Fall 1985 // Volume 23 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA2

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The Dynamic Tension: Professionals and Volunteers

The balance of sharing leadership.

Alan Snider
Professor, Agricultural and Extension Educator
Assistant Extension Director/State 4-H Program Leader
The Pennsylvania State University - University Park

Extension programs are strongest when a partnership and a balance of program ownership and responsibilities exists between Extension professionals and key volunteers. A team of committed, trained volunteers and Extension professionals has more impact on leadership, service, and delivery of programs than the agent who doesn't share ownership and responsibility with trusted volunteers.

Achieving this balance is influenced most by the attitude and actions of Extension professionals. When agents allow volunteers to perform specifically identified program management tasks, formerly conducted by the agent, the volunteer assumes more program ownership. As a result, an agent's image as an educational manager, program developer, and leader is strengthened.

Study on Role and Relationships

The above generalizations evolved from personal interviews with observations of more than 60 volunleers, agents, state and national 4-H staff members in Kansas, Michigan, Oregon, Ohio, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin, while I was on a 3-month sabbatical. The study focused on the role and relationship of 4-H agents working with program management volunteers in clubs, communities, and counties. Visits were made to observe the results of purposeful, planned efforts by agents to involve more key volunteers in program management roles.1

Although the focus of this study was 4-H, the generalizations would readily apply to any Extension program that relies heavily on volunteers for program success. If they're to be fruitful, Extension professionals need time, administrative support, and self-confidence to implement a successful middle-management volunteer effort.

A variety of program management tasks were performed by key volunteers. Examples include:

  1. Services to other volunteers - working directly with other volunteers in areas of recruitment, placement, training, and support.
  2. Administration - providing administrative leadership to activities or program areas such as an activity leader who plans, conducts, and evaluates 4-H events and activities.
  3. Policy - serving on county, area, district, and statewide policy-advising and policy-making groups.

Benefits of Key Volunteer Leadership

In this study, both volunteers and agents cited many benefits in counties where volunteers assume leadership in the 4-H program. Specific benefits cited included: (1) a stronger 4-H program, (2) clearer understanding of 4-H goals, (3) more volunteer ownership, (4) greater program diversity, and (5) increased support for 4-H.

Volunteers cited additional benefits of more leader education, new roles to fill in 4-H, and increased leader confidence to conduct activities without an agent.

This all fits with an Extension philosophy identified by Ratchford. He notes that "whereas Extension has done much for people, it is what Extension has helped people do for themselves that achieves the greatest results."2 Asking volunteers to assume more management responsibilities is consistent with this philosophy.

Observations during the sabbatical study gave further evidence that clientele needs are more adequately met when the programs are planned by a team of volunteers and Extension professionals. This balance of ownership and responsibility between volunteers and Extension professionals clearly leads to stronger programs and can be achieved at all levels of Extension programming.

Agents, on the other hand, find their jobs to be more complex when they share 4-H program management with volunteers. A high level of organizational, program development, and personnel skills is required. Key volunteers expect agents to be strong leaders and educators with effective communication and organizational skills. Extension staff identified an additional required agent characteristic: selfconfidence.

Role of Agent Shifts

Agents identified four roles as they helped volunteers train others, organize and conduct activities, and determine county program direction. When program management tasks are shared, agent roles shifted to:

  1. Enabler. Agents placed greater emphasis on establishing and maintaining a volunteer system. This involved active recruitment, placement, training, support, and recognition.
  2. Educational manager. Agents conducted more leader education programs, including teaching volunteers adult education principles. Also, agents designed educational curriculum for leaders and members that would meet particular county needs.
  3. Program developer. Agents designed more programs and volunteers conducted more of the activities.
  4. Program leader. Agents were able to give primary focus to program direction; they weren't so preoccupied with program maintenance. Thus, professionals could more clearly view the whole picture, provide leadership for the total program, and purposefully move the program in a predetermined direction.

Trust as a Key Factor

Trust was found to be a key factor in the effective partnership between agents and key volunteers. Each must have trust and confidence in each other for a strong, working relationship to exist. The partnership is strongest when a common or mutual need is addressed.

As program management tasks are shared, volunteers experience more ownership for the program. This sharing creates a dynamic tension between agent and volunteers. Below are two aspects of such a working relationship and their possible implications.

Program Ownership Shifts to Volunteers

"Who owns the 4-H program?" This central question emerged when the agent-volunteer role was studied. I observed that the more volunteers were involved in program management, the more they experienced ownership and the more committed they became to the program. Studies have shown the correlation between ownership and commitment. Peters and Waterman in In Search of Excellence point out:

Psychologists study the need for self-determination in a field called "illusion of control." Stated simply, its findings indicate that if people think they have even modest personal control over their destinies, they will persist at tasks. They will do better at them. They will become more committed to them.3

When volunteers feel more ownership of the program, one of the key actions facing the agent is "letting go" of the program.

