Fall 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA11

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Empowering Volunteers Through Involvement


John Balliette
Lander County Extension Educator
Nevada Cooperative Extension
University of Nevada-Reno

Marilyn Goad Smith
Area Specialist
Nevada Cooperative Extension
University of Nevada-Reno

The challenge was how to recruit and keep 4-H volunteers in a highly transient community.

Battle Mountain, Nevada, is typical of many small, isolated towns in the West. Mining, the major industry in the community, and the boom/bust economy create a transient population of about 2,000 people. When commodity prices are good, the influx of new people creates stress on housing, schools, and community services. When times are bad, those who remain in the community struggle to keep it alive. Because of these factors, the turnover among adult volunteers in the local 4-H program averaged 42% a year from 1981-1988. The program was struggling and a series of new Extension agents had experienced varying degrees of success in attracting volunteers. However, the high turnover continued as people moved in and out of the community.

In 1986, a new county agent implemented a program designed to increase volunteer involvement. The agent initiated a needs assessment survey among volunteer 4-H leaders and discussed his observations with the area 4-H specialist who'd worked in the community for more than 10 years. Based on the needs assessment survey, the knowledge of experienced individuals, and their perceptions about the community, a program design was conceived to retain volunteers.

New Leader Orientation

The new leader orientation program began when a 4-H leaders' manual called "Welcome to 4-H" was written and field-tested.1 Extension staff and volunteers cooperated in writing the publication that was designed to orient new leaders and obtain more leader involvement. The local agent made a point of involving every volunteer 4-H leader in the community. These leaders were asked to write portions of the manual and to review drafts of the publication. The agent used every opportunity to talk with volunteers. He stopped volunteers at chance meetings in the local grocery store, restaurants, and social events to discuss revisions and ask for their input. He used these opportunities to stress the importance of leader involvement in this process and explain the potential benefits derived from a publication for new leaders.

Since few of the leaders had ever reviewed a manuscript for technical content, the agent developed an evaluation form that accompanied each draft. The evaluation was divided into five parts that corresponded with each section of the manuscript. Volunteer reviewers were asked: "What did you like about this section?" and "What did you dislike about this section?" While this was a simple technique, valuable information was obtained. User evaluation was one of the most successful parts of the program.

Results of Involvement

Although the leader reviews were time-consuming, several important results were achieved. Volunteer leaders provided valuable input on how they perceived the potential use of the manuscript. Furthermore, their comments on the manuscript's readability and applicability greatly influenced the final product.

The review process also stimulated a new level of leader interest, support, and involvement in the 4-H program. Involvement of leaders in the peer review process proved to be the key in gaining support and involvement. By the time the "Welcome to 4-H" publication was completed, volunteers had learned to work together toward a common goal. Future programs proved easier to do because volunteers had learned to identify issues and work together to solve problems. Volunteers gained a better understanding of the role Extension plays in youth education and started looking at a program beyond their particular subject of interest.

As people move in and out of the boom/bust mining community, leader turnover is expected. However, the successful completion of "Welcome to 4-H" and the leader training is an example of a process to empower leaders that worked. Program success in stable population areas might be increased by using this process as well. Leader training programs and careful prioritizing of issues relevant to the community are the keys to success.


1. M. Goad, J. Balliette, and B. Hooper, "Welcome to 4-H: An Orientation Guide for New Leaders" (Reno: University of Nevada, College of Agriculture, 1987).