Fall 1988 // Volume 26 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA6

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It's Worth the Effort


Ann Meadowbrook
Assistant to the Director
Western Rural Development Center
Oregon State University-Corvallis

Roger L. Fletcher
Extension Staff Chair
Marion County Office
Oregon State University Extension Service-Salem

To most effectively market Extension, we need to know who we serve, and by inference, characteristics of those who don't use Extension's programs. Are our adult clients richer or poorer than the norm for our area? Are they more educated than the population in general? How old are they? How many of them live on commercial farms?

To answer these and other questions, in 1986, the Marion County Office of the Oregon State University Extension surveyed a random sample of clients. Our interviewers also asked clients how satisfied they are with services, and for ideas to help us improve.

Study's Objectives

Our most important objective was to create a composite picture of Extension clientele. With demographic data, we could see if Extension serves a representative group of county residents by comparing a demographic profile of clients with population figures for our county.

Extension agents also would learn if they are reaching target audiences. Once we know our audiences better, we can decide how well programs are geared to them and if we're using the best media to communicate with clients.

A second objective was to evaluate client attitudes about our office and learn how they perceive us. We wondered if their perceptions matched our own, and if their image of us is one we intended to project. For example, do they realize Extension administers 4-H and that the county office is a branch of the Oregon State University Extension Service?

Our third objective was to obtain client input. What changes will make us more effective?


We did the interviews by telephone. Dillman's research shows well-conducted telephone surveys result in higher participation rates than well-conducted mail surveys.1 He says that 73% to 93% of those contacted usually agree to a telephone interview. Top mail survey return rates range from 70% to 77%.

The Sample

We drew two sample groups: one from clients on our mailing lists and one from those not on our lists who contacted our office one week in January. From the 4,125 adults on our lists (after eliminating duplications), we used a random-numbers table to select 165. We initially planned to contact 165 from the second sample group, but only 136 clients not on mailing lists contacted us during our sampling period. Our number represented the largest number we thought we could realistically interview. The few differences between samples weren't meaningful, so the combined data are reported here.

We interviewed 84% of the sample from the mailing lists and 91% of the non-mailing list group, for a total of 262. Those we didn't contact had either moved, were deceased, had unlisted telephone numbers, or couldn't be reached at home after repeated tries. Only one person in our samples didn't have a phone. Of all clients we were able to contact, our volunteers interviewed 97%. Only 3% refused to cooperate.

The Interviewers

Seventeen trained Extension volunteers conducted the interviews. They attended a three-hour workshop on telephone interviewing techniques. Before the training, we mailed packets of materials to them, including the questionnaire and instructions gleaned from Dillman's work. Most interviewers thoroughly studied these materials before the training. Extension volunteers were an essential part of our survey, with many reporting increased self-esteem and interest in surveys after their interviewing experience.

The Instrument

The questionnaire took volunteers about 10 minutes to administer. Questions were based on staff input and the survey goals. For ideas on question wording and survey design, we consulted Dillman, Berdie and Anderson,2 Hoinville and Jowell,3 and The Institute of Social Research, Survey Research Center.4

We incorporated both open and closed questions, with an emphasis on the latter for ease of data analysis. Many questions were "agree/disagree" statements on a five-point Likert scale.

The Results


The demographic information proved most useful. We learned a disportionately large number of clients were 60+ years old, when compared with the age breakdown of our county. Conversely, the data indicate only six percent of our adult clients are under 30 years old, while 31% of the county's adult population is under 30.

As might be expected, a disproportionately large number said they're retired (30%, compared to 16% of all adults in the county).5

The data also indicate Extension clients in Marion County are more formally educated than most residents. Our survey showed 62% sampled have at least some college training. In Marion County, only 46% of all residents have attended college.

Significant differences existed among clients in various program areas: (1) more commercial agriculture clients earn a higher gross income than the mean for our county's population and (2) 4-H leaders contact the office significantly more often than do others.


We found 90% of those surveyed realize the office has information available on a wide variety of topics. About 89% see agents as experts in their fields, and 84% say Extension offers county residents the latest scientific information.

Close to half (43%) of those surveyed didn't realize most 4-H Club members in the county don't live on farms, and when we eliminate 4-H leaders from the sample, over half thought most local 4-Hers are "farm kids."

Although 76% know the office is part of Oregon State University, 84% didn't realize Extension agents are faculty.

A majority (55%) of clients surveyed didn't know local tax dollars help pay office expenses.


Almost all clients (99%) said they were satisfied with services, and 94% reported they usually get the help they need. The most common suggestion for improving services was to increase our public relations efforts and make more county residents aware of Extension.

Implications and Applications

The data were shared with each county Extension program planning council. The councils were asked by our Extension agents to identify program area needs against the backdrop of the survey results. They were able, for example, to compare the composite pictures of their clientele to county demographic data and identify audiences Extension doesn't now reach. Several suggestions were made as a result of sharing these data analyses:

  • Agents' programs need to serve more young adults, more low-income, and less-educated audiences.
  • We need to continue efforts to change the "farm kid" image of 4-H so it's as attractive to the urban and suburban youth as it is to the rural youth.
  • The perception that Extension provides research-based information makes Extension unique, and should be strengthened.
  • To continue receiving word-of-mouth endorsements (55% of all clients said they first heard about Extension from a friend or relative), we must focus on maintaining quality programs and offering prompt, accurate, research-based information.

These survey results improved our program planning process. We were better able to determine where we need to be more effective and where some priorities needed to be redefined. We think including these results in our program review and planning process has strengthened Extension's program relevancy in Marion County.


1. D. A. Dillman, Mail and Telephone Surveys: The Total Design Method (New York: Wiley & Sons, 1978).

2. D. R. Berdie and J. F. Anderson, Questionnaires: Design and Use (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1974).

3. R. J. Hoinville and R. Jowell, Survey Research Practice (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1978).

4. Michigan Assessment of Organizations II Core Questionnaire (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Institute of Social Research, Survey Research Center, 1975).

5. Salem 1985 Market Study (Salem, Oregon: Stateman Journal Newspaper, 1985).