August 1994 // Volume 32 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA1

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Managing Diversity Within Cooperative Extension

This study examined the implications of cultural diversity in Cooperative Extension. A review of the literature suggested ways through which organizations change when they become more diverse. These organizations are more able to recruit (and retain) culturally diverse staff, expand their reach, create new work and management styles, develop new patterns of interpersonal relationships, and build new structures. Focus groups with Extension staff indicated that Extension must enhance its affirmative action strategies, place greater value on diversity, concentrate on managing differences, reposition itself, create new management structures, and establish mechanisms that build a more supportive working environment.

D. Merrill Ewert
Assistant Professor
Internet address:

Jennifer A. King Rice
Research Assistant

Department of Education
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York

North America has become a very multicultural place. Johnston and Packer's (1987) seminal Workforce 2000 documents the dramatic, demographic changes sweeping through society as a result of immigration, differential fertility, and the movement of women into the work force. Meanwhile, Cooperative Extension's traditional, white, rural clientele is aging and the rapidly growing, ethnically diverse population remains under-represented in its programs (U.S. Department of Agriculture Extension Committee on Organization and Policy, 1990). In response to the discrepancy between shifting demographics and current practice, this research project was designed to help Cooperative Extension address cultural diversity more creatively.

This research project addressed two questions:

  1. According to the literature, what happens when organizations become culturally diverse?
  2. What are the implications of these findings for Cooperative Extension?
The project involved two phases. First, a review of the literature documented how cultural diversity affects the productivity and effectiveness of organizations. Second, six focus groups (five consisted of Extension staff and one included several clients as well) examined the implications of these findings for Cooperative Extension. Participants analyzed a nine-page summary of the findings, discussed the implications for Extension, and proposed specific steps for making Extension more inclusive. The most significant findings from the first phase are noted, but this article focuses primarily on the results of the second.

The Multicultural Organization

Roosevelt Thomas (1990) argues that organizations build their multicultural capacities in three ways. Affirmative action creates a diverse staff by recruiting previously excluded individuals into homogeneous organizations. Valuing diversity builds understanding and helps people learn to appreciate this new diversity. Managing diversity attacks institutional racism, reallocates power, and promotes justice in the work place while enhancing the work environment.


The review of the literature suggests that as organizations become more culturally diverse, they: (a) are more able to recruit and retain culturally diverse staff, (b) expand their "reach" and increase their ability to attract new clientele, (c) create new work and management styles, (d) develop new patterns of personal relationships, (e) build structures that better meet the needs of diverse staff and clientele.

Based on an examination of these literature findings, the focus groups proposed several specific action steps through which Cooperative Extension could increase its multicultural effectiveness. Multicultural effectiveness is usually defined in the literature as the ability to communicate and relate to persons of other cultural backgrounds. Their conclusions are categorized following Thomas' three organizational strategies--affirmative action, valuing diversity, and managing diversity.

Affirmative Action

  1. Commitment to building a critical mass - The focus groups all felt strongly that culturally diverse populations are seriously under-represented within Extension. Verbal commitments to increase diversity have not been translated into meaningful practice. Extension must set specific organizational goals for the recruitment of culturally diverse staff, some said. The groups felt that promotions and salary increases for administrators at both county and state levels should be linked to the achievement of these goals.

  2. More aggressive recruiting - The need to aggressively recruit a culturally diverse staff was a second recurring theme. Focus group participants argued that culturally diverse candidates are available and could be recruited for professional positions in Extension. Until the entire system mobilizes to recruit culturally diverse candidates, they argued, the composition of the organization will not change.

  3. Assessment of the recruitment procedures - An assessment of the recruitment process (position descriptions, job announcements, and the selection process) is urgently needed. Although designed to identify and screen qualified candidates, recruitment procedures may themselves constitute significant barriers to some cultural groups. For example, the candidate for a position in a relatively homogeneous community might feel socially isolated so therefore decline an appointment. Extension must therefore facilitate the process through which potential staff make connections with culturally diverse groups within the community.

  4. Building relationships with students - Business and industry establish relationships with potential employees long before graduation. However, Extension typically does not begin recruiting minority candidates until a specific job becomes available. Given its rural, middle class history, many ethnic minorities are unaware of Extension and its employment potential. Extension can learn from business, the focus groups argued, by recruiting undergraduates long before they graduate or positions become available.

  5. Emphasize retention - Many culturally diverse staff have left Extension, the focus groups believed, for reasons that are not fully understood. The literature suggests that isolation, marginalization, perceived lack of power, hierarchical management styles, inadequate financial compensation, and disagreements over program priorities contribute to staff turnover. The focus groups argued that a study of staff turnover will help Extension recruit and retain culturally diverse staff.

