What is community outreach?
Let’s try answering that with an example.
For over 100 years, Planned Parenthood – an American nonprofit has been enabling people to live healthier lives through outreach strategies.
Here is a snapshot of what their Michigan office does:
From the picture, I am sure two words jump out at you:
- Education: They make people aware of the options they have
- Outreach: They directly engage with their target audience
And that is precisely what a community outreach program is.
It is targeted communication by your organization with a group of people, to meet a particular goal.
In the case of Planned Parenthood, the ‘particular goal’ is improved health. For some nonprofits, it would be to create awareness about their cause. For still others, it could simply be an exercise to understand how best they can help the community.
Regardless of the end goal, successful community outreach is rarely easy. It involves knowing exactly whom to reach and how to engage with them.
In this post, I will explain all you need to know to start a sustainable and successful community outreach program and outreach strategies for community-based organizations.
Community outreach goals and objectives
The first step in launching effective community outreach programs is to understand what the program can achieve and the methods.
What is the goal of outreach?
Remember the ‘particular goal’ we spoke about in the definition? Well, the first step is determining that goal.
Here is a more detailed breakdown of what the goals of a typical outreach program could be:
- Focus on a particular issue in the community and try to address that – It could be a lack of healthcare, a high child mortality rate, or poor community health.
- Educate the community on that issue and enable them to tackle it on their own. For instance, Planned Parenthood has 600 centers across the United States that focus on educating the target community about reproductive health, among a few other issues
- Work for policy changes that will help further your community outreach goal. In the case of planned parenthood, they worked for the Affordable Care Act to stay.
The goal of your outreach program could also be hugely organization-centric. That is, you would talk to the community with the sole objective of getting them to trust your organization. In such cases, here are some goals that your outreach program can focus on:
- Create awareness within the community about your organization.
- Since they know your community outreach mission, they understand how you can help them and would be able to meet you half-way.
- It can encourage people in your community to volunteer or donate, thus making it a lot simpler for your nonprofit to achieve its goals.
Please note that this does not mean marketing your organization. Your outreach program will be more educational. It will be focused on helping the community understand how they can improve their lives through you.
The organization-centric goals I mentioned could also be a side effect of an exceptional community outreach program. For eg., when Planned Parenthood reached out to the community to educate them about sexual health, the community came to know about their organization. A lot of them turned volunteers and activists and thus actively promote their cause.
So, how do you create a successful outreach program?
Let’s get to it.
How to launch a successful community outreach strategy?
Unfortunately, not all organizations have such extraordinary success with their community outreach program. In fact, some of them turn out quite disastrous.
Do you remember this guy?
That is John Allen Chau. A missionary worker who lost his life when he tried to convert an estranged tribe. His effort was a tragic example of what community outreach should not be.
Let’s sidestep all the controversy and look at his mission as just another community outreach plan.
It was an abject failure.
That is because he did not have a plan. He did not understand his target audience, did not know what they needed, and went in blindly with his ‘mission’.
That brings us to the question: What is a community outreach plan?
An outreach plan is documenting your approach to sharing the information with the local community you are targeting. To ensure that you are not caught unprepared with your outreach program, here is a list of things you need to have in your community outreach action plan.
- Conduct a needs assessment
- Identify and know your issue
- Set a goal
- Create a list of stakeholders
- Develop a strategy
- Build a coalition and start engaging with key decision-makers
- Craft and refine the message
- Tailor it across channels
- Measure your impact
Let us look at each of these a bit more in detail.
Conducting a needs assessment
A community needs assessment is the process of gathering more information about the local community you are focussed on.
It should tell you all about the strengths and resources available in that community, give you a more accurate picture of the issue, the local policies that impact the issue, and the environment.
For instance, if you are focussed on studying a community and its health, here is what your framework will look like:
Having such a clear, data-backed framework is the first step in formulating a strategic community outreach plan.
It removes the guesswork from the process and helps you make reliable data-backed decisions. For instance, from the above example, if you find that it is the economic system and prosperity that is lagging behind in the community you are studying, then it is that aspect you would focus on improving.
Need a Revision of The Basics? Read Grassroots Advocacy Definition, Strategies and Tools to Get Started.
Identify and know your issue
A well-done assessment of needs will automatically highlight the issues within the local community. Now, your job would be to identify which one of these you want to tackle. Solving (or in most cases trying to solve) that issue, in essence, is your goal.
As we saw above it could be more than one (e.g. educating the audience and improving policies).
Or, it could only be a way for you to collect information to pass on to a nonprofit that can act on it. The Community Health Workers are the perfect example here.
Regardless, pick the issue you want to target. Identifying and understanding this is essential. It is the issue, and how you want to address it, that will define the entire strategy of your community outreach program.
Set a goal
Once you have identified an issue, you can derive your goal. Your goal would be to sort that issue ideally – but with measurable impact.
