August 1994 // Volume 32 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA4

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Extension's Role in Developing Community Volunteers

This article focuses on the potential role of Extension in developing competent community volunteers who serve in governmental roles. Volunteers who serve on governmental boards, committees, and commissions participated in an assessment, which prioritized training topics and identified a need for comprehensive orientation. Family Community Leadership volunteers assisted in the design and implementation of the assessment, as well as the subsequent implementation of training. Extension's expertise in needs assessment and educational training are essential skills in helping government agencies better utilize volunteers.

Karen L. Hinton
Extension Educator
University of Nevada Cooperative Extension
Carson City, Nevada
Internet address:

The ability to envision the future, identify and analyze issues, and to utilize a wide array of communication techniques have been identified by many studies as skills critical for community leaders in the 90s. Their roles have become a more difficult challenge in the context of the ever increasing complexity of our society. Leadership roles have become a complex set of functions rather than simply holding a position (Schultz, 1991). Training is often a necessary step to help ensure that individuals can serve in a strong and effective manner. Helping community leaders attain these skills by assessing needs and providing leadership training is an educational opportunity for which Cooperative Extension has both the expertise and experience.


The information contained in this article is based upon a survey conducted in Fall 1992 by the Family Community Leadership (FCL) Project to ascertain training needs of individuals serving in community leadership roles as members of municipal boards, committees, and commissions in Carson City, Nevada. The survey was sent to 92 individuals who sit on the 16 boards, committees, and commissions that operate under the auspices of the Municipality of Carson City. Mailings were accomplished with the assistance of the City Manager's Office and were mailed with a cover letter from the Mayor. Seventy-nine surveys were received, for a return rate of 86%. This was accomplished with one follow- up letter to non-respondents in addition to the original survey.

Family Community Leadership team members used a comprehensive process to identify 15 training topics to be included on the survey. The process included group discussion, pretesting of the instrument, and review by subject matter experts.

As a follow-up to the original survey, a three-step Delphi technique was utilized to identify and prioritize community resources specific to Carson City. This was conducted with a group of 30 community volunteers attending leadership training. Understanding community resources was one of the 15 training topics listed on the original survey, but the broad scope of this item made it difficult to design training without further definition.


Survey respondents were asked to identify, from the list of 15, the five most important training areas for individuals who are newly appointed to boards, committees, or commissions. Table 1 lists their responses in order of perceived importance.

Table 1. Training topics of importance to boards, committees, and commissions (numbers indicate percent of respondents ranking item in top five).
Identifying and analyzing issues: What's the problem and what can be done? 72%
Understanding our community resources 56%
Group process: Member's role and function 44%
Understanding the open meeting law, parliamentary procedure, and liability of public officials 44%
Increasing listening skills: Hearing what is being said 42%
How to handle controversial issues 34%
Principled negotiations: Reaching agreement 30%
Understanding types of communication: Preventing misunderstanding 28%
Using leadership skills to be an effective member 25%
Strategies for dealing with change 24%
How to make a presentation 23%
Managing conflict creatively 23%
Assessing the effectiveness of a meeting 23%
Community cultural awareness 13%
Discussions techniques in a workshop setting 10%

A profile of respondents revealed that:

  1. Fifty-two percent had served less than two years and only 10% had served over eight years.

  2. Breakdown by occupation was: state or local government (25%), retired (23%), professional-including doctors and attorneys (11%), building and real estate (10%), and general and self-employed business (31%).

  3. Eighty percent of respondents stated they would be interested in attending a training program on the topic areas identified in the survey.

In addition to identifying the top five training topics, respondents were requested to add other topics they felt were of importance. A common theme of the write-in topics was the need for orientation of new members selected for boards, committees, or commissions. These topics differed from the training topics in that they were less skill focused and more related to history, responsibility, and operating procedures of their particular board, committee, or commission. Suggested topics that were written in by survey respondents were:

  1. Definition of role, term, scope of responsibilities, and duties.

  2. Long and short term goals of Board of Supervisors and specific board, committee, or commission.

  3. Introduction to staff.

  4. Relationship of board, committee, or commission with staff, elected officials and other boards, committees, or commissions.

