August 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA1

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Diversifying the Volunteer Base: Latinos and Volunteerism

Latino adults represent a significant source of potential volunteers for Extension. Gaining their involvement, however, has proven to be a challenge. In 1999, the Oregon 4-H program conducted a series of focus groups to increase understanding of the Latino culture as it relates to volunteerism and to identify practices that would encourage Latino adults to volunteer with mainstream organizations such as Extension. Volunteer managers drawn from a cross section of community organizations composed the focus groups. This article shares the findings gained from the focus group process and discusses the implications of those findings for Extension.

Beverly B. Hobbs
Associate Professor and 4-H Youth Development Specialist
Oregon State University
Corvallis, Oregon
Internet Address:


Communities across the United States are becoming more culturally and ethnically diverse. Indeed, demographers predict that by 2050, most Americans will be from a minority group (Hodgkinson, 1996). This increasing diversity changes the nature of the population served by volunteer-based organizations and, likewise, also should change the make-up of the volunteer base.

Capturing the volunteer potential of diverse community members will enrich organizations by expanding the number of volunteers, by making services more culturally appropriate, and by bringing diverse viewpoints to inform practice (Chambre, 1982). However, many organizations are finding it difficult to attract volunteers from diverse backgrounds (Rodriguez, 1997).

Beginning in the spring of 1997, the Oregon 4-H program intensified its efforts to involve more Latino youth and adults in its programs. A 1999 evaluation of outcomes revealed an increase in the number of Latino youth participants, but no significant change in the number of Latino 4-H volunteers. It was evident that 4-H had to redesign its approach to volunteer recruitment in light of the cultural context presented by Latinos.


As a first step to developing new strategies, a study was undertaken in 1999 to increase understanding of the Latino culture as it relates to volunteerism and to identify practices that would encourage Latino adults to become volunteers in community-based organizations such as 4-H. Three focus groups were conducted, each composed of individuals who had experience in recruiting and working with Latino adult volunteers. Participants were identified through phone contacts made to volunteer-based programs. Those initially contacted were also asked to suggest other potential participants.

A total of 18 individuals took part in the focus groups. Thirteen of the participants were Latino, and five were Anglo. Sixteen were female, and the two male participants were Latino.

The data collected were in reference to Latino adults who are first or second generation and of Mexican origin. These are characteristics shared by most of Oregon's Latinos.

Four key questions were used with the focus groups:

  • How do Latino adults volunteer within their cultural community?
  • What motivates Latino adults to volunteer?
  • What factors hinder participation of Latino adults as volunteers in the greater community?
  • What steps might mainstream organizations take to encourage the involvement of Latino adults as volunteers?

Discussions were audio taped and subsequently transcribed. The transcriptions formed the database for the qualitative study. The analysis and interpretation of the data proceeded inductively using a content analysis strategy whereby the data were organized and scrutinized through the development of a coding scheme and data displays (Miles & Huberman, 1994). Conclusions were then drawn and verified based on a preponderance of evidence.


Do Latinos Volunteer?

Focus group participants unanimously agreed that Latinos do indeed volunteer, but noted that the extent of their contributions is not reflected in the various statistics gathered on volunteerism. The reason for the discrepancy is that Latinos do not volunteer in the traditional American pattern. Latino volunteerism occurs first in the context of family and secondarily in the neighborhood and church as opposed to mainstream community-based organizations.

Another complicating factor that was identified is that Latinos do not think of their contributions as volunteering. In many Latin American countries, volunteering refers to activities carried out by the wealthy on behalf of the poor. For most of the immigrants coming to the United States, volunteering is not part of their history. Once in the United States, Latinos associate volunteering with the broader community, involving mainstream organizations with which Latinos have little if any connection. Being a volunteer, then, isn't within the realm of their experience.

