Many organizations look for ways to contribute to their local community, but getting started may be the hardest part. In this post, we'll talk about how to ease into an outreach initiative and encourage its success.
About a year ago, Red Hat’s internal creative agency, the Open Studio, decided to share its knowledge about filmmaking, creative writing and business soft skills with Raleigh high school students. We knew that exposure and mentorship are crucial to creative and professional growth and we wanted to pass some of our knowledge and experience on. From January to April 2020, we visited a local high school each week to lead creative sessions and in February, the students visited the Red Hat headquarters in downtown Raleigh, N.C. to learn about the different roles in marketing and communications.
We still have a long way to go, and are by no means in a position yet to recount all the ways we may have helped students. (We’ll also need to do some thinking about a possible virtual implementation given the pandemic.) But for those who may be looking for ways to give back, I’d like to relay some tips for how to start a corporate outreach initiative.
1. Just reach out
I admit, I procrastinated reaching out to schools because I was terrified I’d be breaking some obscure corporate or district rule. It’s true, there can be a lot of red tape. But if you find the right partner—for example, we worked with a community specialist within the local high school in Raleigh, NC—you’ll be able to design your effort within the confines of specific rules.
2. Call whatever you are doing a “pilot”
Back in January, when the team got lesson plans down on paper and started leading sessions at the school each week, we weren’t going around saying, “Hey, we have this new program.” Instead, we used the word “pilot.” This word put less pressure on the team to be perfect. “Pilot” implies you are in a research phase—that you are testing things out, well aware of all the learning that needs to be done. It’s a humble way to introduce your idea to the world. Like saying, Hey, this is by no means a finished product, but there’s something good here that could be great one day.
3. Grab the people whose eyes light up
Before I discovered other Red Hatters who were also interested in creative outreach, I found myself in these awkward one-on-one meetings with colleagues, trying to make a case for how much this kind of community work was needed. Come on, join me, why wouldn’t you?
Not everyone will be into the idea. Don’t try and force it on anyone. A lot of people already have their own ways of giving back. Plus, outreach is optional work. It’s in addition to full workloads. Commitment needs to be intrinsically motivated. Shop the idea around until you find people you don’t have to convince.
4. Try to get at least one senior (or senior-ish) employee on the team
Red Hat is an open organization, which means we try to be as non-hierarchical as possible. Employees at all levels are empowered to make decisions. Still, having a senior employee in on a new idea can give a group more confidence. There’s something terrifying about starting something new—let alone something that involves an outside establishment like a public school. A more senior employee might be able to offer the team advice based on experience leading teams, and connections to other senior leaders in the organization.
5. Don't make it about you
The goal of outreach is to help people. You might have an idea of how to do this, but be ready to revise your vision based on feedback from the people you’re trying to serve. For example, the team was most excited about the filmmaking and creative writing aspects of the effort. But once we got involved with the school, we learned that teachers and students wanted more guidance on professional development. So for our next iteration, we’re going to increase our emphasis on marketable skills.
6. Be highly sensitive
When I started working in marketing about six years ago, I had to learn to go against my natural inclination to have every little detail of a project planned out. With outreach work, though, a level of overthinking can be beneficial—maybe even necessary.
Whether you’re working with an outside group, introducing a new idea internally, working with young people, etc., it’s important to think things through as much as possible before you act. Now is the time to ask all the questions and be your most thoughtful self.