Fall 1988 // Volume 26 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA5

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

You Make the Difference


Kermit W. Graf
Cooperative Extension Agent and Executive Director
Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rockland,
Cornell University, New City, New York

The devastation caused by 10 years of financial decline was only one of the serious problems facing Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rockland County, New York, in August 1984. This affluent, suburban county of a quarter million people, located 20 miles north of Manhattan, saw its agent staff shrink from nine to four and the county coordinator position remain vacant for a year and a half. Funding cuts by the county legislature, the major funder of Extension in New York counties, left the association, which manages Extension operations, with a major debt. The stature of the organization with the legislators, clientele, and general public was in need of major overhaul if it was to survive.

The First Step

Lack of money was one of the most immediate problems. A major budget increase was needed. With only four months to create and implement a strategy to obtain it, two major questions needed to be answered:

  1. What program achievements could be shared with legislators to build our credibility, prove our worth, and convince them we had the potential to be a potent educational force in dealing with key community issues?
  2. What information would most effectively convince legislators that our financial needs were desperate and needed immediate attention?

The answer to the first question came from our staff and Board of Directors. Our most notable achievements were educational programs for consumer and commercial horticulture clientele which served over 12,000 homeowners and 250 businesses each year. In addition, 4-H leaders and Master Gardeners annually reached thousands of residents with valuable educational programs such as 4-H Club work and community gardens. Our Summer Youth Employment Program taught dozens of low-income and minority youth employment and horticultural skills, while providing thousands of dollars worth of services for the county parks system.

The second answer came directly from our elected officials. The two who served as liaisons between the county legislature and Cooperative Extension were eager to help the board develop a plan to gain a budget increase. Their insight on salary equity, politically popular programs, and the legislature's views of Cooperative Extension formed the foundation of our recovery plan. The real work was about to begin.

The staff and board carried out an organized effort. Personal letters were sent to the 21 legislators highlighting Extension's accomplishments in their districts. Board members and influential volunteers made personal contacts with legislators. A formal budget review presentation was prepared, including: (1) large colorful charts comparing and contrasting Rockland's Extension salaries to those of neighboring counties, (2) staff size in relation to similar counties, and (3) per capita contributions to Extension programs versus per capita income in other similar New York counties. A chart depicting the actual dollar contributions, factored with inflationary trends of the past 10 years, was also used. This was combined with efforts to increase media coverage of Extension events and improve the physical appearance of the Extension Education Center.

At the same time, a strategic plan for the entire organization was begun through the joint efforts of staff and volunteers. Top priority was given to educational programs focusing on housing, consumer economics, water quality, horticulture business management, youth programs with an interagency focus, and educational programs for nonprofit agencies in resource development and volunteer management. The staff made a commitment to collaborate, with less emphasis on job title and more emphasis on issue-oriented programs that cut across traditional program lines. The association's Long-Range Planning Committee screened each program on four criteria:

  1. High quality program with adequate local and university resources.
  2. High priority community need that doesn't duplicate programs offered by other agencies.
  3. High visibility to the general public and decision makers.
  4. Consistency with the Cornell Cooperative Extension (system) mission.

When the November budget review came, it was obvious our message had been heard. We received a 20% increase in our budget and a vote of confidence from the legislators. Our initial goal was accomplished, but more challenges lay ahead.

The Second Phase

During 1985, we systematically addressed the major issues facing Cooperative Extension in Rockland County. To heighten our visibility and improve the understanding of our programs, staff and volunteers visited the county legislature to report on Extension success. Programs such as our "Solid Waste Alternatives" forum were offered directly to legislators to help them deal with current county problems. The county executive and key legislators served as speakers and moderators. Staff provided leadership for legislative committees that were formed to deal with fair housing, arts and tourism, funding for nonprofits, women's issues, and county planning.

We established appropriate linkages to dozens of community organizations, including other educational institutions, professional organizations, libraries, businesses, environmental groups, departments of county government, and others who needed Cornell educational resources for decision making and organizational development.

