Fall 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 3 // Forum // 3FRM1

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The Challenge of Working with Extenders


Susan Laughlin
Associate Dean
College of Natural Resources
University of California-Berkeley

The challenges facing Extension demand that we become more effective in working with and through extenders. This is true for all program areas and all National Initiatives, I believe. The home economics program in California provides an excellent case to explore the implications of working with extenders.

About five years ago, the Extension home economics program in California took stock of a frustrating situation. In the entire state of some 27 million citizens, we had fewer than 40 county-based home economists, most of whom were only partially assigned to the home economics program. A majority of these were located in densely populated urban areas in which Cooperative Extension wasn't a well-recognized institution. How could so few serve the educational needs of so many? It was a situation fraught with frustration.

In response, home economists began widespread experimentation in cultivating and working with extenders in program delivery. The results are mixed. They range from reactions such as "working with extenders is working smarter, not harder" to "I might as well teach 10 people something very well as to teach the same number of extenders and not be guaranteed any results."

Working with extenders isn't a panacea. It is, however, one logical response to odds that are becoming almost overwhelming for many Cooperative Extension educators. Our state's experimental efforts are beginning to yield valuable insights into the advantages and disadvantages of various forms of extender-based work. These insights are clearly generalizable to many Extension disciplines and merit consideration as the experimentation continues.

The following sections present the pros and cons on the two extender models we've had experience with: volunteer extender programs and agency extender programs.

Volunteer Extender Programs

Our volunteer programs have taken familiar forms, the primary one being the Master Food Preserver program. Some home economists have also experimented with Master Food Shopper programs and some have used volunteers to teach money management. Volunteers pay back their training time by both reaching their own audiences and by supplementing or serving in the place of the home economist in selected activities, such as answering phone inquiries or teaching in agency settings. In some volunteer programs, such as Family Community Leadership, the work is done together with the Extension professional. Notwithstanding these tempting and often well-documented contributions, there are advantages and disadvantages.


One of the most commonly reported advantages of volunteer programs is the fact they're, more or less, under the control of the Extension professional. The program goals are pre-determined, the training is professional, and its outcome is confirmed by testing and certification. The volunteer's skills and knowledge can, to a point, be guaranteed. The volunteer's time is committed by agreement before training is offered.

Volunteers have been known to increase outreach beyond all reasonable expectation, contacting people who might never have been served by Extension, bringing greater diversity to our clientele, and targeting specialized groups. In some cases, volunteers have provided a special quality of contact no Extension professional has time for. This is particularly true in situations where the client has multiple or daunting problems that are best addressed through a labor-intense coaching approach. Volunteers can be credible, comfortable, and unintimidating mentors.

The advantages to Cooperative Extension and the home economist are multiple. Visibility and image-building goals are served. Public service work, which the Extension professional must often forego in favor of more sophisticated problem-solving work, can continue. Volunteers can be trained to help with program evaluation data collection. They can service county fairs, deliver programs, or answer telephones nights and weekends. Volunteer programs can even be self-supporting.

The advantages seem incontestable. But, another side exists.


It will come as no surprise to Extension professionals who have run volunteer programs that the major disadvantage is the amount of time these programs require. At the very least, the professional is obliged to offer enough training to assure high quality representation by the volunteer. Beyond the training are administrative and interpersonal demands. Volunteer programs don't work unless they are well-monitored and managed. Volunteers need strokes, rewards, and time. One home economist remarked that her volunteers call and expect the conversation to last an hour when she only has five minutes to give. To make matters worse, the more effective volunteers are at outreach, the greater the demand from new clientele. Some Extension professionals find that volunteer programs take as much time as doing the work themselves.

