Shareholders are always stakeholders in a corporation, but stakeholders are not always shareholders. A shareholder owns part of a public company through shares of stock while a stakeholder has an interest in the performance of a company for reasons other than stock performance or appreciation. These reasons often mean that the stakeholder has a greater need for the company and for a longer term.

Who are the Shareholders?

A shareholder can be an individual, company, or institution that owns at least one share of a company and a financial interest in its profitability. For example, a shareholder might be an individual investor who is hoping the stock price will increase because it is part of their retirement portfolio. Shareholders have the right to exercise a vote and to affect the management of a company. Shareholders are owners of the company but they are not liable for the company’s debts. For private companies, sole proprietorships, and partnerships, the owners are liable for the company's debts.

Who are Stakeholders?

Stakeholders can be:

  • owners and shareholders
  • employees of the company
  • bondholders who own company-issued debt
  • customers who may rely on the company to provide a particular good or service
  • suppliers and vendors who may rely on the company to provide a consistent revenue stream

Although shareholders may be the largest type of stakeholders, because shareholders are affected directly by a company's performance, it has become more commonplace for additional groups to also be considered stakeholders.

Corporate Social Responsibility

The emergence of corporate social responsibility (CSR), a self-regulating business model that helps a company be socially accountable to itself, its stakeholders, and the public, has encouraged companies to take the interests of all stakeholders into consideration. During their decision-making processes, for example, companies might consider their impact on the environment instead of making choices based solely upon the interests of shareholders. The general public is an external stakeholder now considered under CSR governance.

When a company's operations that could increase environmental pollution or take away a green space within a community, for example, the public at large is affected. These decisions may increase shareholder profits, but stakeholders could be impacted negatively. Therefore, CSR encourages corporations to make choices that protect social welfare often using methods that reach far beyond legal and regulatory requirements.

(For more information on corporate social responsibility, check out our related article "Using Social Finance to Produce a Better World.")

Differentiating Stakeholders From Shareholders

A shareholder can sell their stock and buy different stock; they do not have a long-term need for the company. Stakeholders, however, are bound to the company for a longer term and for reasons of greater need. For example, if a company is performing poorly financially, the vendors in that company's supply chain might suffer if the company no longer uses their services. Similarly, employees of the company, who are stakeholders and rely on it for income, might lose their jobs. Stakeholders and shareholders often have competing interests depending on their relationship with the organization or company.