For instance, if you’re an advocacy group focused on increasing voter awareness, your goals would be tied to encouraging citizens to register to vote and educating them about the importance of participating in the electoral process.
Some questions to ask yourself when pinpointing your goals are:
- Is there an actual need within my community for us to reach out?
- How exactly am I going to engage with my audience?
- How am I going to get them to participate in reaching my goals?
Creating an extensive list of questions, and planning how to address them individually gives your team a realistic idea of the scope of the task.
It also outlines the effort it would take to achieve the goal and thus gives a very realistic view of the outcomes you can expect.
|Pro tip: Once you have a goal, break down the goal into smaller objectives. It is these objectives that you will measure to determine the efficacy of your efforts. Eg. calling 1000 community members within the next week to inform them about the voting process, or distributing pamphlets to students of a particular college encouraging them to attend an AIDS awareness meeting. This objective is measurable, time-bound, and outlines the task clearly
Create a list of stakeholders
The primary stakeholder in your entire program is, of course, the target audience – the people within the community for whom you want to make a difference.
Who else is deeply associated with the community and has a say in how things run? Who initiates community outreach?
Is there a village leader? A community head? A local political member who can help you out? They are all examples of stakeholders whom you should consider.
Stakeholders are people who can have a direct or indirect impact on the community you are looking to target. They are deeply invested in the community and already have a relationship with them.
It is essential that you not only have buy-in from these stakeholders but also include them as part of your team. It will build trust between your organization and the community, and you also have a chance of achieving your goals faster.
Examples of types of stakeholders to include in the community team (as relevant) are:
- Law enforcer
- Faith leader
- Hospital administrator
- Community health worker
- A school principal or headmaster
- Neighborhood council representative
- Civic leader
- Local advocates
- Local business leader
- Local health practitioner
Develop a strategy
Till now, all your efforts would have let you outline a clear framework of how you plan to tackle the issue. It would look something like this:
Now that you know whom to target, you come to a crucial point in your outreach planning – developing a strategy.
It is this strategy that determines your presence in the community you are targeting. It will define how you go about achieving the outcome you have described above.
Successful outreach strategies are those that are primarily focused on the community and the stakeholders involved. Here are a few examples of community organizing strategies you can implement.
House meetings are get-togethers in someone’s house, a restaurant, or in the local church. Here, the organizing committee invites stakeholders to talk about their campaign and build community support for your issues. These meetings are an effective and straightforward way of mobilizing action around issues by getting people to sign up to be volunteers, enroll in your programs, or make donations.
Ensure that you provide food and give people content to carry with them such as brochures so that they remember you later.
Door-to-door canvassing or deep canvassing has the potential to make a lasting impact with their scope for one-to-one conversations. By deploying volunteers to canvass, you get a better understanding of the ground realities of the community. Listening to them and talking about your organization and work would help in establishing a relationship with stakeholders and finding new opportunities aligned with their interests.
Organizing or Participating in Events
Hosting campaign drives or rallies that are festive in nature are effective in generating interest. At these events, raise awareness about your cause and drive action aligned with your aims. For instance, for voting-related objectives, offer them on-spot registrations and inform them about the voting process. Make the atmosphere light and welcoming with music and food so that people are actually motivated to attend.
Similarly, you can participate in local community events and set up stalls and interact with people. Make sure to remind people about the event beforehand though!
Seminars + Presentations + Workshops
Arrange seminars, presentations, and workshops in places like the community town hall or even neighborhood parks. Spread information and address local issues. Talk about how you can help them and how people can get involved in your cause.
Offer training as well so that the attendees can help out their friends or family—if you’re a nonprofit working towards preventing drug abuse, you will train attendees on how to identify abuse symptoms and the necessary steps they should take.
Build a coalition and start engaging with your stakeholders
The next step in the process is to start execution. You need to form a team to help you reach out to your audience. Here are the various kinds of members you can have on your team.
For your outreach efforts, you’ll need to hire a large staff. Recruit volunteers from within the community itself who have a good understanding of its dynamics. Since these volunteers understand the needs and concerns of their community and are aware of the barriers faced, factor in their inputs as well. Besides, they would also help you build a good reputation and trust in the community.
Train your volunteers so that they have a good understanding of their responsibilities and are well-prepared to interact with people and answer any queries.
Having an outreach committee is necessary for managing your organization’s efforts right from planning to the implementation and monitoring stages. An outreach committee helps strategies go as planned while identifying the essential steps to be taken and discussing objectives, timelines, resources required, and relationship-building strategies.
By meeting up periodically, the outreach committee would handle all aspects of the program and would be accountable for its success. So your organization should definitely form one in the community you’re targeting for structure and organization.
Working with similar-minded organizations and community influencers gives a massive boost to your outreach efforts. ‘Unity is Strength’ definitely applies here: find organizations whose aims match yours so that you can collectively reach a higher number of people. If you find a partner organization that already has a foothold in the community, it will help your activities too as people already know about the former.