Along with the true generosity of volunteerism comes qualities that may be incompatible with the task at hand. Volunteers often have social needs that can interfere with getting through the business of learning expeditiously. Their time is their own. They may not be able to follow through consistently. It may be difficult for professionals to handle the experience of benefitting from the volunteer's contribution without feeling guilty and overextending in personal ways. Some Extension colleagues have reported that it's hard to maintain a professional relationship with volunteers. Finally, it's a challenge to attract an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse pool of volunteers, so important to our social goals.

Agency Extender Programs

As Extension engages more in issues programming, we have to form partnerships. Extension will seldom, if ever, be the only or even primary actor on issues of wide public concern. Working with other agencies in partnerships is a form of working with and through extenders.

Working with agency staff to accomplish Extension program goals has taken a variety of forms. We've experimented with partnerships between Extension and the staff of one cooperating agency or with a coalition of agencies. We have delivered pre-packaged programs through agency staff and we've jointly developed programs with other agencies. Each partnership has advantages and disadvantages, though some patterns exist that cut across different partnerships.


The major advantage of working with agency extenders is that no truly significant problem can be addressed by one person, one program, or one institution. All who recognize a priority problem realize the impossible limitations of resources and the limited impact potential of working alone. When a problem is of mutual concern to one or more agencies, resources, expenses, and energies can be shared.

Often other agencies have "captive audiences" of just the people who have the problem to be addressed (low-income pregnant women, high-risk parents, people with limited incomes). These audiences are "captive" to service agencies, but are often hard for Extension to reach. One Extension colleague remarked that the university affiliation of Extension was an intimidating drawback for some of these potential clientele. Agency personnel are sometimes grateful to have help in delivering a real educational service to their clients, in addition to the bureaucratic processing so often required of them. A jointly designed educational program is especially well-received when we work to make it fit the specific conditions of the partner agency.

Working with agency extenders doesn't always mean the extender does Extension education, but rather shares in the resolution of the problem. Service agencies offer the potential for implementing action plans and working on policy modifications, while Extension provides education, and sometimes technical and research support.

Working on programs with professional colleagues more closely links the university research base and those who deal with the problems daily. It can inspire campus-based researchers to turn their attention to applied problems. The training offered by Extension can enhance the professional skills of agency personnel, reduce misinformation, and encourage agency staff to look to the university for scientific guidance. Certainly, Extension benefits from close working relationships with professional counterparts. The advocacy potential of credible, often highly placed colleagues is great.


If "agency extender programs" means trying to deliver a pre-packaged, Extension-developed program through agency personnel, our experience suggests some major difficulties. They center around the amount of time one can expect agency personnel to devote to an activity that's not their top priority. Education is, at best, a secondary goal (this is what makes Extension unique!). Many agencies are pressured by work of a basic, life-support nature. Agency personnel who have been extensively trained in the delivery of an Extension program have found it difficult to spend quality educational time with their clients. They can give brief advice, hand out written materials, show a video in a waiting room, but none of these interventions promises much real impact. In the rare circumstance in which agency personnel have delivered a fair facsimile of the educational program, going one step farther to provide evaluation data has been next to impossible.

Some home economists have had much better luck in jointly developing educational programs with agencies that place a higher priority on education. Nevertheless, Extension personnel have recounted troubles with territoriality, and with public credit for Extension's contribution.


The challenges of working with extenders are apparent. It takes a kind of energy and commitment quite different from managing an independent educational program. The Extension professional must be more flexible, sometimes compromising on content and delivery methodologies to meet cooperators on their own ground and allow them to "buy in." It's essential that training and servicing extenders doesn't become an end in itself, that we don't get caught up in meeting their needs at the expense of solving a real client problem. Extension program goals need to focus on problem resolution in which extenders have a true stake, not just on information transfer. Much more experience is needed to determine appropriate roles for extenders. Some of these will be action, advocacy, and policy activities, which Extension is less capable of taking the lead on.

Challenge is one we will benefit from addressing. Growing populations, dwindling staff resources, new client demands, and political pressures to deliver solutions to imposing social problems demand that we extend ourselves, form new partnerships, and give up going it alone.