  6. Boards and committees - Culturally diverse boards and advisory committees, several focus groups felt, may be the most significant step in building a multicultural organization. Presently, cultural minorities often feel isolated and powerless. If Extension became more inclusive, these new voices might change program priorities.

Valuing Diversity

  1. Institutional commitment - The statements and actions of senior managers articulate an organization's values. Task forces, standing committees, workshops, and conferences all demonstrate a commitment to multiculturalism. This is not enough. The focus groups proposed that every job description and program document show how each person or activity enhances Extension's multicultural capacity.

  2. Positioning - The focus groups suggested that Extension position itself as a multicultural organization by selecting cultural diversity as a major programmatic theme. Volunteers and staff must learn to recognize the new perspectives, options, creativity, and enriched work environments that accompany diversity. Training in specific cultural knowledge and the skills of multicultural communication will also position Extension for diversity.

  3. "Culture audit" - In keeping with the literature, the focus groups suggested that Extension perform a "culture audit" that clarifies its core values and identifies institutional barriers to multiculturalism. Self-assessment generates knowledge, changes attitudes, and builds inclusiveness.

Managing Diversity

  1. Diversity as a core issue - Diversity issues are typically addressed through ad hoc programs funded on soft money, the focus groups argued. Diversity initiatives typically disappear when grants end or new priorities emerge so success is more likely when new initiatives become part of Extension's core budget.

  2. Support system to reduce isolation - Extension must look more holistically at the needs of employees. Both formal support systems and informal networks should be encouraged. More attention to helping newly-hired staff settle into the community would help culturally diverse staff: "We orient people to Extension," one person stated, "but not to the community."

  3. Content of programs - Some suggested that Extension's programs reflect its old audiences rather than society's current problems and priorities. Until it more directly addresses issues of urban poverty, economic development, job creation, and social disorganization, Extension is unlikely to recruit and retain strong minority candidates.

  4. Multicultural communication and organizational development skills - Several people suggested that Extension develop its expertise in multicultural communication and organizational development. The land-grant connection provides a research base upon which to build leadership in organizational change and multicultural effectiveness.

  5. Relocation of Extension offices - Extension offices are seldom chosen on the basis of accessibility to multicultural audiences. They are often based in county complexes, in affluent business districts, or even outside of town far from public transportation. Relocation, the focus groups suggested, may be required.

  6. "Growing" a diverse staff - Extension increasingly expects its agents to hold graduate degrees. Entry level requirements, the focus groups argued, limit the pool of minority applicants. If Extension hired strong candidates without such degrees but provided opportunities to earn the requisite credentials, staff diversity would increase.

  7. Flexible work place - In keeping with the literature, the focus groups suggested that a more flexible work place would increase diversity. The literature shows that job-sharing, part-time work (with benefits), flexible scheduling, accommodating work at home (through E-mail and fax), greater use of consultants, more liberal parental leave policies, child care, career breaks, and sabbaticals would broaden the diversity of the work force.

  8. Mentoring - Mentoring is a well-documented success. The focus groups suggested that mentoring must be built into the job descriptions of senior staff.

  9. Learning styles and Extension methods - While cultural differences in learning and communication styles have been clearly established by research, these lessons have seldom been applied to Extension programs. More work must be done, the focus groups argued, to develop appropriate instructional methods that reflect the learning styles of diverse audiences.

  10. Testing educational materials - The focus groups questioned the appropriateness of some Extension materials. Many were developed by affluent, white university professors for poor and culturally diverse audiences. Participatory curriculum development and more testing of materials are needed.

  11. Celebrating good practice - Although Extension has many examples of effective practice, the focus groups suggested, many multicultural programs are poorly documented. Extension must identify effective multicultural programs, analyze why they work, and share the lessons learned through conferences, consultations, case studies, in-house publications, and the professional literature.

  12. Language competence - The focus groups identified the lack of language skills in multicultural environments as a significant barrier to building a multicultural organization. More bilingual staff and increased learning opportunities for current staff are also needed for Extension to become more inclusive.


This study suggested that Cooperative Extension must articulate a vision for multiculturalism and translate this into action through aggressive recruitment and more effective retention of diverse staff and volunteers. Relevant training, culturally appropriate materials, and more inclusive organizational structures could help Extension become a significant leader in multicultural programming.


Johnston, W. B., & Packer, A. H. (1987). Workforce 2000: Work and workers for the twenty-first century. Indianapolis, IN: Hudson Institute.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Extension Committee on Organization and Policy. (1990). Addressing diversity in the 1990s and beyond: CES can make a difference. Washington, DC: Author.

Thomas, R. R. (1990). Beyond race and gender: Unleashing the power of your total work force by managing diversity. New York: American Management Association.

Author Notes

The authors gratefully acknowledge the support of USDA-ES which funded this project. The conclusions are those of the authors and not USDA.