  5. Overview of the governmental structure, decision making process, policies, and procedures.

  6. Laws, codes, and legal issues pertaining to specific board, committee, or commission.

  7. Basic understanding and ability to use Robert's Rules of Order.

  8. Overview of budget process and board, committee, or commission's role in the process.

  9. Dealing with conflicts of interest and disclosures of conflicts by members.

  10. History of specific board, committee, or commission.

  11. Extent of board, committee, or commission's authority.

  12. Definition of terminology, abbreviations and acronyms specific to board, committee or commission, and those utilized by government in general.

Poor communication and lack of understanding of the above topics were frequently listed as aspects of an individual's role that they found difficult to deal with or most frustrating. This feeling of frustration was felt to make the decision making process more laborious and their role more difficult.

Preferred length and time of a training session was a question asked of respondents. When asked what they felt was the best length for a training session, 50% of the respondents chose four hours. Thirty-nine percent preferred a two-hour training sessions, while the remaining 11% felt that a full day was the best length. Preferred time of training was more evenly distributed, with weekday evening receiving 40% of responses, weekday receiving 34%, and Saturday receiving 26%. No differences between members of various boards, committees, or commissions were noted for the two variables, but individuals in the general and self-employed business category were more likely to prefer a Saturday training than other occupations.

Crosstabulation of data by occupation showed the following tendencies:

  1. Respondents from the government and professional occupations were more likely to identify laws and liabilities as a top training need than other occupations.

  2. Those working in government were more likely than other groups to choose group process as a needed training topic.

  3. Retired respondents were less likely than other groups to choose group process as a needed training topic.

  4. Retired individuals showed a greater tendency to identify strategies for dealing with change as an important issue than other occupational groups.

  5. Those employed in government saw less of a need for understanding community resources than other groups.

Summary and Implications

The concept of providing training for local government boards, committees, and commissions was supported by the high interest of respondents in attending a training session. The topics of identifying and analyzing issues, understanding community resources, group process (member's role and function), understanding the open meeting law, parliamentary procedure and liability of public officials, and increasing listening skills were identified by respondents as the five most important training areas. The survey method used in this project proved to be a successful method of assessing training needs and providing a blueprint for future training workshops. Additionally, support from the City's administrative offices helped to provide credibility and support to the project. Training efforts tend to become more measurable when they are embraced by the total organization and the top of the organizational structure displays involvement with sponsorship and setting of the program's tone (Whitmire & Nienstedt, 1987).

This project serves as a model for utilizing Cooperative Extension volunteers in a needs assessment process. FCL volunteers played an integral part in the survey design, testing, and data collection. These volunteers will be helping to design training workshops in response to the identified needs. Their participation in the assessment process builds a sense of ownership in the project from the inception through program delivery.

The training needs on which this survey focused were skills related and of universal applicability to individuals serving on any board, committee, or commission. The survey, however, was able to identify the additional need for orientation training specific to the entity on which a volunteer serves. This need suggests another possible area of educational opportunity for Cooperative Extension in working with volunteer development in the governmental agencies that utilize volunteer boards, committees, or commissions. Often, agency staff members lack background and training in working with volunteers. Effectiveness may be diminished if a volunteer is unsure of his/her basic responsibilities and lack essential skills.

Cooperative Extension has expertise to offer in assessing needs, which can strengthen and contribute to the success of educational programming provided by Extension or other agencies. An assessment of this kind provides the flexibility of structuring training to meet the needs of the local community. By identifying issues of concern, sensitivity can be garnered for differences in individuals who serve in leadership roles, as well as an appreciation for the divergent thinking that these differences create. By preparing leaders to function successfully in their roles, they can develop the confidence to envision the future and make decisions that will bring desired outcomes to reality.


Schultz, C. M. (1991, November). Community leadership training programs. Adult Learning, pp. 11-13.

Whitmire, M., & Nienstedt, P. (1987). Lead leaders into the '90's. Personnel Journal, 1(5), 80-85.