The Journal of Extension -

April 2010 // Volume 48 // Number 2 // Research In Brief // v48-2rb1

Relationship Between Participation in 4-H and Community Leadership in Rural Montana

Studies on the impact of 4-H on former members generally use alumni as one cohort. In rural states, such as Montana, it is important to understand the impact of 4-H on alumni in these rural areas and the role 4-H plays in community involvement. The study reported here sought to determine the perception of current community leaders in rural Montana and the relationship between development of leadership skills and participation in 4-H. The study found that 4-H continues to influence rural community leaders in Montana, although it plays a modest role in influencing community involvement in all areas except agriculture groups.

Allison Flynn
4-H/Youth Development Extension Educator
University of Wyoming
Sheridan, Wyoming

Martin Frick
Montana State University
Bozeman, Montana

Douglas Steele
Vice-Provost and Director of Extension
Montana State University
Bozeman, Montana

Introduction and Conceptual Framework

There has been considerable research concentrating on the impact of 4-H on youth. Research has shown that participation in 4-H leadership activities has a positive relationship with youth life skills development (Severs & Dormody, 1995), 4-H youth are more likely to be involved in community service than non-4-H youth (Parrish & Igo, 2006), and 4-H youth have higher skill development in working with groups, communication, and decision making than non-4-H youth (Boyd, Herring, & Briers, 1992). Research in Montana concluded that 4-H youth were less likely to participate in "high risk" activities and more likely to do better in school than non-4-H youth (Astroth & Hayes, 2002). These studies showed the impact of 4-H on youth, but didn't answer the question of whether these skills and attitudes carry on into adulthood.

There have been several studies examining 4-H alumni. A study at Pennsylvania State University concluded that 4-H alumni view their 4-H experiences as positive and that 4-H continues to influence them (Radhakrishna, 2005). Studies found that 4-H involvement as a youth has a major impact on civic engagement as an adult (Pennington & Edwards, 2006), and the 4-H club experience does affect the development of life skills of 4-H alumni (Fox, Schroeder, & Lodl, 2003).

Montana is primarily a rural state with few urbanized areas. In many rural areas, 4-H remains one of the primary youth programs outside of the formal education system. Most of the research that concentrated on 4-H alumni looked at the alumni as one cohort and did not distinguish between rural and urban populations. Community dynamics in rural communities are often different from those in urbanized areas. As a result, participation in 4-H may influence rural communities and former 4-H members differently in rural areas. A study of the relationship between participation in 4-H and community leadership in rural Indiana found one of the top factors influencing the success of rural community leaders was 4-H (Tharp, 1998). In rural states, such as Montana, understanding how 4-H influences community leadership can help shape future 4-H civic engagement initiatives.

Purpose and Objectives

The purpose of the study reported here was to determine the perception of current community leaders in rural Montana and the relationship between the development of their leadership skills and participation in 4-H as a youth. The objectives were to:

  1. Describe rural community leaders in regards to demographics and participation in community activities;

  2. Identify which factors rural community leaders recognize as contributing the most to their success;

  3. Determine the level of involvement of rural community leaders who participated in the 4-H program as a youth;

  4. Examine the perceptions of leadership skills acquired through 4-H of the rural community leaders who participated in 4-H as a youth;

  5. Compare the level of involvement in selected activities of former 4-H members and non-members.


The study employed quantitative research methods that measured a purposeful sample. The population consisted of community leaders in rural Montana counties with a population of 15,000 or less. Using 2000 census data, 44 of Montana's 56 counties were identified as having the targeted population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000). Because some counties share Extension offices, 39 county offices were contacted to identify 10 individuals in the county who were considered community leaders. A questionnaire was mailed to each community leader identified by the county agents.

The questionnaire was modified from a study conducted by Tharp (1998). The instrument developed by Tharp was adapted from a study focusing on vocational agriculture and Future Farmers of America conducted by Brannon (1988). The first part of the questionnaire focused on demographics and level of involvement in community activities. The questionnaire asked respondents to rate the factors that contributed most to their success. The contributions were ranked on a Likert-type scale, with one representing no contribution to five representing the most contribution. The first section ended by asking if respondents were enrolled in 4-H.

Part II was only completed by respondents who were enrolled in 4-H as youth. The section asked the length of 4-H involvement, highest office held and participation in 4-H activities. Respondents indicated their perceptions of 4-H experiences on a Likert-type scale, from one representing no contribution in their adult life to five representing a great contribution.


A total of 25 Extension offices responded with community leaders, for a sample of 256 rural community leaders. In combined county offices, some county agents provided more than 10 leaders, resulting in the odd number of leaders. There were a total of 196 respondents, for a response rate of 75.4%.

The mean age of respondents was 54.8 years (SD = 10.7). Selected characteristics of the sample population are described in Table 1. Nearly 62% of respondents were male, 96% were Caucasian, 45% had a college degree and 34% were employed full time in agriculture.