"Helping" others, on the other hand, was noted as being second nature to Latinos. It isn't viewed as something you do at a particular time, for a particular group. Caring and helpfulness occur every day as needs arise. Whether it's giving time, money, or other resources, Latinos willingly volunteer to help family, friends, and community members. "Helping isnąt so much a thing to do…as it is, that's how we do it."

Given that Latinos readily demonstrate helpfulness, the question then becomes, How can mainstream organizations tap this potential volunteer resource? What must organizations do to connect with and involve the Latino community?

Connecting with the Latino Community

Repeatedly, participants emphasized the importance of establishing a presence and building trust with the Latino community as the foundation for all future interaction. Entry to the community is based on the development of personal relationships. To build the connection, one has to be ready to proceed slowly, respectfully, and unobtrusively.

Steps identified by participants as key to building a trusting relationship included the following.

  • Spend time learning about the community and the individuals within.
  • Become involved with community organizations and events.
  • Enlist the support of elders, other community leaders (informal as well as formal leaders), and established community organizations.
  • Choose outreach staff who can relate with and be accepted by community members and whose personal and professional goals support the mission and goals of your organization.
  • Demonstrate respect for the Latino culture in all that you do.
  • Be patient.

Participants emphasized that while we may speak of Latinos as a group, we can only know the group if we know the individuals. Time spent in the community listening and learning is critical. It leads to an understanding of the differences that exist among individuals as well as an understanding of the cultural context in which people live.

Spending time in the community also allows the community to get to know the outreach staff and to gain a better understanding of the organization. Community members must be convinced that the organization's work is worthwhile and meaningful for their family and community, otherwise they will not value its potential. Community members must also be convinced that the organization is making a long-term commitment. Several respondents pointed out that a new organization may be treated with suspicion because, in the past, organizations had come in, asked people to become involved, and then left abruptly when funds ran out.

Surprisingly, participants did not feel that outreach staff must be Latino. More important was that staff be bilingual and bicultural, and that they be able to empathize with the community. Even for Latinos, their class, place of origin, and educational level may present barriers to relationships if they differ substantially from those of community members. Staff must be able to overcome any such differences that exist and be accepted. For both Latino and Anglo staff, the factor of utmost importance is the ability to earn the trust of the community.

Strategies for Volunteer Recruitment

Identifying Potential Volunteers

Participants repeatedly commented on the many talents and skills Latino adults have to contribute as volunteers. However, their ability to contribute is often constrained by the need to work, lack of transportation or childcare, and limited English skills.

Across all age groups, people with higher levels of education, better English language skills, and some degree of financial security were seen as the most likely candidates. These included students in need of community service experiences, senior citizens, and established professionals. One group noted that stay-at-home mothers frequently are overlooked as potential volunteers. They do have skills to offer and often will help out if any needs they have for transportation, childcare, or language assistance are addressed.

Motivations for volunteering that were identified were similar to those found among volunteers in general, namely:

  • A desire to give back for what they themselves have received,
  • A desire to help their community,
  • An opportunity to learn skills and gain experience that will help them find better jobs,
  • A chance to meet new people and be personally challenged, and
  • A way to share their cultural traditions with youth or with members of the greater community.

Inviting Participation

A notice in the newspaper or a flyer sent home with school children will not attract many volunteers from the Latino community. Neither will meetings that do not reflect cultural characteristics and the daily lives of the people. When asked what steps mainstream organizations should take to successfully recruit volunteers, focus group members suggested the following.

