Questioning the concept of ‘outreach’

Have you ever questioned the concept of outreach? Mona Bani, youth worker and Strategic Director at May Project Gardens asks: Who are we ‘outreaching to’ and why are they on the outside in the first place?

When you work in the youth sector, or charity sector more broadly, there are constant discussions about effective ‘outreach’. Funders request proof that you’ll include activities to reach those most ‘in need’ of your work. There seems to be a growing consensus that ‘diversity’ among your beneficiaries is a sign of success – the more boxes you tick on the equalities forms, the higher your scores.

To start with, this approach seems to suggest two things: 1) your activities are designed first and then you go looking for participants who need them, and 2) the people doing the outreach are naturally on the outside of the groups they’re trying to reach.

From personal experience working across the sector, more often than not, both of these are true.

Whose needs are we meeting?

Working with ‘marginalised’ young people, I regularly meet organisations that have designed a programme, secured funding and are now stressed about finding enough people to attend. The most striking example I’ve come across was an organisation that had gotten funding to work specifically with young refugees to raise awareness of food waste and environmentalism.

As both food waste and refugees are hot topics for funders at the moment, it seemed that a programme combining both was the holy grail of funding bids – now they just needed to find young people to benefit from it.

The issue was that the staff had no evidence that food waste was a problem amongst young refugees, no experience of working with them or any understanding of their lives. In reality, the refugees had no income, stable accommodation, or food to waste; and for young people battling PTSD, anxiety about their immigration status, or whether they’d ever see their families again, considering the environmental impact of their diets didn’t feature highly on their priority list. ‘Outreach’ like this is meaningless and misguided, when the fundamental needs are not what’s driving the project.

This is clearly an extreme case but one that highlights the lengths organisations will go to when seeking funding; and what funders will approve when they see their own requirements matched.

Similarly, I meet a lot of well-meaning, well-resourced individuals who all want to ‘set something up’ to help inner city youth/refugees/struggling communities’. Although it’s usually well intended and their assessment that particular groups are struggling is fair, they often have no direct experience of the issue they’re trying to address. They’re starting with their own needs – their need to be involved, to be seen to be doing the ‘right thing’, to ease guilt, to diversify or find meaning in their lives, or even to establish a respectable career. These people then expend a lot of energy validating their projects by engaging in outreach and trying to connect with the groups they want to support. Often, rather than helping, this can even undermine the work of people who have been active in the field for years, often with very little recognition or remuneration. Energy and resources would be better used if offered to an existing under-resourced project, with an established reputation and relationships with the people they’re serving.

This mindset also assumes that marginalised groups are just sitting around, with nothing to do or no understanding of their own needs, just waiting to be ‘outreached to’. As though the only thing stopping them from improving their lives is that no one has designed a programme for them yet.

In contrast, projects like food banks don’t struggle with outreach. They exist as a reaction to a genuine need – not because they applied for funding and now need to fill their spaces. Food banks will have succeeded when they no longer exist, not when high numbers of diverse groups of people are using their services.

Shifting power and resources

Finally, the needs of those we want to help might not fit an exciting, on-trend activity programme where children learn to recycle through the medium of yoga or where the desired outcomes fit neatly into 12 weekly sessions, which culminate in a showcase, ready to be posted on social media. If asked, they might just want the toilets in their community centre fixed or have unrestricted funds to cover ad-hoc childcare. But these things aren’t exciting to promote. They don’t fit the briefs of most funders and aren’t what your average young professional, looking for a project in the charity sector, wants to get involved with.

An obsession with surface level social mixing then becomes a smoke screen for much deeper inequalities. People in liberal circles who are seen to occupy ‘the mainstream’ almost see it as their duty to prove they’re trying to diversify their social circles or workplaces. But maybe instead of ensuring every room is filled with people from all backgrounds, it’s more important to ensure everyone shares the same privileges, regardless of what rooms they’re in. A socially diverse boardroom, for example, doesn’t change the fact that there’s a board room in the first place. It’s still keeping power to a minority, just a more diverse minority.

Tips for funders

 Allow for open applications where projects have the freedom to communicate their own needs.

Where possible, spend time with projects you’re funding and in areas you’re supporting. Funders should take the time, and use their salaried staff to understand us, not make us take time to understand you.

Don’t just look at the diversity of beneficiaries. Look at the diversity of management bodies and most importantly, your own decision making staff team.

Don’t be fooled by new fancy sounding projects with the right buzz. Often the normal youth centre, which simply offers a safe space, rather than an ‘innovative’ ‘entrepreneurial’ approach to youth work, is best placed to serve vulnerable young people.

Encouraging programmes which rely heavily on formalised volunteering continues to reinforce this dynamic of well meaning, more privileged individuals, with the resources to work for free, reaching out to those who don’t. By funding paid roles, the exact people you’re trying to support, could afford to run the programmes you fund.

Help Refugees are a great example of a funder who leverage their privileges where it counts – to redistribute unrestricted funds to grassroots organisations with no preset ideas of how it should be spent or time-consuming reporting mechanisms. They treat you as an equal partner, not as a beneficiary and draw upon your expertise.