Spring 1986 // Volume 24 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA6

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No Time for Modesty

Visibility is essential to program survival.

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

Benny S. Robbins
Southeast Area Extension Director
Cooperative Extension Service
Chanute, Kansas

External Examination

During the past decade, the Cooperative Extension Service has been subjected to more public scrutiny than at any other time since the passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914. Much of this scrutiny has been motivated, as one report put it, by the view that Extension is "ubiquitous while few people know its extent or scope of activity."1 This lack of public understanding, coupled with a concern over how federal and state monies are spent, has led a number of policymakers and political observers to ask some tough questions.

  • In 1977, during passage of the Food and Agriculture Act, Congress legislated an evaluation of Extension. In turn, this prompted the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP) to name its own task force to evaluate the role and mission of Extension.2
  • In 1981, the General Accounting Office (GAO) looked at the mission and purpose of Extension and how federal dollars were used by this agency.3
  • By 1983, voices of concern increased. Congressmen, administrators with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), members of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, college officials at land-grant institutions, and even some farm organizations began to scrutinize and question Extension's claim on federal, state, and local county monies.4
  • In 1984, two authors from the University of Kentucky-Lexington, Warner and Christenson, published what one reviewer has called the first public assessment of Extension in The Cooperative Extension Service: A National Assessment. This book raised some important issues for Extension professionals as well as for policymakers who control Extension funds.5
  • In March, 1985, Lambro, author of Washington-City of Scandals and a nationally syndicated columnist, published an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Prune Federal Field Offices, the Corner Bureaucracy." In his article, Lambro suggests trimming the federal deficit by eliminating many of the USDA's 17,000 field offices, including some of the 3,147 Extension offices. He points out that although the number of farms is declining, the USDA continues to operate 1 office for every 137 farms-a situation he labels as "rampant duplication." He suggest that Extension has outlived its original purpose and is frantically "scrambling" for new, urban audiences as a means of justifying its continued existence. 6
  • Most recently, Christenson and Warner published an article in the Summer, 1985, Journal of Extension urging us as Extension professionals to tailor more of our programs, especially 4-H, to urban audiences, as cities have seen an increased use of Extension services and this is where the bulk of our population resides.7

Internal Examination

Where is all this leading? At present, we're not certain. But, such a cacophony of criticism has encouraged many Extension professionals to reexamine their program thrusts and audiences. For example, in their recent Journal article, Christenson and Warner assert that since

. . . 4-H youth participation also leads to adult use patterns in other program areas . . . the vitality of future Extension programs depends on a strong 4-H program today.8

Thus, our challenge, according to Christenson and Warner, is to make 4-H more relevant to urban audiences .

. . . The next generation of urban residents won't have rural roots . . . . Unless the 4-H program increases its focus on urban youth, most of those living in cities won't have participated in 4-H programs. 4-H has been a training ground for adult Extension users. Without a strong 4-H youth program targeted toward urban residents, the adult program could suffer.9

Two implications are involved here. First, Christenson and Warner suggest that "urban" is the Extension field of the future. Are urban audiences really the key to Extension's future? Even the authors admit that the rural-to-urban migration pattern of the past few decades appears to be declining, if not reversing itself. 10 Yet, they remain convinced that the future of all Extension begins with urban 4-H programming. In Megatrends, Naisbitt also says that the trend in population is for urban areas to lose numbers in the coming years, not to continue gaining.

The statistics on the rural and small-town boom are significant to the overall pattern of American life. For the first time since 1820, rural areas and small towns are pulling ahead of cities in population growth.11

The second implication is that we should "target" future 4-H programming toward urban residents, thereby ensuring the vitality of other Extension programs. The suggestion, of course, is that 4-H has been aimed at rural audiences in the past, to the exclusion of urban residents. Although that may have been true a number of years ago, it hasn't been true of most states in recent years.

A look at the 4-H program in Kansas, for example, is evidence that we offer a number of programs that cater to urban and small-town youth who can't carry large livestock projects. These include bicycling, photography, dogs, computers, electricity, woodworking, reading, hand pets, geology, entomology, small engines, lawn care, careers, chick embryology, youth and the law, wheat science, home improvement, arts and crafts, and many more. Even in Kansas, widely recognized as one of our most agricultural and rural states, over half of the 4-H members live in urban areas.12

Additionally, the 1980 government evaluation report on Extension points out that "participation in the more traditional 4-H units also is growing in urban areas . . . ."13 4-H is alive and well in the city.

If Extension's future is in 4-H, and if 4-H is doing well in urban areas, we should look back at our rural areas for some clues about the years ahead. As we've already noted, the trend in coming years is for people to move from urban back to rural settings. How well does this augur for the future of Extension?

Again, Naisbitt points out that while urban areas may currently exceed populations in rural areas, there have been some interesting changes as a result of more "ex-urbanites" moving into rural areas:

. . . it is not surprising that the country-living boom has spawned or strengthened organizations that cater to or lobby for rural interests.14 (emphasis added)

Could Extension, especially 4-H, be considered one of these "organizations" that's strengthened? We think so. Naisbitt states that as former urbanites move to the country, they "spread their culture out to rural counties and small towns."15 Isn't it also reasonable to believe, then, that rural people will influence these new arrivals from the city? Those who move to the country may discover outlets they didn't know about before. Perhaps these ex-urbanites will enroll their children in local 4-H Clubs.

Retaining the traditional orientation and offering programs, especially 4-H, to ex-urbanites raises hope that we'll be able to offer things that the city didn't provide. If, as some critics claim, it was unwise to aim our programs at one specific audience (rural), what would be the wisdom of targeting our programs toward another narrowly defined audience (urban) now? What we suggest is that we not "target" our programs to any one group or audience, that we not think in gross terms such as "rural" or "urban," but rather we support our present youth programs and make our presence and role known to all audiences.

