.

The community

Self help and self advocacy groups

A small self help group may start around the kitchen table or on the verandah of someone's home.

Another group may start as a project in Psychiatric Disability Support Service and become increasingly independent. These groups initially start out as an opportunity for people to share stories of mental health service experiences, life distress, and good things too.

They are primarily about people supporting each other to live maximally fulfilling lives.

However these beginning processes often give people the confidence -as a group - to start systemically advocating for others who have been diagnosed with a 'mental illness'. When your group sits down to:

this is the start of evolving into a self advocacy group which, hopefully, will make inroads into the understanding the local community about mental distress.

Through very modest endeavours groups can start to change community attitudes about 'mental illness', become more informed about conditions in mental health institutions, and help people understand people labeled as 'mentally ill' better. Getting the community 'on side' starts here.

Larger not-for-profit consumer organisations

Most not-for-profit organisations receive tax breaks in some form or another, although what sort of concessions will depend on the type of organisation and its function.

In return for the financial advantages these concessions provide, there is an expectation by society that community groups will act responsibly, remain true to their missions and in so doing make a contribution to society. Community groups must take this expectation into account when making decisions about the organisation's future.

Who comes first?

Small Consumer Self-Help and Self-Advocacy Groups

Some small self-help and self-advocacy groups put clear boundaries around:

They do this intentionally to avoid any conflicts of interest. They make it very clear that they are consumers and accountable to each other. Mostly these decisions are driven by a determination to stay in the 'purest' form of advocacy - 'ourselves for ourselves'. There is no doubt in these groups that consumers always come first. There can be no doubt because there is no competition.

Often the constitution has to be changed if groups become more 'ambitious', perhaps by trying to employ staff or attract funding. These decisions have to be made collaboratively and deliberately; and this slows down the process and guards against abrupt change to the original ideal.

In these organisations there is no denying that the accountability structure consists of ways group members are accountable to each other and to the collective. For example: publicity of any kind does not go out into the community in the name of the group without group approval.

Larger incorporated not-for-profit consumer organisations

Because of the huge range of competing interests, larger not-for-profit consumer organisations may sometimes have difficulties and tensions around exactly who they are operating for and what weight to give to those competing interests. For example, a user of homelessness services may have a completely different idea about the best way of addressing his or her needs than the staff that run the mental health or homelessness services - sometimes even when these people are consumers themselves.

The view of stakeholders may also be widened to include people and groups adversely affected by the service - so the view of the person who owns the house next door to a noisy animal shelter may also need to be taken into account in deliberations.

And to complicate matters further, there are also legal requirements to consider.

In legal terms, an organisation's Board or Committee of Management must first and foremost service the group itself - not individual members or the group's employees. An obligation to the group's creditors sits alongside that owed to the community group's members. This effectively acts as a limitation on the Board's duty to act in the interests of the members. It means that you cannot authorise an action contrary to the interests of creditors if the group is approaching insolvency, for example.

A good way of working out who your stakeholders are and how important they are to your planning process is to work through your "circles of involvement" - starting at the centre with your Board/Committee, staff and consumers, and working your way out to your friends, members and donors, then out further still to your partners, council, peak bodies, and so on.

This will help you to be clear in your own mind exactly who you are planning for, and what consideration you should give those competing interests in making decisions affecting the group. Don't forget to take into account your legal and financial responsibilities.

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