From "reach out" to "outreach"

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In response to "May I ask you a question?" (6/12/17), we've been having an energetic discussion about the origins and meaning of the expression "reach out", culminating (as of this moment) in Nick Kaldis' good question:

This topic causes an interesting related neologism to come to mind: when did “outreach” come into currency? Our campus has, for instance, a “Community Outreach” office.

So now the question is, when did "reach out" morph into "outreach"?  Or was it the other way around?  Are the two expressions intimately intertwined?  Judging from the timeline that I will present below, it is my impression that "reach out" and "outreach" became popular around the same time, especially in the 90s.

When I came to Penn in 1979, I do not remember that the regional studies centers (South Asia, Middle East, etc.) had formal "outreach" offices, at least not by that name.  Throughout the 80s, outreach activities increased, but I still don't recall that regional studies centers at Penn and other comparable universities around the country had offices that were designated as responsible for "outreach".

By the 90s, however, outreach offices were popping up everywhere.  I asked several colleagues who were involved with them when they became popular and whether they were mandated by the federal government which provided the funds for Title VI centers (i.e., National Resource Centers).

Richard Cohen, who was the Title VI director for the South Asian Studies Center at Penn for a number of years after I arrived, then moved to a similar position at the University of Pittsburgh and is now coordinating areas studies programs at the University of Virginia, replied as follows:

The Title VI office in the US Dept. of Education began to pressure the Title VI centers around 1987 or shortly thereafter to put together organized outreach programs. A review of the Title VI programs by Congress had concluded that the Title VI centers weren't spreading their knowledge wide enough through the American public, especially into the secondary school systems. From 1987 and going forward, the success of a Title VI center's proposal in 1991, 1995 and 1999, and after as well (but slightly less so) often depended on how vigorous and effective was its outreach program.

What was behind all of this "reaching out" and "outreach"?  Judging from the comments to the "May I ask you a question?" post, AT&T was instrumental in popularizing the practice of "reaching out" in the late 80s and 90s.  But where did AT&T get the idea for promoting this touchy-feeliness?

I'm not a social scientist, so I cannot say for sure, but it seems from the contexts in which "reaching out" and "outreach" both arose (e.g., police departments reaching out to the community, university regional studies centers providing outreach programs for community schools), this kind of language would have developed in the context of sociology and social work.  Perhaps some of our readers who have a background in those fields may be able to say with greater certainty whether my supposition is basically correct.


  1. Jonathan Lundell said,

    June 13, 2017 @ 7:23 pm

    Wrong field, but can't help thinking of the Four Tops.

  2. John Burke said,

    June 14, 2017 @ 12:32 am

    I began hearing "outreach" around Left-wing organizations as early as the mid-70s. And I heard "reach out [to]" used as a synonym for "telephone" on the TV cop show "NYPD Blue" in the 80s.

  3. John Swindle said,

    June 14, 2017 @ 1:31 am

    I associate the term "outreach" with social services. I was an outreach worker in a health care program for low-income families in Hawaii as early as 1974. We didn't invent the term. Our job titles were something fancier, but we called ourselves outreach workers so people would know what we were talking about. The current Wikipedia article describes this meaning of "outreach." How different is the new meaning of "outreach" in academia?

  4. Bev Rowe said,

    June 14, 2017 @ 5:52 am

    Well, we can all look at the OED. The sense "The activity of an organization in making contact and fostering relations with people unconnected with it, esp. for the purpose of support or education and for increasing awareness of the organization's aims or message; the fact or extent of this activity." goes back to1899.

  5. Ralph Hickok said,

    June 14, 2017 @ 6:01 am

    Of course, at some point "outreach" leads to "intake."

  6. SamC said,

    June 14, 2017 @ 8:20 am

    I work in an office setting and prefer "reach out" for situations where I'm going to be contacting people but the methods are nebulous or varied. For instance, I'll tell my boss "OK, I'll call her later" if I know I'll have a phone call with someone, but if I'm not sure whether I'll reach someone by email, phone, text, IM, then it's "I'll make sure to reach out to her." "Reaching out" is similar to contacting for me – a more human alternative to "making contact" (which sounds like encountering aliens) or the more straightforward "contact" which sounds too technical or direct.

  7. Wulf Losee said,

    June 14, 2017 @ 5:00 pm

    Google's NGRAM viewer suggests that "outreach" was used sporadically during the 19th Century, increasing in usage during the early 20th Century, and taking off as a frequently used term in the late 1960's. Some or all of the 19th Century occurrences may be false positives derived from the (mis)scanning of poorly-printed books. Unfortunately the NGRAM viewer's utility is limited in that it cannot bring up a picture of the text in question. But it's pretty clear that outreach had been percolating as a term long before it became commonly used in the late 20th Century.

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 15, 2017 @ 7:36 pm

    A lot of the early 20th century hits for "outreach" involve a very different (and perhaps now obsolete?) sense of the word, seen in examples like "the crane is capable of lifting a weight of 150 tons at an outreach of 72 ft. [and] of 30 tons at an outreach of 140 ft." or "This would necessitate davits with tremendous outreach because in their opinion the boats must be made to clear the side of the ship even at the waterline."

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