Staff salaries were raised substantially and unproductive staff members replaced. Regular staff meetings, which included professional and support staff, focused on staff concerns, sharing of program direction, and in-service training. Additional development opportunities for professional and support staff were instituted. In time, cooperation and enthusiasm began to replace negativism and low morale.

Our next budget review arrived quickly. This time our message was different. We focused on two points: (1) the success achieved during the past year due, in part, to the budget increase and (2) a need for expanded funding to increase staff size because of increased program demands. This review resulted in an additional 20% increase in our budget.

On the Move

The focus for 1986 was on solidifying relationships with cooperating agencies, increasing our media coverage, expanding outreach efforts, strengthening relationships with decision makers, and initiating a marketing plan for the association. The first of our new professional positions, a nutrition agent, was added. A higher profile Board of Directors composed of professionals, educators, lawyers, and businessowners began to gel and staff morale continued to grow as successes mounted. The year ended with a third 20% budget increase. This allowed us to add a second 4-H agent, a second horticulture agent, and a part-time Sea Grant agent. A special grant to Cornell from the State Energy Office also added three regional energy auditors to our staff to serve small businesses and nonprofit organizations. The total association budget had grown 100% above 1984 levels.

A New Era

Yes, 1987 was a very successful year in Rockland County. The staff actively pursued and obtained grants totaling over $50,000 to purchase new printing equipment, computers, and a 12-passenger van. A new four-year plan projected additional staffing needs including full-time agents in small business and human development.

Facilities and equipment were upgraded and salary levels improved to be competitive with other area professionals. We were granted the "Award of Excellence" by the county executive and Distinguished Service Award by the county legislature for superior educational programs given to Rockland residents. A staff of 30 now works with hundreds of volunteers to reach new audiences.

Our organizational goal is to work primarily with multipliers who can maximize our outreach to the general public. We'll focus on educating the experts who can then teach others using our resources.

Our 1988 budget increase of 10% will allow the association to bring the Sea Grant agent position to full time and give another major boost to professional salaries. The possibility of a small business education program and the purchase and remodeling of a large school we now occupy are potential areas for our association's future growth. Thus, rather than resting on our laurels, we'll be taking an even more aggressive approach to the future development of Cornell Cooperative Extension in Rockland County.

A Positive Attitude

Success of an organization takes the efforts of many people. However, before it can begin to happen, someone has to believe success is possible. During the last three years, we've learned:

  1. Organizations, like individuals, are subject to self-fulfilling prophecies. If we expect to succeed, we will.
  2. A positive attitude is the best offense. If staff and volunteers buy into a positive attitude, you can't help but project it to your clientele, decision makers, and funders.
  3. Teamwork and interdisciplinary cooperation is essential to making an impact on issue-oriented programs.
  4. Effective communication between staff, volunteers, decision makers, and the general public is time-consuming and, at times, frustrating, but no organization can achieve success without it.
  5. Relationship marketing (developing, maintaining, and expanding positive relationships with key decision makers, community leaders, volunteers, clients, staff, and the media) is the key to building a strong and stable base for Cooperative Extension in the 80s.
  6. Extension programs must be clearly focused and based on high-priority community needs. We must be necessary, not just nice.
  7. Extension must project an image of friendly authority. People don't care how much we know until they know how much we care.
  8. Extension must market itself in a clear, consistent manner that ties all programs together and emphasizes our university, research-based foundation.

Cooperative Extension has a unique contribution to make in enhancing the lives of all Americans. If we truly believe in ourselves and help others to recognize our strengths, there's no reason we need to learn to get by with less. The need for our expertise in dealing with the issues facing people is greater than ever - we must do a better job of marketing ourselves and articulating that need to those people who can fund our work and benefit from our programs.

...The need for our expertise in dealing with the issues facing people is greater than ever - we must do a better job of marketing ourselves and articulating that need to those people who can fund our work and benefit from our programs.