Fall 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA3

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Carving a Niche


Robert M. Ritchie
Associate Professor
Department of 4-H Youth
Purdue University
West Lafayette, Indiana

Michael H. Stitsworth
Assistant Professor
Department of 4-H Youth
Purdue University
West Lafayette, Indiana

"The story goes that three umpires disagreed about the task of calling balls and strikes. The first one said, 'I calls them as they is.' The second one said, 'I calls them as I sees them.' The third and cleverest umpire said, 'They ain't nothin' till I calls them.'"1

The third umpire rather neatly illustrates a key element in organizational life - the important role people play in creating their organizational climate. Karl Weick says that in times of budget-related crisis, institutions normally characterized by objectivity, facts, figures, and accountability may react to crises with abstractions, inventions, making do, and arbitrariness until the emergency has passed. Many organizations, he claims, act and react on the basis of "How can I know what I think until I see what I say?"2

In the face of downsizing, Extension can't afford to assume such a posture. Rather, Extension must respond swiftly and decisively to the staffing problems posed by downsizing to maintain a quality 4-H program.

In this article, we discuss incorporation of paid paraprofessionals into the county 4-H staffing model as one alternative to the problems caused by reduction in the number of professional youth agent positions. First, we describe the niche of paraprofessionals in the 4-H program. Next, we identify and describe eight major roles and responsibilities necessary to conduct a county 4-H program. Finally, using these identified functions, we delineate the roles of county 4-H personnel, including professional agents, paraprofessionals, and adult volunteers.

Role of Paraprofessionals

Changing Times for Paraprofessionals

Paraprofessionals have been used extensively for a number of years in urban 4-H, EFNEP, and urban gardening programs-usually with well-defined job descriptions. Their use in the conventional 4-H program has become widespread only in recent years as a reaction to federal budget cuts, but these newly hired paraprofessionals frequently lack clear role definitions.

Paraprofessionals have been used sporadically in the 4-H program for many years, but usually only for short-term projects, to fill temporary vacancies, or achieve program expansion without increasing the number of professional staff.3 In contrast, a recent survey of state 4-H program leaders conducted by the Department of 4-H and Youth at Purdue University indicated a new trend toward hiring paraprofessionals on a long-term basis to fulfill responsibilities previously performed by Extension youth agents. Simply put, they're now being hired to maintain the 4-H program rather than to expand it.

Paraprofessionals: Neither Apples nor Oranges

Many Extension agents, unaccustomed to working with paraprofessional staff, are reluctant to give away responsibilities.4 Administratively, the agent's closest experience to delegating responsibilities has been in using adult volunteer leaders. Yet, it's critical that paraprofessionals not be just paid volunteers - they must be much more to fill the role for which their position was created.

Just what is a paraprofessional? The prefix para comes from the Greek word meaning beside - as in working beside a professional. Although we don't propose to equate paraprofessionals with professional Extension agents, we hasten to point out that neither should they be sub-professionals - second-class citizens. In the absence of direction, the paraprofessional is in a difficult position-neither professional nor volunteer.

For the purpose of this discussion, we define a paraprofessional as a paid employee, supervised by a professional Extension agent, who helps the agent perform selected management functions and who works with volunteers to deliver programs and activities that don't require specific subject-matter expertise in representing the university.

Roles/Responsibilities of 4-H Program

We have identified eight major roles or responsibilities necessary for planning and conducting a county 4-H program. These functions, who's responsible, and a brief description of tasks are listed below and summarized in Table 1.

Program Leadership

One Extension agent charged with 4-H duties (even if shared with other program areas) must be responsible for this role. Tasks include the articulation of long-term goals and objectives, program direction, meeting emerging needs, and coordination of paid staff, volunteers, parents, and members. This agent is the spokesperson for the 4-H program, supervisor of other paid 4-H staff, and responsible for affirmative action compliance.

Program Planning

This function is the responsibility of an Extension agent. Duties entail working with 4-H advisory committees to identify needs and to set program priorities. Also included is development and implementation of an evaluation and accountability plan.

Curriculum Development

The agent, along with the paraprofessional, should define the 4-H curriculum and develop and implement its accompanying programs, projects, and activities.

Volunteer Development

Primary leadership for volunteer development may lie with either an agent or a paraprofessional. Key elements include recruitment, training, supervision, and recognition of volunteers.

Audience Development

Either paraprofessionals or volunteers can take responsibility for marketing the 4-H program and servicing the 4-H audience with emphasis on recruiting, recognizing, and retaining members.

Resource Development

Paraprofessionals or volunteers should actively work with public and private donors to secure cash and in-kind contributions to support the county 4-H program.

Program Visibility

A plan must be developed whereby paraprofessionals or volunteers work with the mass media to ensure maximum program visibility with special emphasis on 4-H week.

Special Programs/Interagency Linkages

Responsibility for implementing special programs to meet emerging needs lies with agents, along with paraprofessionals, volunteers, or special task forces, depending on the nature of the programs. Examples include working with handicapped or disadvantaged youths, substance abuse prevention, or latchkey programs.

Role Definition: Who Does What?