Extension's Future

What is the future of Extension? Visibility. We believe that large numbers of Americans benefitdirectly or indirectly-from Extension programs, efforts, and services and may not even know it. New audiences may not be seeking out Extension programs because they don't know of our existence, yet in some cases our programs affect their lives in numerous ways. School children in Neosho County, Kansas, recently participated in the chick embryology project, but few of them or their parents knew that this was an Extension-supported program.

As the 1980 federal evaluation report indicated, few people know what Extension is or what it does. Ours is not so much an audience problem as it is an image problem. In large part, we may be to blame for the lack of public knowledge and awareness of Extension. We need to become more vocal, more visible. In essence, we have to become spokespeople and advocates. We can no longer take our public support for granted. Rather than thinking of programs targeted to specific audiences, perhaps we need to make ourselves and our existing programs more visible to all audiences, regardless of socioeconomic, geographic, or ethnic labels. This isn't a new idea, but the notion of becoming better advertisers may be.

Awareness Steps

Specifically, what can we do to increase awareness of the function and mission of Extension in all communities? While there can be no substitute for hard work and successful programs, we believe the following steps can betaken by all Extension professionals at the local county level to increase our visibility and ensure that the future of Extension is now-and tomorrow.

  1. "United we stand, divided we fall." We need to support each other and each other's programs. Cooperate with co-workers to devise a strong, unified Extension program. No one person or program is more essential than another. Putdowns only lead to breakdowns of the entire organization.
  2. Cooperate with other agencies. Expand our contacts by working with other agencies and groups to accomplish mutual goals. For example, one county in Kansas sponsored a pumpkin growin contest as part of a citywide celebration for Halloween. Another county put together a coop erative effort among the local Chamber of Commerce, Job Service, Kiwanis Club, school districts, and local businesses to sponsor a "Jobs for Youth" workshop to help local youth find summer jobs. Initially, most of these groups didn't understand why 4-H would be involved in such a program, but now they have asked 4-H to provide the leadership again next year.
  3. Use local media. We need to do all we can to cultivate close relationships with the local media. Let them know who you are, inform them about upcoming events, and send press release and copies of the program to reporters who typically report on local interest stories. Call an offer to provide an interview, or send a local volunteer who knows someone on the newspaper staff. Drop by the local newspaper or radio station and visit reporters, volunteering to help them in any way possible. Don't let a publicity opportunity slip by.
  4. Take credit where credit is due. Let organizations know when Extension is providing resources, time, talents, and personnel for a particular program or segment. Stamp all materials with the county name, address, and phone number. Tell people what Extension is: the locally funded informal education program for the country.
  5. Don't be shy. Make our emblems conspicuous on all materials, especially those we might use with new audiences. If we have a part in a program, our logo ought to be as prominent as anyone else's insignia. Demand to be recognized as an equal with other youth-serving organizations. Make yourself seen and heard. Let people know that Extension is working to help them.
  6. A penny spent is a dollar earned. Let the public know how much value they get from the efforts of Extension professionals. For example, last year over 620,000 volunteer leaders worked directly or indirectly with 4-H youth nationwide. These thousands of volunteers are supported by a relative handful of professional staff. The average volunteer donates 220 hours per year in preparing for and teaching today's 4-H youth. For each hour a salaried staff member spends in 4-H, volunteers spend an average of 12 hours. The average volunteer drives 300-400 miles for 4-H in a personally owned car and spends about $50 on teaching materials each year. The estimated value of the total time volunteers-whom we recruit, orient, and train-devote to 4-H is about$1 billion annually! The public benefits greatly from this unpaid time.

    One Kansas county pointed out during their 50th anniversary of Extension that their services cost little, but the benefits were tremendous. County Extension Council funding amounted to only .022% of the total county budget. On the basis of the mill levy, the average county family paid $3.00 for the entire Extension programonly one-fifth of 1 cent for each tax dollar collected. Name another program that provides so much for so little to local residents!

Taking these steps-and others you may come up with on your own-can help inform a larger number of people about the difference Extension makes in their lives and the lives of their children. As Naisbitt points out:

In the city or the country, decentralization empowers you to tackle problems and create change at the local level.16

This is the heart of Extension-local control of programs. Each of us can play an important part at the local level to influence public perceptions and generate grass-roots support to ensure that Extension continues as a strong and viable organization-now and in the future-by helping people to help themselves.


  1. John W. Jenkins, "Historical Overview of Extension," in Evaluation of Economic and Social Consequences of Cooperative Extension Programs, Appendix I (Washington, D.C.: USDA-Science and Education Administration-Extension, 1980), p. 1.
  2. Robert O. Butler, "A National Assessment," Journal of Extension, XXIII (Spring, 1985), 31.
  3. Ibid.
  4. C. Brice Ratchford, "Extension: Unchanging, But Changing," Journal of Extension, XXII (September/October, 1984), 8-15.
  5. Butler, "National Assessment," p. 31.
  6. Wall Street Journal, March 5, 1985, p. 32.
  7. James A. Christenson and Paul D. Warner, "Extension's Future Is Today," Journal of Extension, XXIII (Summer, 1985), 19-20.
  8. Ibid., p. 20.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. John Naisbitt, Megatrends-Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives (New York: Warner Books, 1984), p. 137.
  12. In 1984, Kansas enrollment figures indicated that 25% said they lived on farms, 24% lived in towns less than 10,000, 18% lived in towns between 10,000 and 50,000, and 33% lived in suburbs and central cities over 50, 000.
  13. Jenkins, Evaluation of Economic and Social Consequences, p. 108.
  14. Naisbitt, Megatrends, p. 138.
  15. Ibid., p. 140.
  16. Ibid., p. 141.