For instance, if your focus is on educating people about civic engagement and another organization works at getting people to vote, working together makes sense for both organizations since both your missions are similar.
Also, identify other influential allies in the form of community leaders, church ministers, schools and colleges, public health care centers, local businesses, etc. Since these people or institutions are well known to the community, your communications would be more impactful if they came through them.
Craft your message
What makes an outreach effective?
Since your message is your first touch-point with your audience, it must make a strong first impression. A weak generic message won’t hold water as it won’t be impactful and is likely to be ignored. Tailor your news to the people you’re targeting by using language that they are familiar with.
The most important aspect of crafting your message is ensuring that you communicate your goals, values, and mission in a manner that is relatable to the community. If your words come across as ‘market’, rest assured people are going to be put off.
Remember, this isn’t a sales pitch; your audience should be able to clearly connect with your work and should be motivated to act in favor of it.
They need to trust your mission to achieve this, and how you communicate plays a big role in doing so. People should see you as an organization that has their concerns in mind and is in it for the long haul.
Your communications should be articulate and consistent so that over time, people come to recognize your organization and are familiar with it.
Tailor it across channels
There is a wide range of channels you can use for getting your message out, but the tool you use depends upon whom you’re targeting since different media appeal to different sets of people.
- Social Media: The most convenient tool in your outreach plan, use social media to educate people about your organization and invite them to events and workshops. You can get people talking about your campaign as well by interacting with community members and encouraging them to share your posts or tweets. If your target is people of all ages, use Facebook and Twitter, but if you’re specifically looking at, say youth, use Instagram and Snapchat as well.
- Traditional Media: Generate interest by posting advertisements in local newspapers, magazines, and billboards and making radio announcements and televised promotions. Since these forms of outreach have a broad scope, use them to get noticed by a large number of people.
- Phone calls, texts, and emails: Out of the three, phone calls are the most personal medium: call your community members (use a call center software) and have one-on-one conversations with them, talking about your organization and how your work fits in with their requirement. Text messages and voice broadcast calls are useful to answer queries and send informational material. Email can be used to send detailed information but should mainly be used to target working members as they are the most likely to check emails regularly.
- Direct mail: Physical mail is still an effective way of creating a connection with your community since it gives them a tangible reminder of you. Send invitations for awareness events or mail voting information and dates.
- Flyers: Another old-school medium, paste flyers in areas frequented by your target audience. For young adults, put them up in record stores or malls, or for senior persons, target health clinics.
Whichever tool you use, make sure it’s the appropriate one for your audience. Also, remember to have a fully functional website so that people can find out additional information about you if they want to.
Evaluation is a critical stage of understanding if your strategies worked and if objectives were met. Here, you work out what went well and what didn’t so that you can immediately implement your learnings and improve outcomes.
If your goal was to obtain 100 registrations for your community voter drive, but you fell short of the mark, you need to evaluate your plan and see what it is you could have done better. Maybe you could have tried reaching out to more people or should have used a multi-channel approach.
The key is to have solid, measurable parameters for every aspect of your outreach program. Here is an example of what it can look like:
The evaluation step lets you analyze and introspect so that things work out better next time. If you notice for HMG, they have broken down its approach into 4 primary stakeholder categories (Centralized Access Points, Families, Community Partners, and Child Health Providers.)
Then, they have further listed a series of measurable objectives for each of those categories. Using data analysis, all they have to do is fill these numbers and then see where they stand.
Ensure that you evaluate your outreach strategy on a regular basis so that you meet your goals.
Final Tip: Zones!
While community outreach seems like a daunting task, and you don’t know where to start, try thinking of your outreach in terms of zones or levels, with each zone being assigned with a task. And the complexity of the task increases with the zone number.
Zone 1: Easy Task
- Distributing pamphlets to community members
- Creating an online presence and engagement on social media
Zone 2: Slightly Difficult Task
- Training volunteers for canvassing
- Conducting training sessions or seminars
Zone 3: Difficult Task
- Organizing a community festival
- Trying to get community leaders who you don’t have a relationship with to endorse your organization
The above are only loose examples of a zonal system; feel free to build your own zones and work through them! The main advantage of this system is it lets you work with simple tasks in the beginning, and as you are successful and gain confidence, you can move on to the bigger ones.
All the best!
During the engagement stage of your campaign, an important fact you should remember is to be humble. When you’re interacting with your community, especially in the initial stages, conversations or discussions may not always go according to how you had envisioned them. And that’s no reason to lose hope!
Dive in with an open-minded approach and see things from other people’s perspectives. Since you’re taking up people’s time, always be polite and ask if they are free to talk. Make sure your body language is welcoming so that people feel encouraged to speak with you and keep your language colloquial with words that people would understand. If you demonstrate a genuine interest in people’s problems, they’d do the same for you
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