April 2000 // Volume 38 // Number 2 // Research in Brief // 2RIB3

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Oregon Extension Volunteers: Partners in Action

The survey assessed 969 Oregon Extension volunteers about their perception of benefits and costs of Extension volunteer work. Volunteers from all program areas and regions of the state were included. Volunteers reported personal benefits, including gains in knowledge, self-confidence, and interpersonal relationships. Community benefits were noted by more than one third of volunteers. Fewer volunteers noted economic benefits, but for those who did, these benefits were significant and included increased job skills and useful contacts. The costs of volunteering were perceived as low and centered on time demands. Implications of these findings for Extension programming and faculty roles are discussed.

Marjorie J. Braker
Extension Educator
Oregon State University Extension Service
Oregon City, Oregon
Internet address: marjorie.braker@orst.edu

Janice R. Leno
Program Leader & Department Head
Oregon State University Extension Service
Corvallis, Oregon
Internet address: lenoj@orst.edu

Clara C. Pratt, Ph.D.
Family Policy Knudson Endowed Chair
College of Home Economics & Education
Oregon State University
Corvallis, Oregon
Internet address: prattc@orst.edu

Deana Grobe, Ph.D.
Family Policy Program Research Assistant
Oregon State University
Corvallis, Oregon
Internet address: grobed@proaxis.com


Volunteers are an integral part of Oregon State University Extension educational program delivery. Evaluation data collected over the years document the impact of Extension volunteer programs on youth and adults in Oregon. Evaluation efforts, however, have not examined the impact of Extension's volunteer programs on the volunteers themselves. What benefits do volunteers receive as a result of their Extension volunteer activities? Do Extension's volunteer programs enable participants to more confidently do volunteer work? Are personal, economic, and community benefits provided?

Partners in Action Survey assessed the personal, economic, and community benefits Oregon volunteers received as a result of their involvement with Extension volunteer programs. The survey also assessed the volunteers' perceptions of the costs of volunteering. Documenting volunteers' perceptions can help Extension faculty tailor programs to meet volunteers' needs, identify areas in volunteer training and management that need strengthening, and promote the value of the Extension Service to decision makers. A review of literature revealed no similar survey in Oregon. The most current national survey was more than 10 years old.


Volunteers were identified from all volunteer programs available within Oregon's Extension Service programs. The number of different volunteer programs operating within a county varied from county to county. Volunteer programs in Oregon included:

  • Master Gardeners
  • 4-H Youth
  • Family Community Education (study groups)
  • Master Food Preservers
  • Family Community Leadership
  • Food and Nutrition Educators
  • Master Recyclers
  • Master Woodland Managers
  • Parent Educators
  • Master Anglers
  • County Advisory Councils

Seven counties representing the diverse areas of the state were selected based on geographic location, scope of volunteer programs, and number of volunteers per program. Staff in each selected county provided a list of persons who had volunteered in the last two to three years. A random sample was selected from those lists.

Smaller volunteer programs such as Master Food Preservers, Master Woodland Managers, Master Anglers, Master Recyclers, Food and Nutrition Educators, and Parent Educators were over-sampled to make sure these volunteers were appropriately represented in the sample. An initial survey was field-tested with a small group of volunteers in an urban county. The survey instrument was revised based on the field test input.

The selected random sample consisted of 2,552 volunteers. The self-administered survey was mailed to selected volunteers in May 1997. On the survey instrument, volunteers were informed they would be entered into a drawing for a $100 savings bond if they completed and returned the survey by May 15, 1997. A follow-up postcard reminder was sent out May 10, 1997. The survey was completed in June 1997, with 969 total useable surveys, representing a response rate of 39.3%.

Of the 969 respondents, 80% were female. Only Master Woodland Managers were predominantly male. All other volunteer programs were 75% to 94% female. The majority (95%) identified themselves as "white, non-Hispanic." The typical responder was 53 years of age and had some college education. Thirty-four percent of the respondents worked full-time, 16% worked part-time, and 28% were retired. Respondents lived in their present community for an average of 23 years, with almost half living in a city and 41% living in rural Oregon.

