If you had asked me as a teenager what a stakeholder was, I might have guessed “assistant vampire killer”. Why else would you hold a stake, after all? But of course the word is less literal than that – the stake in stakeholder is the degree to which someone is involved in something, financially or otherwise.
Nowadays I often encounter stakeholder; it returns thousands of hits on the Irish Times and Guardian websites, for example, and I see it regularly when editing academic prose and business or non-profit reports. In the US its domain is more confined, appearing in academic contexts about 85% of the time, according to COCA.
Macmillan Dictionary’s definition tags stakeholder as a business word and says it’s either “a person or company that has invested in a business and owns part of it”, or “someone who has an interest in the success of a plan, system, or organization, for example a worker in a company or the parent of a child at a school”. It’s the second, more general sense that’s more familiar in my experience.
Many of the words that commonly modify stakeholders – such as various, different, multiple, diverse, and a range of – convey the breadth of views that have to be taken into account with regard to some organisation or development. Other collocating adjectives, such as key, relevant and major, indicate a hierarchy of involvement: for some stakeholders there is more at stake.
A Google Ngram graph of the word in singular and plural forms shows how recent is its growth in popularity: hardly ever used until the late 1970s, at which point it rose steadily for a decade and then climbed even more rapidly. The Corpus of Historical American English shows a similar curve: no tokens at all from 1800 to 1980, then a sudden surge.
Though its popularity suggests it’s a useful addition to the general vocabulary, stakeholder is not universally liked. In a recent article criticising management jargon, Steven Poole described it as “plump with cheaply bought respect”, and indeed it featured in my parody of corporate language here a couple of years ago, where I mentioned “operation-centric initiatives push[ing] stakeholders’ imagination buttons”.
Our own Michael Rundell has an “enduring hatred” of stakeholder owing to negative initial exposure, as he revealed in a comment on Gill’s post about issues around. The same antipathy – or at any rate ambiguity – in regard to stakeholding may be seen in a profile of British politician David Miliband that says he is “credited, or blamed, for inventing the term ‘stakeholding’.”
So the jury is still out. Does stakeholder push your imagination button, or would you rather drive a stake through it?