Agent Ultimately Responsible

Some people might argue that the total 4-H program responsibility should be turned over to paraprofessionals. We disagree. It's important that the overall program remains the responsibility of an Extension agent, even if it's necessary for that agent to carry dual program assignments. Numerous studies list the chief functions of an Extension 4-H agent as program planning, development, and implementation.5 Minimally, an Extension agent should be solely responsible for the program leadership and program planning functions of the 4-H program, and should play a major role in curriculum development.

Why? Because the Extension agent is uniquely associated with the land-grant university. With that standing comes credibility in working with Extension-related groups, government leaders, and other clientele. In addition, an agent possesses academic subject-matter expertise and may have training in the social sciences. Under the agent's direction, paraprofessionals should be capable of assuming major leadership for the remaining roles and responsibilities related to the county 4-H program.

Paraprofessionals' Major Responsibilities

No doubt, there are some advantages to hiring a local resident as a 4-H paraprofessional. A local person is likely to be familiar with the program and with county residents. Likewise, most counties will have a number of qualified individuals from whom to choose.

But, promoting an outstanding local 4-H leader within his/her own ranks is also fraught with potential problems. This is particularly true if other volunteers perceive their promoted colleague as performing tasks they themselves perform as volunteers - and yet receiving pay.

Therefore, it's critical that paraprofessionals not replace volunteers. In his research, Kiesow described a hierarchical youth program staff model in which the volunteer position remained at its present level and the youth agent moved up the hierarchy to make room for the paraprofessional.6 Like agents, paraprofessionals should "give away" as many of their duties as possible, acting as what Wilson calls an "enabler" to get things done by using volunteers.7

Conversely, a potential danger is an eventual legal challenge by the paraprofessional who sees his/herself performing the same tasks as an Extension agent, but without the same salary and benefits. A number of grievances were filed in the early days of the EFNEP program that resulted in judgments in favor of the paraprofessionals. It's critical, therefore, that the paraprofessional be thought of as an extension of and responsible to an agent with 4-H responsibility - not a replacement.

As a paid employee, you can expect to get a certain amount of organizational allegiance, continuity, and special skills from a paraprofessional. We think consideration should be given to hiring paraprofessionals with four-year degrees, provided this academic training is used to support the roles and responsibilities delineated earlier, not to function as subject-matter educators.

Role of the Volunteer

What's left for the volunteer to do? Plenty! Paraprofessionals should derive nearly all their job roles/responsibilities from the tasks previously performed by an Extension agent, not from traditional volunteer functions.8 Volunteers should continue to work with Extension agents and paraprofessionals in all aspects of the 4-H program, but particularly in curriculum implementation, audience development, resource development, and program visibility. Volunteers must be on the front line, working with young people at the club level.

Table 1. Roles/responsibilities and leadership.

Role/responsibility Primary
What is included
Program leadership Professionals Develop program goals &
objectives; coordinate/
articulate total program;
supervise paraprofessionals
Program planning Professionals Identify needs; set
priorities; develop, implement,
& evaluate programs
Define curriculum;
develop & implement
supporting programs,
projects, & events
Professionals or
Recruitment, training, supervision,
& recognition of volunteers
or volunteers
Market program; identify, recruit,
recognize, & retain audiences
or volunteers
Secure public & private program
Program visibility Paraprofessionals
or volunteers
Cooperate with media to enhance
status & effectiveness of
program in community
Special programs/
interagency linkages
Professionals or
paraprofessionals or
special task forces
or volunteers
Develop special programs to meet
special needs of community, families,
& youth


No one-best formula exists for adding paraprofessionals to the county 4-H staff. One thing's certain - as counties lose the services of agent FTE's committed to conducting the 4-H program, paraprofessionals can help fill the gap and make valuable contributions.

But, to be successful, any formula must include hiring the right person for the job and helping him/her carve out a niche from the roles previously performed by a youth agent. Just like the clever umpire'sstrikes and balls, paraprofessionals' place in the 4-H program-who they are and what they do - "ain't nothin' till we calls them."


1. H. W. Simons, Persuasion (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1976).

2. Karl E. Weick, The Social Psychology of Organizing (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co, 1979).

3. See Jerry Parsons and John Kiesow, "The 4-H Program Assistant's Role," Journal of Extension, XIII (July/August 1975), 11-18; M. K. Munson and Jerry Parsons, "4-H Paraprofessionals: Defining Their Tasks," Journal of Extension, XVII (July/August 1979), 16-22.

4. Munson and Parsons, "4-H Paraprofessionals."

5. See John A. Kiesow, "Role Model for Paraprofessional Youth Worker in the Extension Service" (Summary of Extension Service, USDA, Washington, D.C., Special Project No. 12-05-300-191, 1973), p. 3; Norman D. Long, "An Evaluation and Accountability Study of Three Selected Extension 4-H Staffing Models: A Summary Report" (West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University, 1980), p. 7; Pantelis Ritsos, "Professional Competencies Needed by Extension Employees in Urban Counties of Ohio" (Master's thesis, The Ohio State University, Columbus, 1984).

6. Kiesow, "Role Model," p. 5.

7. Marlee Wilson, The Effective Management of Volunteer Programs (Boulder, Colorado: Volunteer Management Associates, 1976).

8. Kiesow, "Role Model," p. 5.