Table 1.
Selected Characteristics of 4-H Alumni (n = 193)

American Indian21.0
Non Respondents42.1
High School2513.0
Some College4422.8
Bachelor's Degree8745.1
Master Degree199.8
PhD or Post-Masters136.7
Occupational Status
Full Time — Agriculture6634.2
Full Time — Business3719.2
Full Time — Education178.8
Full Time — Government2211.4
Full Time — Communications63.1
Full Time — Industry31.6
Full Time — Other126.2
Part Time94.7
Unemployed and Other21.0

Sixty-five percent of respondents (n = 126) indicated they pursued agricultural interests outside of their regular line of work. On average, 25% (SD = 24.9) of their income was attributed to agricultural activities.

Table 2 shows the degree of participation in community activities of all respondents. Over half of the respondents were involved in Civic, Luncheon, or Service Clubs (64.9%); Church Groups (64.4%); Community Affairs Organizations (59.3%); and Agricultural Groups (51.0%).

Table 2.
Degree of Participation in Community Activities of all Respondents (n = 193)

ActivityParticipant or Member Committee MemberOfficer
Civic, Luncheon or Service Club12664.98845.46533.5
Church Groups12564.46433.04925.3
Community Affairs Organization11559.36232.04824.7
Agricultural Groups9951.04724.23216.5
Educational Groups8845.43920.12914.9
Chamber of Commerce8543.83618.6168.2
Local or County Political Offices or Organizations8242.35327.35829.9
School Organizations4925.32914.9189.3

Shown in Table 3 are the factors that the respondents indicated contributed most to their success as a community leader. The top three factors were Learned from Others (M = 4.14, SD = .77), Self Taught (M = 3.78, SD = .89) and College (M = 3.42, SD = 1.42).

Table 3.
Factors Contributing to the Success of all Respondents (n = 193)

Learned from Others4213092644.14.77
Self Taught9724992343.78.89
High School56247464203.36.95
Professional Organizations103095658303.271.27
4-H Club56084249292.891.48
Other Youth Organizations396783334122.451.43
Agricultural Education/FFA1110472629162.151.46
Vocational-Technical School201365131361.541.13

Data from respondents who were enrolled in 4-H were analyzed separately. Table 4 shows the responses that contributed the most to the success of 4-H alumni. The top three responses of 4-H alumni were Learned from Others (M = 4.10, SD = .76), 4-H Club (M = 3.81, SD = .95) and Self Taught (M = 3.70, SD = .92)

Table 4.
Factors Contributing to the Success of 4-H Alumni (n = 114)

Learned From Others2111858344.10.76
4-H Club1273045293.81.95
Self Taught5513451183.70.92
High School35144337123.33.98
Professional Organizations91453932153.281.18
Other Youth Organizations26335182662.631.42
Agricultural Education/FFA75371520122.361.15
Vocational-Technical School1077381241.681.24

Almost 60% of respondents indicated they were enrolled in 4-H as youth. Fifty percent of those enrolled in 4-H were enrolled in the community in which they currently reside. Table 5 provides selected characteristics of 4-H alumni respondents. Twenty-five percent were enrolled in 4-H for 10 years, and 52.6% indicated the highest office they held was president.

Table 5.
Selected Characteristics of 4-H Alumni (n = 114)

Years in 4-H
Less than 1 year1.9
1-2 years119.7
3-4 years2118.4
5-6 years2622.8
7-8 years1210.5
9-10 years4035.0
Greater than 10 years31.5
Highest Office Held
Did Not Hold Office3127.2
Non Respondents21.8

Respondents were given a list of activities and asked to indicate which activities they had participated in as a 4-H youth. The five most popular activities were fairs (83.2%), demonstrations (83.2%), judging contests (72.6%), holding office (67.3%), and committee member (67.3%).

4-H alumni were asked their perceptions of 4-H experiences and to rank them according to the contribution this experience had in the respondent's adult life. The top three experiences that had the greatest contribution were "taught you how to participate in the conduct of meetings" (M = 3.89, SD = .90), "influenced you to participate in community activities" (M = 3.86, SD = .94), and "helped you in developing leadership skills" (M = 3.73, SD = .94). Table 6 shows the responses of perception of 4-H experiences.

Table 6.
Perceptions of 4-H Experiences (n = 114)

Factor No
Taught you how to participate in the conduct of meetings1281661263.89.90
Influenced you to participate in community activities2272647303.86.94
Helped you in developing leadership skills2452953213.73.94
Prepared you in assuming leadership roles1483146243.691.00
Involved you in planning club activities1453647213.67.95
Helped you become a more effective community leader1463746203.64.95
Has been of value in your career24122942253.641.06
Influenced your decision to become a leader2544140223.63.99
Gave you the opportunity to lead others1584436203.511.01
Helps you in your present occupation27153338193.421.11
Helped you in obtaining a job11827372292.801.17

To determine if participation in 4-H as a youth influenced community involvement as an adult, each respondent was scored on his or her participation in community activities. Respondents received one point if they participated in a community group, two points if they were a committee member, and four points if they were an officer.

