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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Why embracing outreach is important for nonprofits


Changemakers of the world are passionate about their communities and organizations, but helping others ignite their passions and sustain improvement requires sustainability strategies. Sparking action in a community encourages advocates for community engagement; it can be a “potential catalyst, seeking to fan an initial flame.” Hildy Gottlieb, founder of Creating The Future, describes community engagement as “the process of building relationships with community members who will work side-by-side with you as an ongoing partner, in any and every way imaginable, building an army of support for your mission, with the end goal of making the community a better place to live.”

This is connecting and interacting with others, building relationships, cultivating awareness and ensuring these actions are purposeful. The overall consensus from professionals across the state is that outputs – tangible, numerical data – correlate to outreach, while outcomes – documented action – are consistent with engagement. 

Outreach is a vehicle for community engagement that can be used for many purposes in organizations. Outreach leads to an action. As Linda Flower suggests, however, in her article “Partnerships in Inquiry: a Logic for Community Outreach,” there is a certain tactic in creating an outreach technique and a strategic plan, especially geared toward a certain culture. One must not valorize the knowledge and values the giver intends to share. The first step is involving those directly affected by the problems organizations are seeking to mitigate.

Outreach is necessary to shape the engagement of the community, to create positive change. It is a result of conscious effort and requires in-depth dialogue, decision-making and action. With this, organizations must collaborate and answer: What nonprofit outreach methods are most effective for community engagement? Community engagement is harnessing care and passion and coordinating people to take action on behalf of the cause.

Claire Louge, director of outreach with Prevent Child Abuse Arizona, stated, “Authenticity of the message deliverer is of utmost importance. An attitude of stuffiness, elitism or ‘I know what’s best for your community’ is quickly shut down. What works best for many kinds of community is in-person, one-on-one meetings and conversations in which connection, rather than agenda, is priority.” Authenticity with the population an organization is trying to serve will quickly be met with communication, fulfillment and action.

When inciting change, and relying on the community to be receptive and engaged in change, effective outreach methods lie in the community itself. Depending on the struggles, challenges and successes of the community, the methods of outreach can differ. “This ethic will need a spirit of inquiry that not only can acknowledge some deep-running differences in ow people define the problem and goals on which collaboration is based but can embrace the difficulties of entering a cultural contact zone,” according to Flower. “In the nonprofit industry, the services that are trying to make the most impact are related to the challenges of the community that are in the need of the greatest reform: poverty, hunger, homelessness, substance abuse, mental disorders and by recognizing the sensitivity of the nature of these social issues, the next logical step is taking into consideration the population the organization is trying to serve.”

Simple outreach activities include providing literature like brochures, materials and giveaway items marketing the program. Organizations use marketing efforts to create collateral that will appeal to target demographics. Marketing and outreach can often be delineated in the same category. Moreover, engaging with the community can also happen within many platforms.

Events and conferences are a key way to connect and build relationships with stakeholders, community members and other organizations. Organizations and agencies supplement the cost of running large-scale events by inviting vendors. While this process sounds like it would be effective, it generally has a different purpose for vendors. In speaking with many community leaders in outreach, their opinion is that tabling conferences and events gives them a chance to interact with new individuals and agencies, also tabling at the event, hoping to incite some behavior change, evolving into engagement, rather than outreach.

Sandy LaCava, Community Development Manager for Southwest Human Development, sees tabling events as a way to build meaningful and purposeful relationships with the other vendors at the event. Additionally, Claire Louge stated that, “Tabling events are fine for establishing a community presence, but not much else unless there is an actionable item that people can do once they visit your table.” These relationships allow the vendors to create actionable items for each other that lead to collaboration and referrals across the nonprofit sector. 

Overall, outreach starts with one fundamental principle: relationships. Building relationships is the first and most important step that a nonprofit professional must continue to curate and circle back to. A nonprofit professional’s work is never done. Building and cultivating relationships with other agencies, organizational partners and community members will impact the outcomes that an organization is trying to reach. Focusing on the outcomes is imperative when trying to utilize outreach methods to engage the community. The focus should not be on how many pamphlets were given out at a specific event, but the amount of individuals that took action based on that event alone. 

Outreach methods are necessary in moving forward with community engagement. Research on the community that one is trying to reach is crucial. The characteristics of the community must be taken into consideration, and the most effective route to take is to include the community in the planning stages. This foresight will in turn assist in creating marketing materials that are efficient and effective for the outreach that is being done. These culturally relevant materials can then be used at outreach opportunities such as events and conferences, presentations and community meetings. By attending and building relationships at these occasions, other opportunities arise that can facilitate community engagement. Nonprofit professionals conducting outreach must ensure that they too are engaged at these events, in order to provide the most effective nonprofit outreach methods that enhance community engagement.

Cambria Bowman is a graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. Bowman is a Judicial Clerk Supervisor at Maricopa County Superior Court.


ASU Lodestar Center Blog