Table 1 describes the numbers of volunteers in Oregon Extension programs and how they responded to the survey. Although there were 969 respondents, some volunteers were involved in more than one program area, increasing the total frequency to 1,106.

Table 1
Respondents by Extension Volunteer by Program Area

Program Area Frequency N of Survey Respondents Cumulative % of Survey Respondents
by Program
Total # of Volunteers % of Volunteers by Program Area
Master Gardeners 372 33.6 3,000 23
4-H 218 19.7 7,200 55
FCE study groups 126 11.4 1,200 9
Master Food Preserver 97 8.8 306 2
FCL 75 6.8 360 3
Advisory Councils 62 5.6 432 3
Food & Nutrition 57 5.0 100 1
Master Recycler 54 4.9 280 2
Master Woodland 32 2.9 205 2
Parent Educator 10 1.0 61 .5
Master Angler 3 0.3 N/A N/A
Sub-total 1,106 100 13,144 100
Other: (open ended) 149      
Total frequency 1,255 100 13,144 100

There were 13,144 total volunteers active in the Oregon State University Extension Service volunteer programs. The 4-H youth program had the most volunteers, with 7,200, or 55% of the total. Response rates varied by program area. Only 20% of the 4-H volunteer sample responded, compared to 34% of the Master Gardener sample. Reasons for the lower response rate by the 4-H volunteers are not known.

Survey and Analysis

A survey instrument was designed to evaluate outcomes measuring the personal, community, and economic benefits experienced by volunteers participating in Oregon State University Extension Service volunteer programs (C.C. Pratt, Oregon State University, personal interviews on designing surveys, 1997). Along with descriptive statistics, the data were analyzed using factor analysis and ANOVA procedures. Factor analysis determined whether the various measures for a particular outcome could be represented in terms of a single scaled variable (knowledge and skills gained, for example.) The six outcome scales were: gaining knowledge and skills, personal growth, family interaction and involvement, economic benefits, community involvement, and negative impacts of volunteering. The respondents rated each question on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 4 (a great deal). Each of these six outcome scales included six to eight questions.

General Results

Overall, most volunteers indicated they received personal, community, and economic benefits (Table 2). The greatest benefits were personal

Table 2
Mean Ratings* of Benefits and Costs of Extension Volunteering (n = 969)

How much has being an Extension Volunteer helped you gain:
Personal Growth 2.7
Knowledge and Skills 2.5
Family Interactions 2.0
Community Involvement 2.0
Economic Benefits 1.5
How much has your volunteer work had some negative affects?
Adverse affects 1.5
*range: 1 (not at all) to 4 (a great deal)

Personal Benefits

Mean responses (scale 1 to 4) for the three areas of personal benefits were knowledge and skills (2.5), personal growth (2.7), and family involvement (2.0). Most respondents noted benefits in more than one area. The percentage of volunteers rating benefits as 3 (quite a lot) to 4 (a great deal) ranged from 34% to 18%. Gains in personal growth were reported by 34% of the responders; 30.7% accumulated substantial knowledge and skills, and almost 18% experienced benefits for their families.

When volunteers were asked what benefits in personal growth they received, helping others and making new friends were the two most important gains noted. When asked about gains in knowledge and skills, respondents indicated technical expertise and skills for working with others. About 70% of respondents said that their volunteer experience improved the health and safety of their families.

Results also showed differences in benefits among various groups. Women reported greater personal growth than did men. When evaluating personal growth and family involvement, volunteers aged 65 or older experienced greater benefits than did those between 15-44 years of age and those 45-64 years of age. Volunteers living in rural areas rated benefits in personal growth and family involvement higher than did volunteers living in urban areas. For personal growth, greater benefits were found for volunteers in Family Community Leadership and Food and Nutrition Educator programs.

Community Involvement Benefits

When respondents were asked how much their volunteer experience helped them as community members, 66% indicated they received a little to a great deal of benefit (22% quite a lot and 9% a great deal of benefit). Of the nine percent who reported a great deal of benefit, almost half felt the most important benefits were a better understanding of their community and the use of community facilities and services. Women and volunteers aged 65 or older were among those who benefited most from their community involvement. Volunteers reported almost no benefit related to running for elected office and little benefit in helping them better understand other cultures and races.

