Outreach: Bringing Order to the List

September 20, 2016

I suspect this conversation happens regularly:

  • Grant proposal writer: I am writing a grant and I have to write an outreach section. Any tips on what I should put in?
  • Writer’s colleague: You do a ton with the camps and departmental programming, so just list all of the stuff you do over the summer, and you’ll have it covered.
  • Grant proposal writer: Oh, that’s it? I can do that. Thanks.

So, what’s wrong with that conversation? It was friendly, supportive, and specific.

But, if followed, the grant proposal writer has created a section on outreach activities. So, lots of “what” without any “why.” And grant proposal reviewers want to know and understand the why, in part because they want to make sure the why matches up with the sponsor’s.

So, what should the grant proposal writer do?

Write the list

If you are already doing outreach, go ahead and write the list of things you do. Just give a few sentences about each thing you do, how often it happens, and what the group is with which you are working. When you are done, find the pattern. There is a “why” in every list. Even a grocery list has one (which is “if these aren’t bought, eating at home won’t happen.”). With outreach, the “why” appropriate for a grant is “because it solves an educational issue/need I feel strongly about.”

Select the Issue/Need

The pattern should show you something about an educational issue/need in your field about which you feel strongly. Maybe the field isn’t introduced to students enough until they arrive at college, making it hard to get students up to speed during their undergraduate education. Maybe it is that companies don’t understand the potential of your field. Maybe you want to encourage more members of an underrepresented group to join your field. Maybe your field is new, and you want the public to understand its importance and impact on their lives. Maybe you want more of your field to be available as part of an eLearning program.

If a pattern doesn’t emerge, go ahead and ask yourself what you would most like to change about your field’s current educational situation. Remember, the only way to go wrong here is to focus on what you think sponsors want you to care about rather than what you actually care about.

That being said, if you don’t see a pattern, take a minute and talk to a colleague (or your friendly Research Development/Sponsored Project staff member), and see if there is one you may be missing. The advantage of finding a pattern among the things you already do is that you’ve built a track record of outreach activities related to your educational issue/need.

Sponsors who require an outreach plan want a plan that:

  • Improves student education at more than just the graduate level
  • Increases diversity of students in the field
  • Benefits society[i] as a whole

So, any of the maybes above could assist you in developing appropriate outreach activities.

Research the Issue

So, yes, creating an outreach plan is very similar to creating a research plan. And now it is time for you to research the educational literature and see what others have done in this area. NSF MSPnet and ERIC are both searchable databases of education research articles, which can help. Also, see if your field has an educational journal. Not only will you learn factors you need to consider when developing your program (for example, how senior citizens react to social media), but it may also give you an idea of a program you want to develop. No sponsor expects you to invent an outreach program in a bubble; sponsors would much rather you implement a program locally that was successful elsewhere.

If you have already been working with partners, they may already have done a lot of this research. It is worth reaching out and discussing this with them. Remember this is their research agenda. They can give you a lot of information about the science behind their methods.

If you don’t have a partner, this is a good time to contact me and ask if there is a group on campus with which you can partner. There are many offices on campus that do outreach and are happy to have researchers work with them to develop programming.

There are a few real advantages to working with a partner if you aren’t already. In addition to the more obvious reason that they have the expertise, access to the population, and evaluation methods you need for your outreach to be successful, working with them also shows the sponsor that your plan aligns with the needs and mission of UT Dallas.

Keep in mind, one of the first things your potential partner is going to ask you is, “What do you want to do?” For best results, have at least a vague plan before you contact them.

Write the Plan

You have your issue and you have your research on that issue, and now you are ready to write the plan. Remember, everything you do is in order to solve your education issue. Because now each piece is part of a larger pattern, the write-up is very similar to your research plan.

The introduction to your plan should quickly set up the educational issue you are addressing. Briefly highlight what research has been done that supports your plan. Then, explain the individual activities and plans you have in order to solve the issue. Make sure you have measureable goals, like how many students do you want in your lab, how many public outreach events you want to do a year, or how many presentations you will do in classrooms of school districts with a high minority enrollment. To the best of your ability, be specific about numbers, goals, and what you are going to do to make them[ii].

This is going to take up more space than might currently be allotted for your outreach plan. Depending on the solicitation, your outreach plan should be at least 20% of the application.

You will discover after you have gone through this exercise that if outreach opportunities surface, you will have an easier time deciding if you want to do them or not, as you can decide if they help you achieve your goal.

So, if a colleague asks you what to put in a grant proposal outreach plan, you have a friendly, supportive, specific, and (most importantly) sponsor-friendly answer to give.

[i] “Society” is a word defined by the grant writer. With very, very few exceptions, whatever your research, there are people who will be impacted by your research and those who will not. Trying to figure out an outreach plan that impacts the entire world is a fool’s errand.

[ii] I have blogged about this before, but your research plan and your outreach plan should have the same level of logistical detail. Reviewers assume if one section is very detailed and one is not, it is because the less detailed plan is not well-developed.

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