  • Personally extend invitations to volunteer through visits or phone calls. Go to the people rather than wait for them to come to you.
  • Supplement personal invitations with bilingual print information (flyers, posters, newspaper articles). Always present information as an invitation rather than an announcement.
  • Use Spanish radio. It is very popular and conveys a certain amount of credibility to the information broadcast.
  • Hold meetings in locations where the people will be comfortable. If a school or church is used, choose one that is familiar and comfortable for the people. Don't assume, for instance, that all people are Catholic.
  • Offer food, door prizes, and possibly music as a part of meetings. Make the meeting an event for families.
  • Consider the daily schedule of potential volunteers when setting meeting times. No one time will meet everyone's needs, but awareness of where they are employed and the associated time schedules will help determine the best times.
  • Accommodate language preferences. Translating for an English speaker is one alternative for conducting meetings, but monolingual Spanish speakers will be more apt to speak up if the meeting is conducted in Spanish. Even attendees who are bilingual appreciate the comfort level accorded by using Spanish.
  • Explain how the organization and the work of volunteers will benefit families and community. Specifically, show how volunteers' talents and skills will be applied and how they will make a difference. Respondents reflected that many Latinos feel they have nothing to contribute. Empower them by conveying belief in their ability to contribute.
  • Emphasize the organization's long-term commitment to the community.
  • Initially recruit for short-term assignments. Sometimes what works best is to ask an individual directly to carry out a task rather than wait for someone to step forward and volunteer.
  • Don't become discouraged by limited response. All focus group participants struggled with attempts to recruit more Latino adult volunteers. There message to others was "Donąt become discouraged if people donąt respond to your invitations. Keep asking."

Supporting Volunteers

As with any volunteers, organizational support for Latino volunteers is critical to their retention. Focus group participants identified 13 ways to support their involvement.

  • Review organizational structure, policies, and practices. Change those that inhibit the participation of Latino volunteers. Current volunteers and staff should be informed of changes so they don't feel threatened by new ways of doing business.
  • See that meeting and workspaces reflect a diversity of cultures, including the Latino culture. This can be accomplished by such simple things as the choice of prints hung on the wall, the artwork on calendars, and the decorative objects on tables and shelves.
  • Greet volunteers individually when they come in, and thank them when the leave.
  • Provide food, even if it's simply a cup of tea. Hospitality increases their feeling of acceptance.
  • Have Spanish-speaking staff available to answer questions, explain duties, etc., for those who don't speak English.
  • Assist with childcare and transportation as needed.
  • Avoid out-of-pocket expenses for volunteers.
  • Simplify paperwork. It can be an intimidating task to fill out forms. Clearly explain why the information is needed and how it will be used.
  • Treat volunteers as co-workers, not free help. Make them feel a part of the team. Prepare a package that explains the organization and its programs, procedures, and policies. Write a job description for them.
  • Give volunteers a choice of assignments where possible. This will enable a match between the skills and motivations of the volunteer and the tasks that need to be done.
  • Provide quality training. Be very specific as to what they are expected to do and how they should do it. Without this information, some volunteers will be discouraged from participating.
  • Empower volunteers; involve them in planning as well as delivering services. Ask for input, and really listen to their ideas. Let volunteers be creative.
  • Don't overwork volunteers. Balance the work with informal opportunities to socialize.

Recognizing Volunteers

The importance of understanding the cultural context and knowing volunteers individually was once again emphasized when participants were asked about ways to appropriately recognize the work of volunteers. This information is the best guide to developing meaningful recognition. Focus group participants, however, felt that generally recognition is best given in ways that minimize attention to the individual in front of a large group. Latinos are modest people, and some volunteers may well be embarrassed when attention is focused on them individually.

Participants did feel strongly that recognition is important and identified a number of ways to recognize volunteers less formally.

  • Invite volunteers and their families to a small celebration, and present certificates of appreciation.
  • If volunteers have worked with youth, have youth present certificates of appreciation to them.
  • Sponsor a weekend camping trip or other leisure activities for volunteers and their families.
  • Identify volunteers by name in the program's newsletter.
  • Provide ongoing recognition to individuals (e.g., many thank you's, praise, etc.).
  • Provide an opportunity for additional training.
  • Advance the volunteer to a position of greater responsibility.

Discussion and Implications

Latino adults are potentially a significant source of volunteers for Extension. If Extension is to gain their participation, however, we must reassess traditional ways of doing business and make needed adjustments. Three issues that immediately surface when outreach is undertaken are the time demands of outreach efforts, staffing needs, and steps that must be taken to create a more supportive environment for Latino volunteers.