Economic Benefits

Although only 37% of the volunteers reported any economic benefit from their volunteer work, 5% indicated they gained substantial economic benefits. There was benefit related to work efficiency and networking potential, with 57% of respondents indicating some benefit in these two areas and 9% reporting substantial benefit. Volunteers at retirement age (65 and older) were less likely to receive economic benefits from being an Oregon Extension volunteer than those between the ages of 15-64. Greater economic benefits were found among Family Community Leadership volunteers than volunteers from the other Extension volunteer programs.

"Costs" of Volunteering

On the 1 (not at all) to 4 (a great deal) scale, a mean rating of 1.5 was found for adverse effects of volunteering. While less common than perceptions of benefits, these perceptions of costs are important. The most common costs noted were time, feelings of frustration, conflicts with other responsibilities, and fatigue.


Volunteer Profile

Most Extension volunteers (68%) are over 45 years of age or older. Over 81% reported some college to advanced degrees. The majority of respondents (80%) were female. Extension volunteers are either employed or retired. Volunteer recruitment, training, and payback opportunities should accommodate older, educated, and working volunteers. Special effort is needed to recruit males and younger volunteers.

Training, payback, and recognition events that are scheduled only during weekdays cause volunteers to be underutilized. Volunteers addressed these issues in their comments.

  • "Since I am employed, advance notice of planned activities is essential. It helps to know dates . . . in advance."
  • "I have to work 40 hours a week to live, and volunteer time is only during work hours."
  • "It seemed geared to retired people, and I was not given a full year to do the work. I felt rushed."

Volunteer Benefits

Volunteers reported gaining the following benefits:

  • access to research information, technical knowledge, and computer skills (286);
  • ability to help others and satisfaction from helping others, contributing to the community (162);
  • connections, networking, social contacts, and friendships (135);
  • other personal benefits, including gaining self-confidence, self-improvement, self-esteem, working with youth, spending time with own children and other youth, helping kids learn, and meeting people with same interests (205).

Although volunteers value the technical, informational, and skill-building benefits received from Extension, the personal satisfaction benefits outweigh the technical and informational gains. Extension faculty needs to recognize the value of helping volunteers feel good about helping others. Volunteers appear to be motivated primarily by desires to contribute and to feel good about themselves rather than by extrinsic benefits. In addition to perceived benefits, Extension faculty need to be aware that volunteers feel there are "costs" associated with volunteering, such as fatigue, time constraints, conflict with other volunteers and faculty, and frustration.

Training and Support

Overall, 62% of respondents indicated the training and support they received, from Extension, was better than the training and support from other volunteer activities. When asked about the most important way Extension faculty could support volunteers, most said they wanted the faculty to be available to answer questions, give advice, and help solve problems. Others commented on the need for ongoing training, encouragement, and support; communication about opportunities and events; and updates on new information and changes.

Because Oregon Extension takes great pride in its volunteer programs, some effort might be directed toward improving volunteer training and support. Faculty availability was a recurring theme in the comments volunteers made. There were some unhappy voices, and frustration was evident in some of the comments. "A visit to our group meeting by the faculty would boost morale," wrote one respondent. Another wanted "more consistent leadership from the Extension Office." One respondent commented that " one needs a pat on the back occasionally." Others mentioned a desire for more ongoing training after the basics, updates on new information and changes, and the need for continuous support and encouragement.

Volunteer Experience

A clear majority of Oregon Extension Volunteers (91%) were happy with their volunteer experience. Extension provides many opportunities for volunteers to not only improve their skills, but also to help others. All in all, Extension provides an excellent experience for volunteers.


Oregon State University Extension Service does a good job of training volunteers. Volunteers value their experience and perceive many benefits. Improvements in training and support would expand benefits for volunteers and further strengthen programs they deliver.


Steele, S., Project Director (1983-1987). Implications of volunteerism in the Cooperative Extension Service, USDA-ES and Wisconsin Cooperative Extension Service. Department of Continuing and Vocational Education of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.