Dynamic Tension Between Agents and Volunteers

A dynamic tension exists between the agent and volunteers for control, responsibility, authority, and ownership of the 4-H program. When both share leadership, there's a balance. Adapting an idea from Conrad,4 the following figure illustrates this tension.

However, if the balance is not equal, that is, the agent controls the program, the agent is doing more, resulting in minimum volunteer involvement. Volunteers have less commitment to the program.

On the other hand, if volunteers have such a commanding control of the program that the agent's influence is limited, then the program runs a risk of becoming too self-serving to the personal interests of the volunteer leaders. The agent's role becomes reactive (being told what to do) rather than proactive.

Agents play a key role in managing this tension. A delicate elastic line between the agent and volunteers defines the roles and tasks. As volunteers perform more program management tasks, they want more authority and ownership of the 4-H program.

Both volunteers and agents must recognize and manage this dynamic tension. The tension created can be positive or negative, depending on the individuals involved. I observed mostly positive influences.

Factors Influencing Expanded Volunteer Involvement

Several factors are instrumental in the expanded involvement of key volunteers. The following seem to make a big difference:

  1. Agent self-confidence. A key factor for success of a volunteer leader-centered program is the agent's self-confidence. Agents need self-confidence to allow and enable volunteers to successfully assume more ownership of the program.

  2. Belief in volunteerism. A clear understanding by the agent and Extension administrators in the value of a leader-centered program is a must. This will provide a consistent, purposeful framework needed for implementation.

  3. Strong support system. It's important that the agent is supported and encouraged by the staff chairperson, state staff, administrators, and peers. An agent needs support and encouragement to take the risk of involving others. Mistakes will be made. Greater progress will be made, however, if professionals view mistakes as growth opportunities-opportunities for those involved to assess what happened and to decide the next step.

    One of the paradoxes that challenges Extension is that many agents are evaluated and receive recognition for how well countywide events and activities are conducted and in some cases, for the "up-front" role agents play. When volunteers conduct these programs, with agents giving support in the background, the challenge is to understand and see the hidden contribution and the changing role of Extension agents. It may, therefore, be necessary to re-examine some of the criteria for evaluating agent performance.

  4. Starting small to learn. The principle of starting small, learning from a test, and applying that knowledge to other parts of the program was a common practice. The concept of expanding programs by involving volunteers in program management tasks is complex. It's important to test the concept in a situation so the agent, volunteers, and legitimizers can understand the concept and learn all parts of the system.

  5. Realizing it takes years to develop. Agents and state staff agree it takes from five to seven years for the concept of middle-management volunteers to be incorporated into a system. This assumes the same agent works with the program during that time.

  6. Bringing legitimizers along. It's necessary to involve 4-H legitimizers in the initiation and development process. Legitimizers include such people as the active 4-H volunteers, 4-H secretary, and staff chairperson.

  7. Careful volunteerselection. Careful selection of key volunteers is essential. Desirable characteristics include recognition by peers as a leader, understanding 4-H objectives, effective communication skills, and qualifications and/or experiences for the job to be done.

What Are the Limitations or Precautions?

"It sounds good! Why isn't it being done more?"First, change involves risk. Allowing volunteers to take more ownership in the program is a change involving many.

Second, it's difficult to develop and lead a complex leader-led 4-H program as an entry-level Extension agent. A strong, self-confident agent is needed to search for volunteers more skilled than the agent in performing certain tasks. If the administration doesn't include "enabler of volunteers" in the job expectations for the agent, it can limit the development of a leader-centered program.

A third factor is the time needed to establish the program. Since others have to "buy into" the program, it takes time.for the idea to be understood and the change initiated and accepted.

A fourth factor is the size of the county. In some smaller counties, a complex volunteer management system may not be needed. However, the concept of greater volunteer ownership of programs in their local community and countywide activities designed to support those local community programs is still valid, whatever the size program.


Key volunteer leader involvement in program management roles is and can strengthen the 4-H program around the country. Many Extension professionals are getting outstanding results as a consequence of sharing leadership in accomplishing important 4-H objectives.

Extension agents play a major role in the direction and leadership of the 4-H program. Their educational and leadership impact is expanded through the involvement of effective volunteers who take more ownership of the program. However, effective skills are needed by agents to successfully manage a 4-H program involving key volunteer leaders. One of those vital skills is enabling other people and being willing to share responsibility with volunteers.


  1. A report of the sabbatical was prepared by Alan Snider, Key Volunteers Strengthen the 4-H Program (Corvallis: Oregon State University, 1984).
  2. Brice Ratchford, "Extension: Unchanging, But Changing," Journal of Extension, XXII (September/October, 1984), 11.
  3. Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr., In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), p. 80.
  4. William Conrad, Jr., and William Glenn, The Effective Voluntary Board of Directors (Athens, Ohio: Shallow Press, 1983).