Scores were chosen to reflect the leadership obligations of the various positions. For each activity, a maximum of seven points could be achieved, and the minimum was zero. A composite score was established by adding the individual scores for each community activity to determine overall community involvement, with a range from 0 to 56. An independent samples t-test was performed on each activity and composite score to compare 4-H alumni and those who never participated to determine if there were any significant differences between group means. A significant difference between group means would be an indicator that participation in 4-H influenced their involvement in a selected community activity or total community involvement.

There were eight categories of community involvement, as shown in Table 7 with the results from the t-tests. When analyzing Agricultural Groups, t-tests revealed a significant difference in group means between those who participated in 4-H (M = 2.25, SD = 2.70) and those who did not (M = 1.34, SD = 2.13), t (174) = 2.355, p = .002. The composite score t-test did not reveal any significant differences, t (191) = .381, p = .713.

Table 7.
t-scores of Community Involvement Categories and Composite Score

Civic, Luncheon or Service Groups.599178.707
Chamber of Commerce.985176-.448
Community Affairs Organization.724170-.753
School Organization.214161.643
Local or County Political Offices or Organizations.060176-1.107
Church Groups.424173.273
Agricultural Groups*.0021742.355
Educational Groups.830163.768
Composite Community Involvement Score**.713191.381
* t-test revealed that participates in 4-H had a statistically significant higher mean score than non-participants.
** Minimum composite score equaled 1. Maximum score equaled 38.

Discussion and Implications

Several conclusions can be drawn from this research. The factors that contributed most to the success of community leaders were "learning from others," "self education," and "college," which are factors that occur mainly during adult life. When analyzing responses from 4-H alumni, participation in 4-H became the second most important factor. Thus it shows that participation in 4-H as a youth can contribute to the success of an individual in adulthood.

Analyzing perceptions of 4-H experiences helped identify the skills that had the greatest impact on 4-H alumni. The experiences that had the greatest contribution to 4-H alumni were related to conducting meetings, developing leadership skills, and participating in community activities. Leadership skills and community service are two of the core values of the 4-H program and show the 4-H program is successfully building those skills in youth, as well as having a lasting impact in adults. The 4-H program should continue to work at building leadership life skills and place an emphasis on service learning.

The item that had a considerably lower mean value and the least impact on 4-H alumni was helping former 4-H youth obtain a job. That indicated that 4-H should place more emphasis on teaching job skills, such as resume building and interview skills. In rural areas where 4-H is a leading youth organization, it is increasingly important for 4-H volunteers and educators to assist with the development of job preparation skills.

When analyzing if 4-H influences community leadership, the only type of community group where a significant difference was found was agriculture groups. The findings show that those involved in 4-H have a strong attachment to leadership in agriculture. These findings are consistent with the results of Tharp (1998). The mean age of 4-H alumni was 53.2, and 50% were enrolled in their present community, which means that on average respondents participated in 4-H in the 1960s and early 1970s. This was during the time when 4-H was trying to have an impact on urban areas and develop a more well rounded program.

Montana, being a more rural state, may not have felt as much motivation to expand into urbanized areas. Montana still had the feel of a "traditional" 4-H program, with an emphasis on agriculture and home economics. As a result, most of the respondents were probably enrolled in agricultural-related projects and achieved leadership skills in those areas. This may have influenced their decisions to participate in community agriculture groups as adults.

It also needs to be acknowledged that most of the county agents who were surveyed for community leaders had an agriculture focus in their position. As a result, they may have identified most with agriculture professionals and 4-H volunteers, although this may not have always been true. Nothing was assumed about the backgrounds of those individuals, so the study should accurately reflect the relationships between 4-H and community leaders.

It would be valuable to continue surveying rural community leaders as the population changes. With these changes, there could potentially be an increase of community leaders who participated in 4-H, with a larger variety of projects and more 4-H influence in urbanized areas. It is recommended that this research be repeated every 5 years in Montana to determine if there have been any changes in community involvement and how 4-H impacts this involvement.

The research reported here showed that 4-H continues to have an impact on alumni even into adulthood. Similar research should be conducted in other states to determine the influence of 4-H on community leaders in rural and urban areas. The 4-H program is constantly adapting to the needs of society. Therefore, it is important to continue to monitor the successes of 4-H and how they change over time with societal trends that all affect youth differently.

It is recognized that the data collected from respondents cannot be generalized to any population on a statistical basis. However, the findings may have practical implications for State Extension faculty and administration, and should direct researchers to further examine the impact of 4-H experiences on adults.


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