Fall 1985 // Volume 23 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA4

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The Challenge of Retaining 4-H Members

Using the new family coordinator to improve the 4-H program.

Kirk A. Astroth
Extension Specialist, Southeast, 4-H and Youth Program Development
Southeast Area Extension Office
Kansas State University - Chanute

Volunteers - without them, the 4-H program couldn't work. In our 21-county area of southeast Kansas, volunteers have helped identify and implement a new middle-management position to increase 4-H member retention in local clubs. Through the development of a new family coordinator position in each club, our program has improved and agent time is used to train several key volunteers. The role of the agent has become one of training trainers who work with adults and 4-Hers.

Enrollment Analysis

A county-by-county analysis of enrollment figures the last few years indicated some surprising similarities. 4-H has had no real problem attracting new families to the program in most counties. In Montgomery County, for example, the 10-year average of new 4-H members joining local clubs was 119-about one-fourth the entire county membership. In all these years, no membership drives were conducted. 4-H appeared to be selling itself well enough, but the problem was that for many people, it never delivered what they wanted.

Despite the large number of new members each year, local clubs weren't growing; neither were new clubs forming. What was happening to all these new members?

Taking the last 10 years as our base, our enrollment figures showed that we were losing 40%-50% of our new members within the first year. During the second year, we were losing another 20%. But, if a family survived until the third year, they were more stable and tenure increased.

Retention, Not Enrollment Problem

Recognizing that we had a retention problem, and notan enrollment problem, new families were surveyed to find out what was causing these high casualty figures. Most indicated that one or more of the following were major factors in leaving 4-H:

  • Lack of an understanding of the 4-H program, its goals, activities, events, and time commitment.
  • Moved.
  • Never felt welcome or a part of the group.
  • Conflicting time commitments.
  • Project groups didn't meet often and/or frequently enough to satisfy children.

Parents' Committee Involvement

Obviously, these problems needed to be addressed at the local club level, and the agent couldn't take the time to visit each club. So, in cooperation with the area office, we called a meeting of all Parents' Committee members in a county. Club Parents' Committees consist of three members who, at present, serve an indefinite term and in many counties are largely inactive. In many cases, this inactivity is due to an uncertainty about what this committee is supposed to do. Our thought was to help this group in each club identify the major club problems they felt they, as a committee, could address. What could they do to enhance the quality of the 4-H experience in their club?

Using the group problem-solving process and brainstorming techniques with these volunteers, a division of labor was established between club leaders and the Parents' Committee. Club leaders would handle most of the "kid" issues, while Parents' Committee members would handle "adult" issues.

The New Family Coordinator

The first important position the committee members identified was someone to orient new families and serve as a contact person for them. Thus, the new family coordinator position was created. We recognized that we had the skeleton of a system to address this problem-but it was just that: a skeleton. Through involving volunteers in the problemsolving process, we were able to breathe some life into the system.

At a follow-up meeting, each club Parents' Committee was asked to send one person to a training session for new family coordinators. At this training, we discussed the need for this position, developed a specific job description, and a term of office. Each coordinator also received an extensive training packet. In this packet were a number of pamphlets and handouts designed to help orient new families to the 4-H way.

In addition, each coordinator received a detailed teaching outline of six sessions that should be held with all new families throughout the year. These six lessons were designed to prepare new families for upcoming events before they were overwhelmed by them. Where and when these sessions with new families are held has been left up to the coordinators. We recommend some time immediately following the club meetings; others indicated they planned to make home visits to each new family.

Each coordinator was also given a copy of the county New Family Handbook, which details the purposes and goals of 4-H, discusses county events and activities, and answers questions about such things as model meetings, club days, county camp, the yearly achievement banquet, and the county fair. The New Family Handbook was developed by the county 4-H advisory group.

Benefits of New System

By developing this kind of a volunteer system, several benefits have resulted. Parents' Committees have begun to assume a more active role in club affairs and committee members feel a sense of purpose. Club leaders have also reported increased satisfaction because of their diminished work level. They now know that they can concentrate on organizational issues.

These coordinators also have indicated that they appreciate receiving specific responsibilities against which they can measure their successes. Finally, agent time is used more effectively by training volunteers to work with people in each club. In the past, as our enrollment figures showed, this job had to be done by the agent or, more typically, it didn't get done at all.

Although it's still too early to determine how well this system has worked, new families have reported a greater sense of satisfaction and belonging. In the year ahead, we'll be collecting more data from other counties that are implementing this new family coordinator position. We expect to see our retention rate increase.

Future Challenge

The challenge for us in the future, too, is to address the needs of families after the first year. Second-year retention rates can also be improved. What kind of program can we design to meet the needs of families who survive the first year of 4-H? In the meantime, we're busy training the other members of the club Parents' Committee to handle other problems volunteers identified. Training these leaders will also have a favorable impact on member retention.

We're excited about how well this program appears to be working and how we can expand it into other areas. The challenge, of course, is to provide periodic training to our adult volunteers and ensure we have an adequate recognition program for their efforts towards "making the best better."1


  1. The author wishes to recognize the contributions of the following for supplying ideas and information for this article: Brian A. Swisher, Montgomery County 4-H agent; Lisa S. Ramsey, Lyon County 4-H agent; Shelly K. McColm, Linn County 4-H agent; and David E. Kehler, Butler County 4-H agent.