Time Commitment of Extension

Extension must first commit to a long-term relationship with the Latino community. As focus groups observed, the Latino community is often wary of new organizations coming in and offering programs and/or services because, in the past, these organizations often left after a short time, betraying the trust of community members. Extension must emphatically convey that it is making a long-term commitment of involvement.

Often, Extension outreach efforts are initially supported by grant funds. A long-term commitment requires that Extension be prepared to replace soft funding with base programming dollars. Involving culturally diverse audiences must be a part of what Extension does, not a separate program that is undertaken only when extra funds are available.

A second time factor is that outreach work is time intensive. It takes time to build relationships and trust with community members, time to connect with established community organizations and explore ways to collaborate, and time to learn what the needs of the community are. It also takes time to support volunteers.

Extension field staff have voiced concern that administrators do not understand how much time is required to build a foundation for Latino participation. They fear initial low levels of Latino participation will not be valued for their significance. It is imperative that Extension rethink expectations of how outreach staff will spend their time and how long it will take to reach targeted program outcomes.

Staffing for Outreach

The focus groups data clearly identified bilingual and bicultural skills as key to successfully engaging the Latino community. This means that Extension must make language skills and cultural understanding a top priority for positions that involve outreach efforts. Beyond these, the match between personal characteristics of candidates and the characteristics of community members must be assessed to determine whether or not an individual will be accepted by the community. It is important that community members, including youth for 4-H positions, have a voice in hiring outreach staff.

Finding candidates who have the necessary bilingual/bicultural skills and possess the expertise in subject matter and Extension methods usually required of job candidates is often very difficult. To attract such candidates, position announcements should be distributed beyond traditional networks, in ways that tap Latino professionals.

Extension must also begin to "grow its own." In Oregon, Extension is a major participant in the Oregon State University Promise Intern Program. Each summer, six to eight Latino students work in county and state level offices, experiencing and learning about careers in Extension.

Hiring a culturally diverse staff is one thing, retaining them is another. Extension must look at how it supports its staff and what steps might be taken to facilitate their comfort level within the organization and success in their work.

Creating a Supportive Environment for Volunteers

The focus group data identified many steps that might be taken to create a welcoming and supportive environment for Latino volunteers. At the local level, Extension programs must look at current practices and assess how compatible they are with the insights gained from the data and with what is known about the local Latino audience. What needs to be done differently to make Latino volunteers feel welcomed as a part of Extension?

Another critical aspect of building a supportive environment is gaining the support of Extension's traditional audiences. All clientele must come to recognize the importance of Extension's services to the community as a whole, not just to those who traditionally have been served. This can sometimes be difficult, especially if there is the perception that scare resources for programming are now being further stretched by service to new audiences.


Gaining the participation of Latinos as Extension volunteers will increase our understanding of the Latino culture. In turn, it will strengthen the programs Extension provides, expand the audience programs reach, and provide a personal growth experience for all volunteers and staff.

The success of Extension efforts to recruit and retain Latino adults as volunteers depends on awareness of and sensitivity to the cultural differences between the majority society and Latinos. It also depends on how willing Extension is to accommodate those differences. Outreach to Latinos must be the mission of the organization, not the personal mission of one individual.

Through it all, patience is key. Building relationships with the Latino community, developing trust, and learning how to work together all take time. Progress will be incremental. The outcomes, however, justify all the hard work.


Chambre, S. (1982). Recruiting Black and Hispanic volunteers: A qualitative study of organizations' experiences. The Journal of Volunteer Administration, 1 (1), 3-9.

Hodgkinson, H. (1996). Bringing tomorrow into focus. Washington, DC: Institute for Educational Leadership.

Miles, M. and Huberman, A. (1994). Qualitative data analysis: An expanded sourcebook. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Rodriguez, S. (Spring,1997). Diversity and volunteerism: Deriving advantage from difference. The Journal of Volunteer Administration, 15(3), 18-20.